ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By
Joseph Walker

THE RIGHT TO LIKE IKE –– OR NOT

I remember that I liked Ike. I just don’t remember why.

Granted, I was only 5 when President Dwight Eisenhower left office, so I didn’t have a lot of experience in matters political or ideological. I just liked how he looked. He reminded me of my Grandpa Arrowsmith – old and bald. And since Grandpa Arrowsmith was one of my favorite people in the whole world at the time (especially after he made that slingshot for me), anyone who looked like him was OK in my book.

So I liked Ike.  I remember that.

I also liked the guy who replaced Ike, President John F. Kennedy. In fact, it was during the Kennedy Administration that I began to become a little more astute politically. I came to understand that you are supposed to appreciate a president for something more substantive than how he looks or who he looks like. President Kennedy, for example, didn’t look a thing like anyone I knew. But he did have a really cute daughter about my age. That was important to me.  I liked that.  So I liked President Kennedy.

President Lyndon Johnson didn’t have any daughters my age, but he did have a really cool Texas twang. I liked that. However, I was also aware that there were many who didn’t like President Johnson, including my parents. This was sort of a revelation to me. I thought you were supposed to like the president because . . . well, because he was the president. The idea that you could publicly dislike the president and disagree with his policies was appealing in a late-1960s, don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 kind of way. So I eventually chose NOT to like President Johnson, if only because I could.

The same was true of President Richard Nixon. No matter how much good stuff he did – and you don’t have to search the historical record very far to find significant good stuff accomplished during President Nixon’s administration – the bad stuff is what is remembered, and why you don’t hear many people these days talk about how much they liked him.

Since that time, it’s almost easier to remember what we DIDN’T like about our presidents than it is to remember why we liked them.  Think Gerald Ford, and you remember how he was lampooned for the times he physically tripped and stumbled.  Jimmy Carter is remembered for being politically naive and having an outrageous brother named Billy.  Ronald Reagan was an actor.  George Bush was yoked to Dan Quayle.  Bill Clinton had character flaws.  George W. Bush is leaving office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.  And even though Barack Obama took office last week on an extraordinary wave of emotional approval and acceptance, when I Googled his name just now the first news story that came up was headlined: “How Long Will Obama Honeymoon Endure?”

In other words, give us time.  We’ll find something to pick at.  And to remember.

I was having this conversation with a friend the other day, and expressed a longing for the days of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, when presidents were loved and respected as heroes to be universally admired and not just comedic fodder for late-night talk show hosts.

“What are you talking about?” asked my friend, who is something of a history buff.  Washington had a difficult time marshaling support for the Continental Army, and had an even tougher time generating much enthusiasm for his presidential administration. And Abraham Lincoln was never a popular president. Even people in his own party belittled him publicly.”

So I guess it has always been this way. All of our presidents, from Washington to Obama, have been elected for their strengths despite their flaws. Each one has been praised and vilified, honored and castigated – some deservedly so, some not. Eventually, that will happen with our new president as well.  Today his popularity is through the roof.  Tomorrow?  Who knows?

I was thinking about that as I was watching the inaugural festivities last week, and it occurred to me that this is a uniquely American celebration in which we honor not just a man, but a system that has endured more than two centuries of presidential ups and downs.  Yes, we’re celebrating the spirit of anticipation and hope that the new president brings with him into office.  But we’re also celebrating the fact that we live in a country where, for 220 years now, we have had the right to choose our leaders – and then to choose how we’re going to remember them.

Even if we don’t remember why.

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— © Joseph Walker

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