Presidents I’ve known, sort of

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George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, we celebrated Lincoln’s birthday one week and Washington’s a bit more than a week later.

I recall we got a day vacation for each holiday. In my Dayton, Ky., classroom I taught in, the metal cabinet in the back of the room housed two huge portraits, one of Abe Lincoln, the other of George Washington.

I assumed that in years’ past the teacher would bring out those portraits in February. Or maybe they hung on the classroom wall year around.

In my two years teaching in that room I didn’t resurrect the portraits. The old frames were in bad shape.

Now those celebrations have been combined into Presidents’ Day. I can’t imagine how a teacher handles this. Of course, the kids have the day off as a holiday.

Tackling a lesson on the roll of either president in the nation’s life the day before or after would feel oddly out of place in the school calendar. Somehow, my teachers managed to cram the memorials into the curriculum.

The Washington and Lincoln birthdays give us all a chance to reflect on the history of our country and on the transformations in our democracy through the years.

Just think. The father of our country owned slaves. Lincoln freed them. We had one national leader who presided over the Great Depression. Another who got us into an endless war in Southeast Asia. Another was forced to resign. Another sent troops to Little Rock to enforce the racial integration of the schools.

I’ve met several presidents. When I was writing editorials for the morning paper in Fort Wayne, we lived a year in Washington, D.C. There, I met George H.W. Bush at some event. After another conference, then Arkansas Gov.Bill Clinton invited me to join him for a drink in his hotel suite.

At a Chicago meeting of writers, I got acquainted with then Sen. Barak Obama. A professor friend who joined me at the luncheon told me he was going to vote for this man for president. I was also impressed and figured I’d vote for him, too.

I’ve been disappointed in some presidents I voted for. I thought Richard Nixon was too smart to order the break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel.

I assumed LBJ would continue John F. Kennedy’s cautious foreign policy and not get the country bogged down in the Vietnam war. I’m still puzzled. As a senator, Johnson had proven such an brilliant majority leader.

So here it is, Presidents’ Day. With presidential debates going on lately Americans are starting to think about the candidates and who might succeed President Obama. What’s changed is how deeply divided the country has become.

George W. Bush wanted to be a “uniter and not a divider.” That didn’t work out. I hoped Obama could play such a constructive role. That hasn’t worked out, either.

Maybe honoring Washington and Lincoln today can help us bridge a few differences, bind up the nation’s wounds in Lincoln’s words and point the way to a brighter future.

We sure have known worse days. Most of us, I’m sure, know we can do better.

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The real debate story

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Nobody wins the presidential debates.

I watched the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Pundits thought Nixon won. So did I. Of course, in 1960, I was a Republican, hardly an objective
viewer.

By 1964, I was a Democrat. Not just somebody who was for the Democratic nominee. In those days, the characterization of my kind of party loyalist was “Yellow Dog Democrat.”

I was for LBJ; Dad was for Goldwater. So was my wife.

I suppose I would have voted for a Yellow Dog against a Republican. That was then. Of course, Vietnam ruined LBJ for me. I became a fan of George McGovern, the anti-war candidate. By this time, so was my wife.

This time around, I’ve pretty much skipped the presidential debates. It’s not that I know I’m probably voting for Hillary no matter who the GOP nominates and so I’ve a closed mind.

I follow the debates this election year by reading the accounts of the debates in the news stories and columns of the major papers. Meantime, I know if the Republicans were going to nominate somebody of the stature of Nelson Rockefeller or Bill Scranton, I might vote for one of these prominent Republicans.

When I wrote editorial endorsements for The Journal Gazette, I could have easily been endorsing a Republican as a Democrat. (Under an earlier editor, my paper went from being a “Democratic” organ to one listed in industry publications as “Independent.”)

But a couple of words about presidential debates. I think they help acquaint viewers with important issues. I think they help the candidates learn whether they can muster the support they need to keep up their campaign.

Meantime, they help winnow out the weaker candidates, a process that says nothing about their ability or their political smarts. Remember that Richard Nixon rebounded from his loss to JFK and won election as president.

Like Nixon, Hillary Clinton probably is the most well-qualified. Who knows politics better? Who knows the job of being president better?
Who knows foreign policy better?

Yet it’s unfortunate that during all the years in the public eye, she cut ethical corners. Maybe not any more corners than other nominees. Many adults will remember “I am not a crook” Nixon, who in fact did unleash aides against political enemies. Yes, “Tricky Dick” was a crook.

Yet he did withdraw troops from Vietnam. He launched good social programs. He launched better relations with the Soviet Union. When he had lost most all of his support in Congress, he resigned with what I thought showed a lot of dignity and grace.

The debates made Kennedy. With wit, style and a command of issues, he proved himself equal to the formidable and experienced Vice President. (Nixon, in college, had been a star debater.)

I won’t be surprised if the best Republican debater becomes the party’s nominee. In my judgment that person who will have the best chance of beating Mrs. Clinton likely will be seen by the majority of voters as the most moderate.

I do love this season when the presidential campaign gets into full swing. I recall the vigorous debates we had on the editorial board about the candidates. I enjoyed interviewing a few, including Bill Clinton. (What a charmer!)

To be sure, few enjoy the access I did or follow the campaigns as avidly as I did as an editorial writer. But I think lots more people perk up as the campaigns get started with TV debates and big local events.

We do care about the presidential election. We do care who gets to become president. I think if you ask them, they’ll say “Of course, it matters.”

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JFK and LBJ

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President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy in Dallas, Texas motorcade
President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy in Dallas, Texas motorcade

“The president has been shot,” the tall man in the black suit announced.

Jim and I were just approaching the door to Frisch’s restaurant on Glenway Avenue in Western Hills Cincinnati.

Graduate students, we often met for lunch after class. This day, we just immediately turned around and headed for my apartment on Shirley Place to get the TV on.

Two PBS specials Tuesday brought that late November day back. You never forget where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news of the president’s assassination.

The earlier program focused on President Kennedy. It featured film of this youthful, handsome man with his beautiful wife Jackie.

Clips included Kennedy greeting thousands of well-wishers in Dallas and brief moments of his speeches, including the unforgettable line from his Inaugural – “Ask not what you can do for your country…”

I was reminded of JFK’s easy eloquence and how he avoided war with Cuba over the missile crisis. But the program touched on much more. Kennedy opened the door to an era of civil rights and progressive legislation. Then, too soon, it was over.

Three shots from the schoolbook depository, and it was over.

CBS’ legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite gave the nation the news: “President Kennedy has died at 12:40 p.m.,
Central time.”

The second hour focused on Lyndon Johnson. This proved much more than a footnote to the JFK program. I was reminded of how Johnson carried on with such dignity as the mantle passed to this larger-than-life Texan.

LBJ not only pushed through Congress a stronger civil rights bill than Kennedy has introduced. Johnson won support for Medicare and Medicaid, some of the most progressive social legislation ever adopted in this country.

Further, Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the historic Voting Rights Act, over the opposition of southern lawmakers – fellow Democrats!

Tragically, Johnson’s presidency was soon bogged down over Vietnam. I recall no mention in the program of that foreign policy debacle. That war came to overshadow LBJ’s historic domestic achievements. What a shame!

That late November day, my friend Jim finally left my place and headed home. It was sunny in Dallas but overcast in Cincinnati.

That was a day America was changed forever.

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