Friday, January 16, 2009

Of Mice, Pumpkins, and Former Presidents

Sometime after the transition in January of 1969, President Richard Nixon asked his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, how it felt the moment he knew he wasn’t president anymore. LBJ replied:

“I don’t know whether you’ll understand this now or not, but you certainly will later. I sat there on that platform and waited for you to stand up and raise your right hand and take the oath of office, and the most pleasant words that I ever – that ever came to my ears were ‘So help me God’ that you repeated after that oath. Because at that time I no longer had the fear that I was the man that could make the mistake of involving the country in war, that I was no longer the man that would have to carry the terrifying responsibility of protecting the lives of this country and maybe the entire world, unleashing the horrors of some of our great power if I felt that was required.”


As the nation watches the high and historic drama unfold on January 20th, all eyes will be on Barack Obama and his beautiful family. While he assumes the awesome responsibilities that come with being America’s 44th president, there will be another – much quieter – drama unfolding.

George W. Bush will fade into the political sunset and take his first steps as a former leader of the free world. And as he takes a final lap during these waning moments of his administration, complete with exit interviews, a press conference, and address to the nation, he has the look of someone who is very much looking forward to some of what Lyndon Johnson was talking about.

Harry Truman remarked at the moment he inherited the presidency that he felt as if a “load of hay” had fallen on him. Well, hay or whatever, the day he left office he felt relief. As he sat on the platform listening to Dwight D. Eisenhower deliver his inaugural address, Truman found his mind wandering. A short while later, he was in a limousine for a ride to a farewell luncheon. Suddenly, the driver stopped for a red light – the first such traffic observance for Truman since April of 1945.

Those first hours as a former president must be interesting indeed.

In 1921, Woodrow Wilson was a shell of the man who had heard cheering in so many languages just a year or so earlier. There was a moment when he had been seen as an almost Messiah-like figure. But then, virtually wheelchair bound due to the debilitating effects of several strokes, his health prevented him from sitting outdoors to observe Warren Harding’s inauguration. Instead, as he heard cheers for his successor in the distance, he was driven along the quiet streets of Washington, D.C. to his home on S Street.

But Wilson was still in the vicinity of the Capitol as his presidency expired, not so with Richard Nixon who relinquished the burdens of his presidency 39,000 feet over Jefferson City, Missouri on August 9, 1974, as Gerald R. Ford was taking the presidential oath in the White House East Room. The moment was marked by the singularly simple act of Colonel Ralph Albertazzie, the pilot of the presidential plane carrying Nixon to California. He changed the aircraft’s call sign from Air Force One to SAM 27000.

The most dramatic inauguration day in recent memory was in 1981. At the very moment Ronald Reagan was succeeding Jimmy Carter, 52 hostages held by the Iranians for 444 days were boarding a plane at Tehran’s airport en route to freedom. Carter had spent a sleepless night monitoring the situation. The next day, the 39th president flew to Germany on behalf of the 40th to meet the freed Americans. Mr. Carter’s defeat in the recent election was due, in part, to his inability to obtain their release. The timing of the plane’s departure from Iran was delayed. This was one final act of insult by the captors. They didn’t let the captives go until the new president was sworn in.

As the now-former president met with the hostages, one aid, Hamilton Jordan, noted that Jimmy Carter “looked as old and tired as I had ever seen him.”

Years before he was elected to the nation’s highest office, William Howard Taft – who had a well-known aversion to overt politics – said: “It will be a cold day when I go to the White House.” He was right. That inauguration 100 years ago (though then still taking place on the 4th of March) was conducted against the backdrop of frigid temperatures and freezing rain that formed an arctic crust over the Capitol grounds. But the weather wasn’t the only frosty element that day – outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt, already less-than-enamored of his hand-picked successor’s moves away from “continuity,” watched the proceedings with “a stony expression and balled up fists.” This body language seemed to telegraph coming problems between Teddy and Taft.

John F. Kennedy’s celebrated inauguration was also tempered by hard and bitter weather, in the wake of a blizzard in Washington. As he spoke that day, vapor surrounded his words. The contrast between the youthful new leader and his aged predecessor was stark.

Following the ceremony, Eisenhower and his wife Mamie slipped out a side exit and went to the F Street Club for a luncheon with close friends. They then got in their car – just the two of them – and drove to their farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The drive should have taken a couple of hours, but because of the weather it turned into a ten-hour ordeal.

Eisenhower, by the way, was the first former president to retain the services of a personal Secret Service bodyguard after leaving the White House – but only for two weeks.

On March 4, 1933, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt rode together from the White House to the Capitol to transfer power at a critical moment in our nation’s history. But any eavesdropping fly on the car window would have been disappointed at the dialogue. Breaking a long and awkward silence, the generally loquacious Roosevelt noted the new Commerce building under construction. Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce before becoming president, so FDR likely thought this would be a good icebreaker. The man who would soon take the oath of office remarked: “Lovely steel.”

Hoover had no response. It was the last time they would ever “speak.”

Whatever warm fraternity exists these days between former presidents – as was demonstrated last week at the ultimate White House power lunch – no such feelings were anywhere to be found 76 years ago as administrations changed during that time of severe economic crisis.

By the way, one of the first things Harry Truman did after becoming president was to invite Herbert Hoover back to the White for the first time since March 4, 1933. Truman correctly sensed that only former presidents truly understand what the office personally means.

The journey from power to lack thereof is a short one. It passes as quickly as the flip of a switch as the clock marks the moment and solemn words are uttered. In this unique split-second, one person assumes an awesome burden, while another gives one away.

As you watch the events unfold on Tuesday, look closely at the faces of George Bush and Barack Obama and you’ll see two men smiling - one out of relief, the other out of excitement. And both men will likely be thinking “Now what?”

Long after nightfall on January 20, 1969, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson arrived at their 330-acre Texas ranch. LBJ had been an ex-President for just a few hours. Throughout the day friends had gathered – first at Andrews Air Force Base, then at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. They showed up to say thank you to the man who had ascended to the presidency in those chaotic Dallas moments more than five years before - and who less than a year before had pulled himself out of the race for a final term in the White House.

One of the first tell-tale signs that life was going to be comparatively perk-free was when they came upon their massive collection of luggage that had been left in the carport that evening, with no one around to carry the bags. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson laughed. Ladybird then uttered a phrase that captures what all former presidents probably come to understand as they take their first steps as former presidents:

“The coach has turned back into the pumpkin and all the mice have run away.”


Friday, January 2, 2009

The Barack Ballad of Abraham, Franklin, and John

With apologies to Dion and his now 40-year-old song - Abraham, Martin, and John - I see the ghosts of three past presidents standing slightly off stage as the nation watches the approach of inauguration day.

The ancient Israelites tended to name-drop a patriarchal hat trick when they wanted their rhetoric to stick. Crying out about, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” was enough to speak with authority. For a politician these days, especially the highly successful one who will have to settle on seeing the White House from his Hay-Adams Hotel room window before actually moving in, there is no better political triumvirate to invoke than the really big three: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.

President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration will certainly be one to remember. Anticipation alone exceeds anything in recent memory. The convergence of historic imagery and the fact that so many challenges await our 44th president, make this transition something that rivals only a few such moments from our nation’s past.

The inaugural prayer has become a source of controversy, and now the oath itself – at least the suffix “so help me God” – is under fire. I am sure Mr. Obama hopes what he has to say in his maiden address as our new president will be so resounding that any other pre-inaugural firestorm will fade into distant memory like that burning space heater on the platform in January 1961.

From the start, the Obama campaign dispensed with any pretense of subtlety as it sought to conjure up and identify with images of past presidential greatness. He announced his candidacy surrounded by all things Lincoln, solidified political support at a key primary point by tapping into the still apparently potent power of Camelot, and raced to the November finish line sounding a lot like Mr. New Deal.

His cabinet complete, his team now in place, and his much deserved (and no doubt needed) Hawaiian vacation over, the next event on the calendar is the inauguration itself. And all pre-inaugural controversies notwithstanding, central to that event will be the speech. The new man from Illinois has already demonstrated the ability to come through during big speeches – but this one is the granddaddy of them all.

No doubt he has been reading up for a long time on the inaugural addresses of his ghostly trio. But will he be able to deliver something that will rise to the standards they set?

When John Kennedy was working on his inaugural address, he charged speechwriter Theodore Sorenson with studying Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. JFK was very conscious of history. When he died, his widow commissioned a quick review of our 16th president’s funeral to use as a working model for her assassinated husband’s sad and somber farewell.

Of course, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 address is probably the most famous – largely because he entered office just as the nation’s economic outlook was at its bleakest. One thing Mr. Obama needs to remember though, if finding inspiration from FDR, is that when the 32nd president took office things were much worse than they are today.

Those who advocate a New Deal-like approach to the current economic situation would do well to read up on their history. If there is any parallel to what has happened recently and the events of The Great Depression, what should be remembered is that we are only a few months in, following a market tumble.

In Great Depression terms this is 1930 – not 1933. In January of 1930, the market had rebounded and there was little indication that things were going to get much worse. In fact, a case can be made that it was the actions Herbert Hoover and the Congress took in 1930 – things like the Smoot-Harley Act (protectionism), raising taxes, and attempts by the government to manage the economy – that led to a continued downward spiral. Add to all of this the fact that more than half the nation entered a period of sustained drought that year (timing is everything), and we had the makings of what became a long national perfect storm.

Then FDR came to town and kicked it up a notch. Thus began a frenetic period when the “best minds” made things up as they went along, content that they simply knew better because they were running things.

I once heard it said that a fanatic is someone who, when faced with the clear failure of a plan of action, determines to work harder and redouble the efforts.

Reading the entire speech Mr. Roosevelt gave on March 4, 1933 – beyond the “fear itself” stuff - is, in fact, quite chilling. In true populist fashion, the new president railed at the enemies that would become his usual suspects for more than a decade: business leaders and those he called “money-changers.” He used his words as a scourge to drive the culprits out of town:

“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

He called on the nation to fix the “overbalance of population in our industrial centers,” suggesting migratory “redistribution.” Pack your bags and go west, or south, young man. Roosevelt talked of extensive “national planning” and unprecedented governmental “supervision” of major sectors of the economy (and the country itself).

And Franklin Roosevelt threatened that if the Congress did not bend to his will on these things, he would seek “broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Ray Moley was one of the men tasked with helping FDR craft the speech, and in his handwritten notes the word “dictator” appears (though without any elaboration). Possibly this was bounced around as a word fitting for that whole “broad Executive power” idea.

It is known that many on the left in those days saw virtue in the “strong man” approach to leadership. A movie (funded by William Randolph Hearst) was produced at the time called Gabriel Over the White House, starring Walter Huston, and extolling the virtues of “benevolent” despotism.

FDR loved the movie – even offering some suggestions about the script.

Mr. Obama would be wise to put the FDR speech away, however – there is not much there that really applies to current reality. At least, let’s hope not.

That leaves us with the ghost of Old Honest Abe. Like Mr. Obama, he came to the presidency with a somewhat unimpressive resume. But he also knew a thing or two about speech making. His address at New York’s Cooper Union in February of 1860 paved the way for the Republican nomination. Before that he had gained fame and a reputation for effective rhetorical argument during his legendary debates with Stephen Douglas.

We think of Lincoln these days as a great communicator (a traits most of our more effective presidents have in common). His address at Gettysburg is still studied. His Second Inaugural was a classic with lines like “with malice toward none and charity for all.”

But can anyone quote a line from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural?

He put in a plug for the postal service: “The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in all parts of the Union.” Inspiring stuff.

Regarding slavery he “boldly” said: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He was, as Winston Churchill once described a political foe, “resolute to be irresolute.”

He, of course, did elaborate on the Constitutional idea “to form a more perfect union,” probably the most memorable portion of the speech. But beyond that, the fact is that Lincoln’s first inaugural was a bomb. What he had to say was important – and he spoke against the backdrop of perilous times. As a speech, however, it was not memorable and no one studies it much these days. It was too long – more than 3,600 words and delivered in about 45 minutes. And he tried to cover too many bases; a big mistake in inaugural addresses.

There is a reason why JFK had Ted Sorenson study the Gettysburg Address, not Lincoln’s first inaugural. The speech at the cemetery in 1863 was a mere 278 words long. Kennedy’s inaugural was 1,364 words long and delivered in slightly under 14 minutes.

FDR flirted with long-windedness – his 1933 address came in at about 1,900 words. But, his tag line, the one that is remembered, was right at the beginning. It was all down hill from there.

John F. Kennedy knew, like Abraham Lincoln grew to understand throughout his presidency, that brevity was the soul of wit. When a speech is shorter, a great line even toward the end will resonate – as did the “ask not” part.

So, before this column becomes ironic, let me simply suggest that President-Elect Obama follow sage advice ministerial students and seminarians have heard for years as they study how to preach: “Stand Up – Speak Up – Shut Up.”

Or in the great African-American pulpit tradition: “Start Low – Go Slow – Rise Higher – Catch Fire – Retire.”

OK – one more and I promise I am done. An old – and somewhat cheesy - “preacher joke” has the clergyman’s wife whispering in his ear as he goes to the pulpit “K.I.S.S.” This stands for “Keep It Short, Stupid.”

On January 20th, I will keep an eye on Michelle.