I was born 17 presidential elections and 13 United States Presidents ago, in 1951. “Give ’em Hell” Harry Truman was president, but I was busy filling diapers and oblivious to that fact. My first recollection of national politics comes from the 1956 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon were renominated to seek second four-year terms, which they would win handily over Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. I remember marching around the house during the anticlimactic but still dramatic roll call, chanting “I Like Ike!”
I still like Ike. He won WWII in Europe. He ended the shooting phase of the Korean Conflict, which would have officially ended this week if either The Donald or Rocket Man had blinked. Ike also began the Interstate Highway System, and presciently warned us to be wary of the military-industrial complex. He also gave us Richard Nixon. No one’s perfect.
With the 2020 election already making headlines — the political equivalent to Christmas sales in September — I reflected on living during roughly three in 10 of the 45 presidencies since George Washington took office in 1789.
Can’t speak for you, but I enjoy trivia and talking about things I know less about that I’d should. So I thought I’d indulge myself, and hopefully amuse you, with a retrospective on 17 elections, followed by my ranking of the baker’s dozen Commanders in Chief of my lifetime. Let us know your favorites.
FIRST TUESDAYS IN NOVEMBER
1948 — Harry Truman (D) is elected to his first and only full term, having taken over the White House upon FDR’s death in 1945. Best remembered for unleashing atomic might on Japan, his running mate is Alben Barkley. They score an upset over favorite Thomas Dewey. (R).
1952 — Dwight Eisenhower (R) and Richard Nixon are elected. Ike is the last veteran of World War I to serve as president. He also joins Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams in the exclusive Hair Club for Presidents Club.
1956 — Same result as 1952, as Ike and Nixon win handily over a bald Adlai Stevenson (D) and Estes Kefauver. This is the nation’s last election as a 48-state union. By 1960, Alaska and Hawaii will add two stars to the flag.
1960 — John F. Kennedy (D) and Lyndon Johnson win a very close race over Nixon (R) and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Kennedy becomes the first Roman Catholic president, and in 1963 will become the fourth killed by an assassin … or assassins plural for our grassy knoll conspiracy theorists.
1964 — Lyndon Johnson (D) and Hubert Humphrey win in a landslide over the conservative ticket of Barry Goldwater (R) and William Miller. (I shook Goldwater’s hand at a rally in Louisville, but was too young to vote for him. It wouldn’t have helped.)
1968 — Contender Bobby Kennedy is killed by an assassin, and the Democrat ticket is Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. Back from the political junkyard, Richard Nixon (R) wins, but he and his VP, Spiro Agnew, will soon fall from hero to zero.
1972 — Nixon and Agnew again nominated by Republicans, and it’s an easy win over anti-war Democrat George McGovern and Sargent Shriver. Remembered more for not running was Thomas Eagleton, McGovern’s first Veep choice. In my first election as a voter, left winger McGovern makes it easy to vote for Nixon.
1976 — Agnew (1973) and Nixon (1974) have been chased from office in disgrace. That leaves Agnew’s replacement, influential congressman Gerald Ford, in the top job. He pardons “I am not a crook” Nixon, which plays into his loss to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (D). Fritz Mondale becomes Vice President, while Ford goes down to defeat with running mate and war hero Bob Dole.
1980 — The only things more embarrassing than Jimmy Carter’s economy were the Iranian hostage crisis and his beer-drinking brother Billy. If there had been Twitter in 1980, Billy might have gotten the Democrat nomination, but Jimmy ran for re-election with Mondale. They were spanked by former actor and California Governor Ronald Reagan and running mate George H.W. Bush. Twelve years after his first White House bid, Reagan and wife Nancy take up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
1984 — Landslide for Reagan and Bush over Democrat Mondale and the first woman ever on a national ticket, Geraldine Ferraro. Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the solid blue District oi Columbia.
1988 — George H.W. Bush rides Reagan-era popularity to victory with Dan Quayle over Democrats Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen. Bush is the last World War II veteran to serve as President.
1992 — President Bush reneged on his “No New Taxes” promise of 1988, and that opens the door for national newcomers Bill Clinton (D) and Al Gore. They defeat the incumbent Bush and a stout third-party run (Reform) by Ross Perot. In retirement, Bush would put the Iran-Contra scandal behind and become the most popular ex-president in many years. Clinton, born in 1947, is the first Baby Boom president.
1996 — Third and fourth party candidates Ross Perot (Reform) and Ralph “Unsafe at Any Speed” Nader (Green) make the 1996 election unique. Clinton wins re-election and easily outdistances Bob Dole (R) in the all-important Electoral College. Clinton was on a roll, but his second term would be marred by the Monica Lewinski scandal. He was disbarred and impeached, but clung to power when the Senate refused to convict him of “High crimes and misdemeanors.”.
2000 — A new century and an old name: George W. Bush (R) wins the Republican nomination and adds veteran Washington insider Dick Cheney to the ticket. They win a razor thin and controversial election over two-term Vice President Gore and Joe Lieberman. Bush is the second son of a president (John Quincy Adams was John Adams’ son) to earn the White House.
2004 — The Democrats run Senator John Kerry and John Edwards against incumbents Bush and Cheney, and give them a run for their money. Bush prevails, however, carrying 31 states and 51 percent of the popular vote.
2008 — It’s supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s turn, but somebody forgets to inform Illinois Senator Barack Obama (D), a charismatic speaker and the first person of color on a national ticket. Obama balances his youth by choosing veteran legislator Joe Biden as his running mate. Republicans counter with Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, a ticket some wish had been reversed. Obama won in an historic election that promised but failed to deliver on creating a post-racial America.
2012 — The incumbents stand pat and are challenged by John McCain (R) and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. An anticipated close race doesn’t really develop, and Obama gots his second term handily.
2016 — Hillary’s turn. Again. Or not. The former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State has to overcome a stiff challenge from Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination, and chooses Tim Kaine as her running mate. A 17-candidate Republican primary season leaves business mogul Donald Trump as last man standing atop the ticket. Indiana Governor Mike Pence signs on for vice president, and the Trump-Pence duo wins a heated election with 30 states in their column but fewer popular votes than Mrs. Clinton.
2020 — Looks like the logjam is on the the Democratic side this time, and Trump-Pence are thus far not challenged for the Republican nominations. There seems to be a great opportunity for the Dems, but are they in danger of repeating the Republican miscalculation of 1964, when a too-conservative Barry Goldwater was routed by Lyndon Johnson. With more than a dozen candidates trying to run to the left of Bernie Sanders, could the Dem ticket prove too liberal for middle America?
HOW I RANK THEM
1. Ronald Reagan. Pundits despised him. Voters didn’t.
2. Dwight Eisenhower. Greatest accomplishment may have been holding the Allies, with several big-headed heads of state, together
3. John F. Kennedy. Legit charisma and a smart dude. Media ignored his personal indiscretions. What would have been …
4. Bill Clinton: Solid president. Sleazy person. What could have been …
5. Harry Truman. A common man, not a crude one like so many modern-era presidents.
6. George W. Bush. Last U.S. President who knew the office is bigger than the man? History will treat him well.
7. George H.W. Bush. Unequalled record of service with humility.
8. Donald J. Trump. I arbitrarily stuck him in the middle. He’ll end up near the top in spite of himself … if he doesn’t end up last because of himself.
9. Richard Nixon. Run away ego before it became a job requirement. What should have been …
10. Lyndon Johnson. Good intentions? Maybe. But the Great Society was a futile mindset of feeling good while squandering money, and there was nothing to feel good about in Vietnam.
11. Barack Obama. The only negative aspect to having the first black president is having it be Barack Obama. Progressive dream. Conservative nightmare.
12. Gerald Ford. Did OK as a space holder.
13. Jimmy Carter. Very nice man. Pretty good ex-President. Lousy chief executive and worse hostage negotiator.