As we begin the final installment of history’s forgotten presidents, here is some reaction from the first three stories. (Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) One teacher pledged to focus more on teaching presidential history, despite the fact “the state” calls it a low priority.
Another reader said that some of the “do-nothing” presidents of the late 1800s were not that bad. “While it’s true that Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland and others didn’t make a name for themselves,” he wrote, “their hands-off approach allowed industries to flourish, resulting in growth and prosperity.” That’s a good point. Sometimes leaders just lead, without interfering. That’s great, when it works.
However, some other “sit back and watch” guys failed on an epic level as the economy tanked in the 1920s. McKinley, Coolidge and Hoover gave tax breaks to wealthy supporters and big corporations, and encouraged widespread consumer borrowing. Before long, everyone was in debt up to their eyeballs. This “boom” time ended with an economic bomb that crippled the nation. The stock market crashed, and the Great Depression cost many families their jobs and homes.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president #32, came to the rescue. Like the Mount Rushmore presidents before him, his legacy can be found on film, in books, and in the living memorial tributes to his life. Hopefully, he is one of the presidents today’s teens can name. He rescued the economy, emerged victorious from the second World War, and spawned generations of Yellow Dog Democrats, particularly in the South. Nothing lasts forever, as FDR’s former Democratic strongholds have since become solidly “red” states. Still, there’s no doubt that he and his wife Eleanor, the most influential first lady in history, were the right people at the right time.
Shortly after being elected to an unprecedented fourth term, the tired, ill Roosevelt passed away, leaving the presidency in the hands of a man unfamiliar to most Americans. Sure, Harry Truman’s name was on the ballot in 1944, but vice presidents didn’t matter in FDR’s first three terms, and Americans didn’t know what to expect.
Truman was a county judge before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934, riding a wave of Depression-era anti-Republican fever. He was barely re-elected to a second term in 1940. By 1944, FDR’s advisers had soured on his then vice-president, and sought an alternative. Truman was no one’s first choice, but Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas turned it down, so Truman was dubbed “The Second Missouri Compromise.” Just 82 days into the job, Truman was informed by Eleanor Roosevelt that her husband had died. “Oh my God,” Truman exclaimed. “Is there anything we can do for you?” Mrs. Roosevelt replied, “You should be asking if there’s anything we can do for you! You’re the one in trouble now.”
“The Accidental President,” as some called him, acted decisively in using the atom bomb to end World War II. He also clashed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur on stepping up military operations, keeping America relatively peaceful after the tumultuous war. He fought for national health care and civil rights.
But he was seen by some as soft on Communism, was tainted by associates who engaged in influence-peddling, and dragged the nation into a costly conflict with Korea. By 1952, his popularity had waned, and he left Washington amid shouts of “Korea, Communism, and Corruption.”
Our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of only two in the past 85 years who had no previous political experience (Donald Trump is the other). He was an expert military strategist who, although never seeing combat, rose to the rank of five-star general. Until he ran for president as a Republican, most folks didn’t know his party affiliation. He was tough on communism, but his social views were moderate. The five Supreme Court justices he nominated shifted the court to the left, disappointing Eisenhower’s conservative supporters.
His two terms were relatively peaceful, and to the surprise of some, he made cuts to the defense budget. America seemed to coast along in the 1950s, and Eisenhower’s frequent medical issues may have played a part.
The next three presidents are among the best known. John F. Kennedy’s brief tenure ended in tragedy, Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was largely successful on the home front but disastrous overseas, and as for Richard Nixon, the less said, the better.
Gerald Ford was criticized for pardoning Nixon. It was unpopular at the time, but helped the nation re-focus. Jimmy Carter didn’t accomplish much during his single term, but he may be our best former president. Ronald Reagan’s optimism restored hope, but the effects of an assassination attempt and early signs of Alzheimers resulted in a shaky second term.
The remaining presidents are still alive, and fresh in our memory. It may be early to judge their successes and failures. Hopefully I have inspired you to rediscover those who have faded into oblivion. We should celebrate our good leaders, and learn from the mistakes of those who failed.