OK. So we have a new President -- or will have tomorrow. We're all
pretty up tight about the election - one way or another -- but what's
new? We have had 41 presidents -- good ones and bad ones and mediocre
ones, and somehow the Republic has continued to exist. In fact, I read
yesterday on the Internet (no author given) that the United States
strength comes from this remarkable system of laws and institutions we
have inherited -- a system that was designed by geniuses so it could be
run by idiots.
So far during my lifetime there have been 15 presidents: eight
Republicans and seven Democrats. Nobody ever said the job was an easy
one. George Washington arrived at his Inaugural in 1789 shadowed by
doubts. "My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by
feelings not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his
execution," he wrote to his friend Henry Knox.
Politics was always a subject discussed around the dinner table when I
was a kid, so I got indoctrinated early and have watched all 15
presidents with varying degrees of admiration or anger -- or amusement.
The White House resident when I was born was Woodrow Wilson. I must
admit I was not much interested in what he was doing, but by the time
Warren Harding came along, discussion about him spoiled a lot of family
meals. Harding's administration was one of the most corrupt in modern
history, being especially famous for the Teapot Dome scandal. We even
learned about him in grade school.
To keep the record straight, Republicans Harding, Calvin Coolidge and
Herbert Hoover presided over the country as we slid into the Great
Depression. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt led us out of it.
FDR was elected President in November 1932. By March there were 13
million unemployed, and almost every bank in the United States was
closed. In his "first hundred days," he proposed, and Congress enacted,
a sweeping program to bring recovery to business and agriculture, relief
to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, and
reform. His programs were, of course, highly controversial through his
entire presidency, but those of us who heard his passionate words, "We
have nothing to fear but fear itself," believed them. I was in college
during those early Roosevelt years and I was all too familiar with the
reality of the depression.
Thinking back over "Presidents I Have Known," my favorite has to be Jack
Kennedy. He was a member of my generation, just three years younger
than I was. He will be forever young in my mind -- the prince of
On the day of his inaugural he stood there, tall and handsome with the
wind blowing his hair and his beautiful wife at his side. His ringing
words in that pure Boston accent I can still hear. "Ask not what your
country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
His economic programs launched the country on its longest sustained
expansion since World War II. He had plans for a massive assault on
persisting pockets of privation and poverty. He was a fighter in the
cause of equal rights, calling for new civil rights legislation. His
vision of America extended to the quality of the national culture and
the central role of the arts in a vital society. He brought us the
Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps. He was an American idealist
with a world vision.
Since then President watching hasn't been nearly as much fun. Nixon
turned me into a Democrat. Jimmy Carter was possibly the most decent
human being we have had in the White House, but that didn't make him
We expect perfection in our presidents, but we do everything we can to
tear them down. Today there are no secrets and no privacy.
So now we are about to see what my 16th President can offer in the way
of leadership. I'm fearful, but time will tell. After all, I've lived
through 15 of them. But when, oh when, are we going to get a woman in
there who will clean house?