Like a coat rack in the back hallway of our childhood home I hang memories on each of the American presidents who held office since graduating from high school.
The worn hooks are Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.
The memories are personal and integrated into who I am as an American living in Iowa. To the degree I’m American, these memories are sharable.
Book ended by the most reviled, Reagan and George W. Bush also deserve their own special place in hell. I worked to find some redeeming qualities about each of them. It was hardest with the current president.
I looked up President Trump’s inaugural address and listened to it again. My memory was turning off the video on inauguration day after the sentence, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” The speech came from left field, from a country I did not know.
Watching the entire speech for the first time yesterday I can see why his core supporters like him. I can also see truth in the Politifact fact-checking of the speech. Trump referred to “all Americans.” Since day one of his administration I haven’t felt included in this group. That feeling has been stoked ever since with little hope of resolution. For Trump, “all Americans” includes only his supporters.
The other memory of Trump is how outside interests funded by dark money have run the administration. It began when the Heritage Foundation sent out swat teams to investigate each aspect of the executive branch shortly after the inauguration. It continued with the Federalist Society proposing judges to fill the many vacancies held open by Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley while Barack Obama was in office. Grassley recently pointed to Trump’s policy regarding the appointment of judges as a key reason for Republicans to hold their nose and support the president’s re-election effort. My memory is Trump as the disengaged, self-centered billionaire in an office he recognizes he has no capacity to manage.
While Ronald Reagan ranks among the worst presidents, his administration was buffered by his affable manner and effective use of media to convey a sense of warmth as him minions stripped away a society risen from the ashes of the second world war. His work was intentional and directed, like all of the Republicans who held this office. Reagan must be given credit for the intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement (INF) with the Soviet Union. It was a big deal then and gave those of us in the nuclear freeze movement hope. Trump, with the counsel of John Bolton, threw the INF into the trash heap.
My memory of George W. Bush is from Philadelphia, shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I was on Interstate 95 heading into the Bartram Gardens area where I managed a trucking fleet. Bush’s motorcade was on the other side of the interstate heading back to the airport to return to Washington. In that moment, whatever hope I had Bush would pull the country together after the terrorist attacks was dashed. He made the trip early in the morning and finished by 10 a.m. It was a publicity event that had little impact on the national interest. It was unclear to me why he would spend so much money for what must have been a one to two hour publicity event. I remember other things didn’t make sense during the Bush administration. More than this, his invasion of Iraq made the least sense and proved to be a costly error. That is, unless one was a contractor who profited from the debacle.
Richard Nixon was proof there would be consequences for lying liars who held the office of president. He did form the Environmental Protection Agency but that was only a calculation that doing nothing to protect the environment would hurt him politically.
Gerald Ford was a non-entity who was not Nixon and that is my memory of him. Instead of seeing his failure to get a grip on the economy, I entered military service and spent most of my time in a confined silo that interacted with the presidency in a much different way. I accepted the premise of his presidency, that it was a time to heal after the disaster that was Nixon.
Conservatives who gave us Reagan ultimately didn’t care for George H.W. Bush. Bush’s foreign affairs experience helped his administration deal with the breakup of the Soviet Union without going to war. The United States became the only super power under his leadership. In domestic affairs, Bush was a supporter of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While he had some redeeming qualities, conservatives continued to have too much sway in his administration. I was satisfied when Bill Clinton defeated him in the 1992 general election.
I also have memories to hang on Democratic presidents. None of them were saints. All of them did things I didn’t care for. They were welcome respite from a conservative movement that continues to gain strength long after the coalition that elected Ronald Reagan was formed. My story about Democratic presidents is for another day.