Remembering American presidents

Published 2:50 pm Saturday, September 12, 2009

As I have watched and listened to things presidential over the past two or three weeks, it occurred to me that I’ve lived long enough to have seen several come and go. How about you? How many presidents can you remember and what do you remember about them?

Because of what I do for a living, I’ve been privileged to have interacted one-on-one with four of our Presidents. I’ve been at meetings with both the Bushes, the second one before he was President. I had dinner across the table from Bill Clinton one evening while he was still the governor of Arkansas, and I interviewed Jimmy Carter in Washington while the ill-fated helicopters were en route across the desert to try and rescue the hostages in Tehran. Of course, I didn’t know that was happening at the time. The Interview would have been more interesting if I had.

I was born in 1948, but the first president I remember was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was elected in 1953 and served until 1961. I don’t think I really remember much about him except that he held the office. I think most of what I remember about him came after the fact, from books and movies I’ve read and seen. Eisenhower introduced the U.S. Interstate Highway System and that was and remains a good thing.

John Kennedy was next and who can forget him? His time in office was short because he was assassinated that day in Dallas. Do you remember where you were when you heard? Kennedy took steps toward desegregation, but that work remained unfinished when he died.

Lyndon Johnson was the next president and he finished the work of JFK. Schools were desegregated and we were all declared equal.

Nixon followed Johnson. He embarrassed us all and most people were glad when he left office. Unfortunately, Nixon seems to have established the moral standard for too many of the politicians who have followed him.

Vice President Gerald Ford became president after Nixon left office. He was an unknown quantity to much of the nation. Hailing from Michigan, he was a former football player who was teased unmercifully by the press because he seemed to trip and fall a lot. People said he could not walk and chew gum at the same time.

Jimmy Carter seemed to be too good to be believed. He seemed to think if we loved everyone, they would love us back. This did not work with Koreans or Russians or the Iranians. He said our country has malaise and told us not to call our neighbors to the south “Banana Republics.” He gave away the Panama Canal – for nothing. He also built a lot of houses for Habitat for Humanity.

Ronald Reagan may have been the best loved and the most hated of this group. He served two terms and his most famous act was challenging Russia to tear down the infamous Berlin Wall. After a while, they did it. The former actor instituted a plan to decrease drug use in the U.S. It didn’t work.

George H. W. Bush was next and at least he looked the part of the president. He must have done some good things, but mostly we remember that he often parachuted from a perfectly good plane.

Bill Clinton was next. He taught us a lot about infidelity, White House interns, smoking cigars, blue dresses and the meaning of the word “is.” We met his wife and suspected she might be far more capable than he. Later, we found out we were right.

George W. Bush tended to put his foot in his mouth. He tried to bring peace to the Middle East after centuries of warfare there. He made us hold our heads up and be strong after 9-11, even when he came under severe attack by the U.S. media.

And now comes Barack Obama. Obama wants to distribute the wealth, but many – who worked hard for their wealth – do not want it divided among those who have none. Obama seems to believe that whatever is wrong can be righted by speaking to citizens and he does have a gift for that.

Having thought through that list, I think the thing that most impresses me is that, whether it be because of or in spite of, those included within it, the Republic survives. We fuss and we fight, defending or despising the man in the White House, but when all is said and done, the Republic survives.

How many presidents can you remember? And what do you remember about them? I’d really like to know.

David Sullens can be reached at