Presidents I Have Known

-by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

            I first became aware of a Presidential election at age 8 in 1940. I noticed that the older boys in my neighborhood in Troy were collecting all kinds of wooden objects and piling them in a vacant lot. So I asked my Dad what that was all about.

            “Why, they’re preparing to have a bonfire to attract people to a rally for President Roosevelt,” he answered. So I scoured the neighborhood for things to add to that fire and watching it burn lit one in my belly that has endured to this day.

            Roosevelt won his third term handily, of course, 55% to 45%, and yet another one in 1944.  But in The Plot Against America, a new alternative history novel by Philip Roth, the heroic but fascistic aviator Charles Lindbergh was nominated by the Republicans in 1940 instead of Wendell Wilkie. I knew from reviews that Lindbergh would win, but when I reached the point in the book where he does so by a preposterous 57% to 43%, with insufficient explanation as to why, I lost interest and began to concentrate on Tuesday.

            Counting that 1940 election and those up through 2000, I have witnessed eight Democratic victories and eight Republican victories that produced six presidents of each brand. The first cliffhanger was 1948, when, at 16, I stayed glued to the radio until early in the morning when Hans von Kaltenborn finally admitted that the farm vote he had anxiously been waiting for did not, despite the Chicago Tribune, go for Tom Dewey, “the man on the wedding cake,” but rather to the scrappy ex-haberdasher, Harry Truman.

            Nineteen-fifty-two brought forth a new hero, Adlai Stevenson. I was still only 20 so couldn’t vote for him, but I did go to hear him speak at a local rally. The greatest of his many witticisms was his response to a cleric who had criticized him: “With regard to Norman Vincent Peale and St. Paul, I find Paul appealing but Peale appalling.”

            Adlai could not cope with the “I like Ike” syndrome, of course, either then or in 1956. By then President Eisenhower was my commander in chief during the late Korean War period, and it is only lately that historians are beginning to realize that he, like Truman before him, was a better president than was generally thought to be in his time.

            In 1960, the first JFK won a real squeaker. When the verdict became clear late into the morning, tears came to my eyes as I looked at my sleeping children and realized that, finally, each had as good a chance to be president as any other child. But no Catholic has been elected since, nor have we yet had a female, black, Hispanic, or Jewish president. But some day, we will.

            On November 22, 1963, I was at my desk at KAPL when the bulletin came through that Kennedy had been shot. I raced out to the guard shack to hear more, then went home to hear Walter Cronkite deliver the sad news that he had died. When Mary McGrory said to future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan “We’ll never laugh again,” he replied “Heavens, Mary. We’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

            Lyndon Johnson was too slow to recognize the folly of the Vietnam War, but his place in history is secure for having the courage to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As he did so, he said “I’ve just handed the South to the Republicans for the next fifty years.” That fifty-year span still has ten years to go, but looking at that solid mass of southeastern red states, he probably erred on the low side.

                  Gazette illustration by Mark Wilson

In 1968, the Children’s Crusade of Eugene McCarthy faltered, and the promise of Robert Kennedy was cruelly cut short by Sirhan Sirhan. Hubert Humphrey, the best Happy Warrior since Al Smith, tried his best to carry the banner of a badly fractured Democratic Party. He lost a heartbreaker to Richard Nixon, who, in 1972, trounced the anti-war war hero George McGovern, who couldn’t convince the public that Watergate amounted to anything. But by 1974, Nixon was driven from office by a “smoking gun” and a consequent revolt from his own party, and his appointed Vice President, “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” was sworn in.

            In 1972, Hubert Humphrey came to speak at the Freedom Forum, and after his talk I took my son Michael and his best friend Ray Gillen, both 14, to meet him at the home of Hal and Cal Chestnut. Ray rushed over to the easy chair where Humphrey sat and said “Senator Humphrey, I’m your greatest fan.” Today Ray has a chair of his own, though not an easy one, as chairman of Metroplex.

            Partly because he pardoned Richard Nixon, an act I only much later realized was the right thing to do, Ford was defeated in 1976 by the ex-peanut farmer and nuclear submarine commander Jimmy Carter. I had been co-chair of the Schenectady County Elect Carter committee, so Jean and I got to attend one of seven inaugural balls on January 20, 1977. Earlier in that brutally cold day, we watched the Inaugural Parade from the window of Sam Stratton’s office. Present with us was a young fellow who is now our District Attorney, Bob Carney.

            Jimmy Carter was noted for his campaign smile, but never smiled again after he took office. He was a good man, now known as the best ex-president we ever had, and he never once used the word “malaise.” But people thought he did and traded him in for an ex-movie star in 1980. Ronald Reagan proved  inspirational, was easily re-elected in 1984, and had the satisfaction of seeing his vice-president, George Herbert Walker Bush succeed him.

            In 1992 this first president Bush then had the misfortune to come up against the best natural politician of my lifetime, Bill Blythe, by then known formally as William Jefferson Clinton and to many of his admirers as “Bubba” or “Elvis.” Clinton won by a reasonably comfortable margin and then won a second term by an even larger plurality in 1996. Despite his personal failings, Clinton achieved a great deal in his eight years. If the Constitution still permitted, both he and Ronald Reagan could have been elected to as many additional terms as they might have sought.

            The 2000 election was too painful to recapitulate. For a good summary, see attorney David Boies’s new book “Courting Justice.” When I try to assuage my concern that we’re heading for another clouded outcome to yet another allegedly “momentous” election, I remind myself of a 1972 anecdote. On the eve of Superbowl VI, Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas was asked whether he agreed that the impending event was the “ultimate” football game. The great philosopher replied “How can it be; won’t there be one just like it next year?”

          …and four years from now. And so it goes.

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., an incorrigible Democrat, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion Page.