It seems self-evident that history is important. Those who fail to heed it are doomed to repeat it, and all that.
Yet it’s pretty obvious that fewer and fewer care. Many seem to take pride in their ignorance, which becomes obvious as one gets older. Any times comparisons are made, invariably someone says, “Well, that was before my time,” as if anyone who did anything before he (or she) was old enough to remember doesn’t count.
I grew up in a different age, when kids had to recite the Gettysburg Address and Preamble to the Constitution in class and the Pledge of Allegiance and Lord’s Prayer every morning. It wasn’t just that, though. The first two books I read about baseball were biographies of Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews. Ott died late in the year I was born. By the time I became a fan, Mathews’ career was winding down. Many years later, I got to know Eddie when he was a minor-league batting instructor for the Atlanta Braves. I saw Mathews play for the Braves when they first moved to Atlanta and I was in grade school. If I’m not mistaken, he was the only Brave who was on the team in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. The coincidence of my first two sports books is that Ott ended his career with 511 home runs, Mathews with 512.
When I was 10 years old, Richard Nixon became the 37th president. Eisenhower was in office when I was born, meaning that, even though I don’t remember Ike, I have seen 11 presidents. Barack Obama is the 44th president, and the first time I realized that, I equated it strangely with the fact that Hank Aaron wore No. 44. It still makes sense to me.
Richard Milhous Nixon made me a Democrat. I was very interested in politics as a young man, and I defended Nixon even as I grew fascinated with his problems. I read everything in the local library regarding Nixon and Watergate, and what I learned was that Nixon had practiced the politics of thuggery since the very beginning of his career. The great tragedy was that when he reached the point where he didn’t need the dirty dealing, he couldn’t give it up. His was a handbook for much of the amorality that has characterized politics and government ever since.
Jimmy Carter cooled my interest in politics, but it wasn’t because I disliked him. He’s still an icon, the only president of my lifetime who really tried to do what was right, not what was politically expedient, and whose one term was ruined by the same kind of Congressional gridlock that now plagues Obama. It happened to Woodrow Wilson, too.
Carter somehow managed to put honesty in disfavor.
The best politicians – FDR, LBJ, Bill Clinton – are usually likable rogues. I realized when I was in college that I was every bit as stubborn as Carter and destined to be chewed up and spit out by the system, too. So I turned down law school, worked a few years, turned down law school again, and in retrospect, I think those were informed, if indecisive, decisions. It took me a while to get it, but I was young and hardly wise.
Who were my favorite presidents, besides the oft-derided Carter? Oh, let’s see. George Washington, though I admit I never really grasped his greatness until I put some effort into studying the early years of the country. Andrew Jackson, who wasn’t always right but was always formidable (like Lyndon Johnson). Abraham Lincoln, the brooding, doomed man who guided the country through her darkest hours. Theodore Roosevelt for the force of his vigor. Franklin Roosevelt for the unquenchable spirit and inspirational force of his disabilities. John Kennedy for what he might have been. Clinton for being at his best when he was in the most trouble …
… And Obama. I like his thoughtfulness, his infinite patience and his quiet determination to do as much as he can in the face of opposition I consider mostly despicable.
Ronald Reagan? He got elected the year I graduated from college and proceeded to destroy the world in which I had planned to live. I realize it’s a matter of opinion. After he had left the White House, I became fascinated with Reagan in the same way I had been fascinated with Nixon. I don’t think Reagan was a bad man. I just wish he had been my grandfather instead of my president. I wish I could write a book with a title as perfect as the one Lou Cannon wrote on Reagan: Role of a Lifetime.
Jeff Greenfield recently wrote a book speculating on what the world would have become had Kennedy lived.
I often ponder a world in which Carter had succeeded.