American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Dallek, Election of 1944, John Kennedy, Johnson, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Kennedy

Enduring Legacy and Debate

The abbreviated presidency and unfinished life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is, 48 years after his murder in Dallas, one enduring subject in our politics that can launch a thousand debates.

Was Kennedy a mediocre, adequate or great president?  Is the “myth” of Camelot or the “substance” of a star crossed and tragic tenure just so much rosy memory or was Kennedy’s short presidency a grand testament to a simpler, elegant, even better time?

Would Kennedy have avoided Vietnam or would his hawkish anti-Communism have taken us precisely where Lyndon Johnson eventually did? And just who was Kennedy? Was he the pampered, womanizing son of vast wealth who floated through his 1,000 days with little to show for it or was he the tough, demanding, even brutally efficient Irish-Catholic intellectual who overcame debilitating health problems to be the cool head in the room handling the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Since everyone seems to have a Kennedy opinion these days, I’ll offer my own: Kennedy was all of the above and, curiously, the complexity of the man, the inability to fit him neatly into a liberal box, the roguish charm masking a unrelenting ambition make him all the more interesting. Like all truly fascinating people, Jack Kennedy was many men – all touched by unthinkable tragedy – and that, I believe, is why the fascination with him never seems to diminish.

The Kennedy Cult

Ross Douthat, the young conservative columnist for the New York Times set off the most recent round of Kennedy introspection with a piece entitled “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.” Douthat set out to debunk three of what he sees as the most offensive Kennedy “myths” – that JFK was a good president who, had he lived, might have been a great one; that he would have kept us from the awful Vietnam disaster and that Kennedy governed during a time of vitriolic right wing hatred of everything he did and stood for.

Summing up, Douthat wrote of Kennedy: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame.”

Kennedy’s best and most even handed biographer, Robert Dallek, felt compelled to respond to Douthat’s “anti-Kennedy overkill” with a letter to the editor.  Dallek’s book – An Unfinished Life – was the first to report in detail on Kennedy’s health problems and remains the best and most comprehensive story of the man.

“No serious historian,” Dallek wrote to the Times, “would suggest that John F. Kennedy’s unfinished presidency deserves to be ranked with those of Washington, Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he deserves better than Mr. Douthat gives him.”

Dallek has written elegantly and convincingly about why it is that Kennedy’s reputation still soars and Ronald Reagan’s, as well. Dallek argues it has less to do with bills passed or wars won than with the sense of hope and possibility both men brought to the bully pulpit of the White House.

“What gives Kennedy and Reagan such a strong hold on American imaginations is not what they did but what they said and still stand for,” Dallek wrote recently. “Both presidents are remembered as optimists promising better futures. Kennedy had the New Frontier; for Reagan, it was Morning in America. Both remain inspirational voices that in a time of doubt give people hope. And when you put either man alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, they seem especially appealing.”

“The national embrace of Kennedy and Reagan is at one with the attraction to nostrums,” Dallek wrote. “All we need is the right man with the right formula and all will be well again. If only it were that easy.”

Vietnam

For as long as we debate the legacy of Vietnam there will questions of whether Kennedy, had he lived to be re-elected in 1964, would have been smart enough to keep the U.S. commitment to southeast Asia in check. The late Idaho Sen. Frank Church was convinced, as he told me in the late 1970’s, that Kennedy would never have committed U.S. ground troops in the way Johnson did. Church’s opinion was also held by Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorensen, among many others.

Truth be told there is no way of knowing what he would have done, but the lessons he learned from both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the missile crisis surely had an impact on Kennedy who may have been, in terms of American and world history, the best read president since Teddy Roosevelt.

Best Sellers

Kennedy is also the subject of two current best sellers by Stephen King and Chris Matthews. King’s massive new book titled simply 11/22/63 imagines what might have been – the Kennedy assassination foiled by a time traveler. Matthews’ book – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero – is an unabashed valentine to a kind of political leader that Matthews argues no longer seems to exist.

As to the times when Kennedy governed, Frank Rich’s recent piece in New York Magazine draws parallels between 1963 and 2011. “What defines the Kennedy legacy today,” Rich writes, “is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.”

Rich has been defending his piece against, among others Ross Douthat. Rich’s “delusional” piece, in the view of another conservative commentator, uses “tortured logic” to show that “President Kennedy was a victim of hatred coming from the far right.” Lee Harvey Oswald was, of course, to the extent he had a political philosophy, more a Communist sympathizer than a John Bircher.

Still what really struck me in reading Rich’s take on 1963 were the selection of letters to the editor of the Dallas Morning News printed over the weeks before Kennedy made his fateful trip to Texas 48 Novembers ago.

A letter writer from Wichita Falls wrote in 1963: “The Kennedy regime tends to lead toward socialism, as shown in its soft policies regarding the Cuban situation and its constant concessions to the Soviet Union in nuclear-test-ban-treaty negotiations. The many failures of the administration are clearly shown to the public. The inefficiency of its policies has lost America prestige and has weakened our bonds with the major European countries.

“Any person who supports John Kennedy in 1964 not only is illiterate of the means of democracy but is supporting a truly socialistic regime.”

And this from a Kennedy opponent from Waco, who referred to the president as “One-Term John,” a politician so unpopular in “Central Texas that in the past three weeks I have had only one customer threaten to cease doing business with me because of remarks made concerning the dynasty and its accomplishments.

“In fact, I now expect business to pick up as the full impact of the truth finally makes its impression upon the party faithful who heretofore could neither see, hear, nor speak of the evils in a socialistic dictatorship until the confrontation by Gov. Wallace of naked federal power and encroachment upon state and individual rights at Tuscaloosa, Ala.”

The last reference, of course, was to Kennedy’s efforts to enforce federal law and permit two black students to enroll – over the schoolhouse door protests of Gov. George Wallace – at the University of Alabama.

(Kennedy’s role – some would say Kennedy’s reluctance – to push harder on civil rights is still regularly debated, as Ross Douthat and others have noted. Yet, appreciating Kennedy’s well-developed sense of humor, it’s easy to believe that he would appreciate the irony of the Crimson Tide’s quest for a national football title riding on the broad shoulders of team that in 2011 starts only five white players.)

The letters make a striking point. The hatred for John Kennedy, like Obama, was real and the misrepresentation of his views – JFK was no more a socialist than Obama – was palpable. A moderately dispassionate conservative today, one who dislikes everything Obama has done, would have to admit that those letters to a Dallas newspaper nearly a half century ago bares an eerie resemblance to today’s doings on FOX News.

The Kennedy Cult, or whatever you care to call it, persists because his presidency – both style and substance – still matters. It’s impact survives through generations. We don’t have great debates about the Cult of Warren Harding or William Henry Harrison because they did not help define a generation or bring a particular power of personality and passion to our politics. Few presidents have. Kennedy did.

We will be debating the importance of Kennedy – or Reagan for that matter – for as long as we care about what can occasionally be the uplifting quality of our politics. As Bob Dallek says, and this is particularly true at a time when our politics seem so polarized and unproductive, we hanker for the “right man (or woman) with the right formula.” If only it were that easy.

Leadership

Perhaps the true enduring legacy of a John Kennedy is really much less complicated than it might appear. At his core Kennedy was serious and incredibly ambitious. He had an approach to the job of being a senator and a president. He was a genuine and talented student of history. He wrote and spoke well. He was curious and tough as a politician and demanding as a boss. Matthews relates the story of Kennedy firing a long-time friend who he came to believe wasn’t doing his job well enough. At the same time he inspired tremendous loyalty and great affection and still does.

In short, the Kennedy legacy is one of leadership lifted by inspiration. The guy had it and we still gravitate to it and that is the real Cult of Kennedy.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, Biden, Britain, Christie, Economy, FDR, Lincoln, Minnick, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Trying Times

Leadership? Not So Much

At pivotal moments in American history it has often been the case that the right leader somehow emerged from the chaos of the moment and the nation was able to pass through trying times and set course for a better future.

Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan lacked the vision and courage to head off the steady drift in the direction of sectional strife in the 1850’s and, while there is a good argument to be made that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the tipping point toward civil war, there is hardly any disputing that Lincoln brought to the presidency the powers of leadership that ultimately saved the country.

Likewise Franklin D. Roosevelt proved to be the right leader at the worse time in the 20th Century. FDR restored confidence and, I’m convinced, reformed American capitalism enough to save it. He was a leader made for his times.

There are a handful of other examples in our history. Andrew Jackson, with all his flaws, may qualify for a leadership award. More recently Ronald Reagan, invoked by every current GOP candidate for president as the leadership gold standard, had some of the FDR in him. He was a confidence builder when the nation needed a big dose. Washington stands, of course, in a special class of right leader at a trying time.

It’s hard to escape the reality that the nation is at another such crossroads and our politics and politicians hardly seem up to the task. The litany of problems is almost too big to fathom: stagnant economy, double-dip recession looming, crippling unemployment, increasing poverty and income gap, a national and international debt crisis, declining quality of public education, the need for entitlement reform, the European fiscal crisis, the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Arab Spring, climate change, terrorism, even the Red Sox have melted down.

The thinking man’s conservative, David Brooks, identified the heart of the problem in his New York Times column yesterday: “the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.”

The Democrats are all about tax increases on the most wealthy and increased spending to stimulate consumer demand. The Republicans can’t shake the gospel of tax cuts, controlling the deficit and whacking at regulation. What both sides miss is that we need to do all of that and more.

It may well be recorded at the supreme moment of missed opportunity in the Obama Administration was the president’s failure to grasp and champion the most important political and policy work to come out of Washington in a long, long time – the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles Commission. In the end, the discarding of the work of the former Wyoming Senator, Alan Simpson, and the Clinton-era White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, will be recorded as a failure of leadership. The bi-partisan commission called for doing it all – tax and entitlement reform, spending cuts, deficit reduction. The Commission prescribed exactly what every thinking American knows in their partisan heart must be done. Obama punted and Congressional Republicans did as well.

And meanwhile the country is hungry – desperate even – for real leadership. Many Republicans salivate over the prospect that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will turn his consistent “no” into an announcement that he’ll enter the GOP battle and it’s easy to see why. Christie delivered an inspirational speech last night at Republican hallowed ground, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. His indictment of Washington leadership will surely resonate with Democrats and Republicans who long for leadership from someone.

“In Washington,” Christie said, “we have watched as we drift from conflict to conflict, with little or no resolution.

“We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead.

“We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign style politics at the Capitol’s door.  The result is a debt ceiling limitation debate that made our democracy appear as if we could no longer effectively govern ourselves.”

Christie specifically jabbed President Obama for failing to embrace the Simpson-Bowles work noting pointedly that it was “a report the president asked for himself.”

I’m not at all convinced Chris Christie is the Lincoln or FDR we need, but I am convinced that genuinely honest talk about the enormous problems facing the country, with an unstinting focus on big solutions to big problems rather than what David Brooks calls “proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand,” would be the beginning of the leadership the country needs and hungers for.

The electorate is deeply unsettled. The evidence floats about everywhere you look. A new CNN survey says only 15% of Americans have confidence in their government; an all-time low. The Coca-Cola chief says China is a better business bet than the USA. There is an unmistakable sense that American power and influence is in decline.

Is anyone up to the task? Can anyone see beyond the next election? I’m betting if someone could look that far ahead – see ahead to real leadership – it would be the best possible strategy to win.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, Britain, FDR, Minnick, Obama, Politics, Reagan

The Choice

Strangely, the Gipper May Be Obama’s Re-election Model

I’d argue that ever modern American presidential election comes down to one fundamental question: do we change or do we continue?

In 2008, Barack Obama obviously was about “change.” At every opportunity he tied John McCain to the administration of George W. Bush. In the narrative logic of that campaign, McCain, the old, establishment guy, was continuity and Obama, the young, fresh face, was change.

As Obama looks to his increasingly complicated re-election, some of his top staffers are taking comfort in history. They best not take too much comfort.

TIME reports that Chief of Staff Bill Daley recently invited presidential historian Michael Beschloss to a quiet retreat with top White House staffers to talk about whether any president facing eight or nine percent unemployment and steadily declining approval numbers can be re-elected.

Beschloss reportedly cited two examplesFranklin Roosevelt’s first re-election in 1936, while the country was still mired in the Great Depression, and Ronald Reagan’s “it’s morning in America” triumph over Walter Mondale in 1984.

Clearly Obama must try to do what FDR and The Gipper successfully pulled off in tying the nation’s economic misery to the failed policies of the president who came before. It was fairly easy for Roosevelt to continue to make the dour Herbert Hoover his fall guy and Republicans in 1936 were badly divided over how to respond to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Obama today, Roosevelt felt pressure from the left to respond ever more forcefully to the nation’s economic problems and he responded by shifting his rhetoric to attack big business and conservatives who had resisted his efforts to reform and recover.

Bashing “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking,” FDR famously said, “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

The hapless GOP candidate, Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon, a moderate Republican, carried but two states prompting Roosevelt campaign manager Jim Farley to quip, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont.” FDR actually ran a good deal stronger in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana in 1936 than he had four years earlier. 

In 1984, Ronald Reagan sought re-election in the environment of a sputtering national economy and succeeded in making the election a referendum on the previous administration. Reagan and his team were masterful at conveying a sense that the country had turned a corner under his watch and the nation would be foolish to go back to the bad old days of Jimmy Carter. It didn’t hurt Reagan’s prospects that Democrats nominated Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, a daily reminder during the campaign of the regime Reagan has turned out of office in 1980. Mondale, like Landon an exemplary American and all together decent guy, turned out to have been a much better veep than a presidential candidate.

Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia and, in fact, held Reagan under 52% in only two other states. It was a classic presidential blowout.

So, perhaps the Obama team can take some comfort in the fact that FDR and Reagan turned the tables on the prevailing wisdom that holds that the economy generally trumps all when it comes to re-electing a president, but at least one other factor was at play in 1936 and 1984.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were tough, seasoned political fighters at the top of their games. They defined their enemies with passion and clarity; Roosevelt “welcoming” the hatred of his critic-enemies and Reagan carrying the fight to the Democrats.

Accepting the GOP nomination, Reagan said in 1984, “Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory. Well, let’s take them on a little stroll down memory lane. Let’s remind them of how a 4.8-percent inflation rate in 1976 became back-to-back years of double-digit inflation – the worst since World War II – punishing the poor and elderly, young couple striving to start their new lives, and working people struggling to make ends meet.”

The question is not whether Obama will attempt to make his re-election a referendum on whether the country goes back to the “failed” approach of the Bush years. He has no choice but to run that campaign. His unpopular health reform legislation, never adequately explained to the public and now it’s way too late to try, and the economic stimulus that may well have kept the economy from getting seriously worse, but still seen by many as a failure, are not a record to run on.

No, the question for the cerebral Obama is whether he can find the fight to define the coming election in terms that present a real choice about the country’s future versus its past. In stark terms, can he make it about the good guys versus the evil forces arrayed against him?

FDR in 1936 and Reagan in 1984 ran against the odds  and their enemies and, in both cases, they beat the odds by making the campaign about something bigger than themselves. We’ll soon enough see whether Obama is built of the same stuff.

 

Afghanistan, Britain, Journalism, New York

A Job for DCI Tennison

Tabloid Scandal Gets Closer to the Top

I’m thinking as I read about each new revelation in the widening Rupert Murdoch/tabloid/police/political scandal in Britain that we really need Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison to unravel this mess.

Think of the Helen Mirren character from the long-running PBS series, Prime Suspect, putting the screws to Murdoch’s henchmen. Mirren’s character was herself deeply flawed; a failure at love, she drank way too much and smoked like a campfire, but at her core she was an honest cop determined to see the right thing done. This British scandal needs a Jane Tennison.

Already the Murdoch mess has claimed his lucrative tabloid, The New of the World, that paper’s top editor, Rebecca Brooks, who was arrested over the weekend, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, the top two cops at Scotland Yard and other assorted bit players in Murdoch’s world and that of Prime Minister David Cameron. The scandal is getting dangerously close to the top. Murdoch hardly has anyone else to fire. Well, his son, perhaps, or himself.

Count on this story continuing to unfold for a long time to come. As Carl Bernstein, who should know, suggested in a Newsweek piece, all of this could become Britain’s Watergate.

Bernstein quoted one observer as saying of Murdoch and his leadership in the steady dumbing down of what passes for journalism in his empire on both sides of the Atlantic, “In the end, what you sow is what you reap. Now Murdoch is a victim of the culture that he created. It is a logical conclusion, and it is his people at the top who encouraged lawbreaking and hacking phones and condoned it.”

As to the Watergate analogy, Bernstein says: “The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within News Corp. suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct. Not to mention his role in the cover-up.”

It’s always the cover-up.

Murdoch’s jettisoning of the last two people to preside over the newspaper that hacked the mobile phones of some 4,000 people and potentially blackmailed and bribed police to cover it up can be seen one of two ways. The media mogul is finally taking charge or, Nixon like, Murdoch has fired his Haldeman and Erlichman in an effort to keep his distance from the details of the scandal.

This much is true: Rupert Murdoch didn’t amass a vast, global communications empire by not paying attention to the details – and the troubles – that perplex any CEO and his organization. He’s played his game ruthlessly, with enormous political and economic resources at his disposal and now the fruits of that approach are becoming all-to-evident.

Soon British Members of Parliament will be asking, as the great Sen. Howard Baker once did of Watergate witnesses, “what did Rupert know and when did he know it?’ The prime minister will be answering the same question.

Someday, down the road, the BBC will make a drama series out of all of this that will be a big hit on both sides of the pond. It will literally be “ripped from the headlines” and too fantastic to be believed, but it will be true. I hope they find a role for DCI Tennison.

 

Andrus, Britain, FDR, Reagan

The Gipper at 100

reaganMyths are Part of Politics

I only had the chance to see Ronald Reagan in the flesh a handful of times. I distinctly remember when he came to Idaho to campaign for then-Rep. Steve Symms in 1980. He had incredible stage presence, a great voice, mannerisms, an almost unprecedented ability to connect with the audience. The Great Communicator.

With his 100th birthday this past weekend, the Canonization of Reagan has – perhaps – reached its zenith. Reagan is the one Republican all Republicans can rally to. In his approach to the presidency, he has become – even for Barack Obama – a touchstone, an example of how to use the awesome public powers of the office to move the country, the Congress and the world.

It’s both good politics and good historical analysis on Obama’s part to look to The Gipper for inspiration. In a piece in USA Today, Obama said of Reagan: “At a time when our nation was going through an extremely difficult period, with economic hardship at home and very real threats beyond our borders, it was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything.”

There is a theory among presidential historians that it takes 25 years after a president leaves office to begin to come to grips with the man, the accomplishments and the shortcomings. If that is correct, we’re about to have the historical distance to look back on the Reagan Era and make some judgments.

As much of the Reagan at 100 reporting has pointed out, much about Reagan is – no nice way to put it – a myth.

In 1981 he did push through the greatest tax cut in history to that time, but he also raised taxes 11 times during his presidency. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s diaries, says: “There’s a false mythology out there about Reagan as this conservative president who came in and just cut taxes and trimmed federal spending in a dramatic way. It didn’t happen that way. It’s false.”

The Tea Partiers who genuflect at his memory conveniently ignore that the federal deficit ballooned on his watch and the federal government grew. Reagan advocated, passionately advocated, the Star Wars missile defense scheme, but also went to the summit with Gorbachev determined to try to eliminate all nuclear weapons. He pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon after an attack on Marines there and he did trade arms for hostages. In short, the man’s record is more complex and ultimately more interesting than the Reagan myths.

Myth making in politics is a bipartisan game. Democrats have long clung to their Roosevelt myth, of example. FDR’s sunny disposition, great communicator talents and fundamental faith in the American system are the self same attributes most find so endearing about Ronald Reagan. Yet, Roosevelt’s sunny personality hid a tough, even mean, streak that played out in his efforts to “purge” the Democratic Party of conservatives in 1938. His reverence for the American system didn’t prevent him from trying to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937. If George W. Bush played fast and loose with the truth in the run-up to the Iraq War, FDR did the same in the run-up to World War II.

Had Roosevelt’s presidency ended after the 1940 election, with the country deprived of his splendid leadership during the war, we might only remember him today as the man whose policies made too little dent in the side of the Great Depression and who blew up his second term trying to “reform” the Supreme Court. Timing counts for a lot in politics.

Like FDR, Reagan created and maintained an uncanny ability to shape the symbols and power of the presidency into an American narrative. They both stood for the America of boundless opportunity; the shining city on a hill. They spoke to the aspirations of Americans, never fully achieved, but important nonetheless. They were, in a word, inspirational leaders.

It didn’t hurt either man’s reputation that their presidencies fell between the tenure of other presidents who never seemed to measure up to the job. Both Reagan and Roosevelt share one other trait, I think, that makes them – myths and all – endure. Both were unlikely leaders, neither really born to the success they achieved. Their success was not inevitable.

True enough Roosevelt came from great wealth and enjoyed the benefits of a powerful name, but unlike his distant cousin, who also became a great president, Franklin was, in the famous words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, equipped only with “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.” FDR’s struggle to overcome polio is a measure of the man’s determination and temperament.

Reagan rose from Hollywood, B-movie actor to GE pitchman, to Governor of California. As Peggy Noonan, who wrote some of his best lines – lines he practiced and delivered so well – wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “He ran for president four times and lost twice. His 1968 run was a flop—it was too early, as he later admitted, and when it’s too early, it never ends well. In 1976 he took on an incumbent Republican president of his own party, and lost primaries in New Hampshire, Florida, Illinois (where he’d been born), Massachusetts and Vermont. It was hand-to-hand combat all the way to the convention, where he lost to Gerald Ford. People said he was finished. He roared back in 1980 only to lose Iowa and scramble back in New Hampshire while reorganizing his campaign and firing his top staff. He won the nomination and faced another incumbent president.”

Reagan, like FDR, had a great sense of humor; something that will get you a long way in life and in politics. Roosevelt could joke about “my little dog Fala” and tweak his political opponents in the process. Noonan recounts a classic Reagan joke, “a man says sympathetically to his friend, ‘I’m so sorry your wife ran away with the gardener.’ The guy answers, ‘It’s OK, I was going to fire him anyway.'”

There is at least one, big, practical political lesson in the lives of the two men – Reagan and Roosevelt – who more than any others have shaped American politics for the last 75 years. Optimism, charm, humor, the ability to communicate from the head and the heart, and the gravitas of that hard to define quality “leadership” are all attributes we value in friends and family. Big surprise: we reward those same qualities in our politicians.

Much of what we think we know about great figures in our history just isn’t so, but still the myths survive, even as the complex truth is much more interesting and ultimately more important.

American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Mistrusting the Government

ReaganOne Election Does Not “Change” the Country

Barack Obama has taken some grief, particularly among liberal Democrats, for making the observation (and repeating it) that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House fundamentally “changed the trajectory” of the country in ways that Bill Clinton’s two terms, for example, did not.

Candidate Obama got into one of those pointless (but totally consuming, made for the media) debates with Hillary Clinton last year when he said that Reagan, “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Clinton charged Obama with “admiring Reagan” and wondered how any self respecting Democrat could possibly say something even halfway flattering about the GOP’s favorite icon.

Obama’s obviously accurate analysis – Reagan did change the country – reminds me of the old line that in Washington, D.C. the definition of a gaffe is when a politician speaks the truth.

Writer and historian Matthew Dallek (a former Dick Gephardt speech writer and son of presidential historian Robert Dallek) has a great take at Politico on Obama’s own challenge in “changing the trajectory” of the country and rolling back “the culture of Reaganism” that he sees as “a remarkably resilient political force in late 2009.”

Matthew Dallek is a perceptive and not uncritical student of Reagan. He has written a fine book about Reagan’s first election victory – the California governorship in 1966.

There has long been – and remains – a healthy skepticism in America about government and about the whole notion of “change.” Even the great presidents, widely admired as agents of change – Lincoln, Jackson, FDR, to name three – didn’t find the job to be easy and all encountered tremendous resistence. So it goes with the current occupant of the White House.