The Thinker: Rich Galen


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Presidents I have Known

Rich Galen

Monday February 18, 2018

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  • One of the good things about living for a long time is occasionally looking at the wake behind your personal boat of life and thinking about what has gone on.

  • So it is with the 13 Presidents of the United States who have served during my lifetime.

  • This is not the most important, the best, or the worst things they did; this is what I remember most about them.

  • I was born in December 1946, so my first President - although I don't remember anything about him - was Harry S. Truman who ascended to the White House when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died just a few months into his fourth term.

  • The first President I do remember was Dwight D. Eisenhower. I remember him for his smile - but that might be from decades of seeing photos of his accepting the GOP nomination in 1952.

  • What I remember most is Eisenhower's heart attack in 1955. My dad had a heart attack about the same time which, in the way of nine-year-old boys, gave me bragging rights about my father and the President in the Hillside Grade School playground.

  • My memory of John F. Kennedy is, of course, overwhelmed by the day he died, but I also remember worrying about the Cuba Missile Crisis. I'm pretty sure I didn't understand it, but I have a clear memory of my - and everyone else's - unease.

  • Lyndon Johnson escalated the seminal event for men of my generation: The Vietnam War. I also remember the Civil Rights Act, which I thought was a good thing, but having grown up on Long Island and New Jersey, and having gone to college in Ohio, race relations was not something often on my mind. Probably should have been, but it wasn't.

  • Richard Nixon was next. Watergate. In a circuitous way it is what drew us to Washington, DC. We happened to be here the night Nixon announced he was resigning. The energy that raced around the Capital that night and the next day was intoxicating to a young radio journalist.

  • Nixon also opened relations with China. I covered a GOP dinner in Marietta during which (I wrote the next day) the speaker went through her whole program without mentioning the Republican President of the United States.

  • An early day Ann Coulter.

  • Gerald Ford's Presidency, in my mind, was defined by his inability, during a debate with his successor, Jimmy Carter, to admit that the Polish people were living under the thumb of the Soviet Union. I think Ford might have won the election of 1976 but for that.

  • Ford also had to put up with a regular skewering by a comedian named Chevy Chase on a program called Saturday Night Live. Sound familiar?

  • Carter couldn't get those Americans out of Iran, and tried to shame us into not using electricity for things like Christmas lights. The "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" of FDR became a "national malaise" under Jimmy Carter.

  • Ronald Reagan was a breath of fresh air. Of all the things I think about with Reagan is the story from the 1980 campaign when Mrs. Reagan threw a fit having gotten her hands on a written schedule which ended with "RON - Marriott (wherever)."

  • She was furious that that staff had the audacity to refer to Governor Reagan as "RON."

  • Someone had to tell her that was (and still is) schedule-shorthand for "Rest Over Night."

  • George H.W. Bush was a good man. His "no new taxes" pledge has been a lesson to every politician running for any office since: Don't make sweeping promises you might not be able to keep.

  • Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding, my single impression of Bill Clinton's Presidency was this: He sold nights in the Lincoln Bedroom. As we've watched the Bill & Hillary show continue over the succeeding decades, that has never changed: They have always sold bedrooms to donors.

  • George W. Bush is the only President who I knew on a first-name-basis before he was Governor or President. That close relationship earned me six-months in Iraq which, looking back, was not a great foreign policy.

  • But, the moment seared in my mind is Bush, at Ground Zero, armed draped over the shoulders of a retired fireman who had come to help, speaking though a megaphone, "They're ALL going to hear us soon."

  • Barack Obama was, as John McCain wrote in his final book, a force of nature. Nothing and no one was going to stop him from being elected in 2008. But the moment-in-my-mind is the day he sent his Secretary of State, John Kerry, out to make a speech explaining why the U.S. was about to launch a major, surgical, air war against Syria.

  • Hours later, having taken a walk around the White House grounds with his Chief of Staff, Obama changed his mind and turned to Russia to fill the military void, thus changing the course of international relations for the next - at least - two decades.

  • The book is still open on Donald Trump. Check back with me in a couple of years.

  • In the meantime, happy Presidents' Day.

  • On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: A link to a site with photos and dates for every President.

    The Mullfoto is my car having been dive bombed by neighborhood birds.

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