On this Presidents Day, I wanted to look back at all of the presidents during my lifetime, starting with Dwight Eisenhower. I wanted to say something positive about each of them. My strong belief is that every one of these presidents has served with the right motives–to advance the United States of America. They have all worked hard in the best interests of my country, and I respect them all. I despise how, today, we demonize our presidents. I despise the way so many Americans show open contempt for these public servants, and the way media pundits feed that contempt. It’s disgraceful, and it’s not the way I was raised.
So I wanted to keep it positive.Yes, there is plenty to criticize about each of these men. They are all flawed men. But that is not for today, President’s Day. Today, I want to honor them. So here goes.
Dwight Eisenhower. I was born in the middle of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Bob Gates notes in his book that from the end of the Korean War until Ike’s presidency ended in 1961, not a single American soldier was killed in action. This from the allied commander of the biggest war in history. He was a warrior, but didn’t relish taking military action–he knew the costs. That impresses me. Lately, historians have been taking a new look at Ike’s presidency with great appreciation for what he accomplished and his demeanor as president. I think Ike would have been a fascinating president to observe (had I not been in diapers).
John F. Kennedy. I wasn’t yet politically aware during Kennedy’s presidency, so I wasn’t paying attention to him during his presidency. However, it’s clear that he brought new energy to the country. I’m so impressed by his challenge to land a man on the moon, and return him safely, within 10 years. That was an enormous goal. But he believed in the capabilities of America enough to issue the challenge, and the country rose to it. He also advanced the cause of civil rights, despite plenty of opposition from his own party.
Lyndon Johnson. Johnson knew how to get things done. As Senate Majority Leader, he was recognized as a master at gathering the necessary votes. He knew how to schmooze, how to work the phones, how to twist arms. Bill Clinton, also, is recognized as a master politician in this way. But from what I’ve read about him, Johnson was the true master of the artform. He also passed the Civil Rights Act, and famously said that he had just given Republicans the South for the next generation. He was correct–Democrats switched over to the Republican Party, and they still control the South. But Johnson knew this was the right thing to do, and he was willing to pay the political price. That is so very commendable.
Richard Nixon. Nixon, of course, is a tragic figure in many ways. But I think he was always on track regarding what was best for the country, and he seemed to be able to see around the curve. He dealt skillfully with China and Russia, opening opportunities for later presidents. He took strong action regarding the energy crisis, back when OPEC was becoming dominant; for instance, he instituted the national 65 mph speed limit. Perhaps nobody since has been as strong on the foreign policy front. In his post-presidency, he cranked out a number of books which added thoughtful takes on important issues.
Gerald Ford. Ford was the first presidential candidate I voted for…and that was one of only three times my candidate lost. President Ford had a shortened presidency, and his main job was just holding the country together. But he did that, and such will be his legacy. Pardoning Nixon was not a popular move, but I think it was the right move and enabled healing to come to the country after a shattered presidency and a disastrous war. He was a good man, a moral man, a man of integrity and character, and he was respected by everybody in Washington. He was exactly the right man for that unique time.
Jimmy Carter. I always viewed Carter as having a genuine, thoughtful Christian faith not much different from my own. If I sat down to talk with him about my faith, we would be on the same page. And I felt he represented Christ well while in office, and certainly while out of office. He is often mocked for his “malaise” speech, but I don’t think the criticism is fair. I remember hearing that speech and thinking at the time, as a college student, “He’s exactly right. That’s what is happening in the country.” I deeply respect his post-presidency activities, from Habitat for Humanity, to monitoring elections all over the world, to meeting and negotiating with tyrants. I found Carter to be admirable in so many ways. He was also an example for my life, modeling how a Christian can have a strong sense of social justice–and even be a Democrat at the same time. Largely through Carter, I came to realize that many Democratic Party issues are Christian issues. He gave me much to think upon.
Ronald Reagan. Reagan brought a heightened sense of dignity to the White House, setting the stage for every president since (for instance, always wearing a suit in the Oval Office). His sense of humor was tremendous, and he used it skillfully. He had a sense not so much for what he wanted to accomplish as president, as he did for what he wanted America to be. In many ways during the 1980s, America conformed to the image of Ronald Reagan.
George H. W. Bush. President Bush didn’t seem to harbor ill feelings toward people–about things they said about him, or things they did. He was a genuinely nice guy. I greatly admire the relationship he and Bill Clinton have developed. Bush 2 seems to have inherited a lot of his father’s spirit. I also admire the way he conducted the Gulf War, and how he built an international coalition. He respected the roles of everyone around him and let them do their work. He kept his hands out of his son’s presidency, yet maintained his role as father–and by all appearances, he and Barbara were astoundingly good parents. Above all of these other presidents, George H.W. Bush was a humble man.
Bill Clinton. Clinton is the type of person who, when he enters a room, takes over the room. He has an out-sized personality, the type of person who is energized by meeting lots and lots of people–shaking hands, interacting with people, etc. Coupled with that is a stellar intellect and political skills that are off the charts. Since I’m a communicator, I admire people who can communicate well. Clinton knows how to explain things clearly. All the evidence shows that he’s a superb father. And as a Christian, I rejoice that despite his escapades, he salvaged his marriage. As an ex-president, he has done extraordinary work through the Clinton Initiative. He has redeemed himself in my eyes, and I view him as a national treasure.
George W. Bush. George Bush, like his father, is a good man. I believe he’s a man of integrity and good moral character. Bush governed largely by instinct, as he will admit, and for that you want a person of integrity and character. In his second term, when things weren’t going well in our wars, he implemented the surge against the advice of his political advisors, and it turned out to be the right move. He also marginalized Dick Cheney, his right-hand man, and in his place listened more closely to Condi Rice and Bob Gates. This accounts for some of the positive things that occurred during that second term. Cheney continually urged Bush to pardon Scooter Libby for his involvement in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame, but Bush refused. Good for him. As an ex-president, Bush has been absolutely exemplary–perhaps mostly by not doing anything. He has been very gracious toward his successor, and has steadfastly avoided doing anything to get in his successor’s way.
Barack Obama. Obama is a deeply thoughtful person, as is clear from his two books, “Dreams of My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope” (both of which I’ve read). In the latter, he wrestles with numerous policy issues, showing me clearly that he had made himself highly informed on a number of crucial issues. I loved the vision he set forth, and the mindset he showed toward dealing with complex issues. I think it has served him well in dealing with the military (who invariably want more men and equipment), and in dealing with Republican Congressman whose top goal was to deny him re-election, and who have continually thwarted him. I feel he has shown much restraint, though his level of frustration must be out of this world. It must also be frustrating to be opposed by so much of the Christian community, and to be labeled continually as a Muslim, when in fact he has clearly articulated his faith in Christ several times. It angers me, the way Christians have demonized him. And yet, he keeps his cool, showing himself to be wise beyond his years. I also greatly admire his role as a father and husband. He has nothing to be ashamed of there.