State

Hanson: Presidency has changed since 1960

From 1933 to 1960, America had nearly three decades of fairly successful presidencies — through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

While contemporaries were critical of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, they all proved successful, stable executives.

In Roman times, the equivalent would have been the period of the "Five Good Emperors" — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius — between 96 A.D. and 180 A.D. In contrast, there has been no such stability during the last 50 years in this country, even as we have become wealthier.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson was destroyed by Vietnam and did not seek re-election in 1968. An impeached Richard Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford was neither elected nor re-elected. Jimmy Carter was gone after one term — leaving office with a world abroad more dangerous and this country less affluent.

Twice-elected Ronald Reagan sought a renaissance of American order and stability, but by 1986 was caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal. George Bush Sr. was a one-term president who could not galvanize the country.

Bill Clinton was impeached and mired in scandal. The younger George Bush, like Clinton, served two terms but ended his presidency amid record deficits and incriminations over Iraq.

Now, the once-messianic Obama after six months is experiencing sinking approval ratings — perhaps because his first budget is $2 trillion in the red, with trillions more in debt to come.

Is the problem with recent administrations that our presidents do not measure up to FDR, Truman or Eisenhower? Or have we the voters become more unstable than our grandfathers? Or is it that the world itself has radically changed what we want — or need — in our presidents?

Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower struggled to offer an equality of opportunity to all: the beginning of civil rights, fair labor laws, overtime pay, disability and unemployment insurance.

But in the next half-century, that limited agenda morphed into one of a promised equality of result. Government grew to meet always-greater demands.

The larger world changed, too. High technology meant that the old radio and print news turned into a 24-7 video stream.

Roosevelt was with his mistress when he fell fatally ill at Warm Springs, Ga. Can you imagine how that would have been covered today? Eisenhower during the war years had a close relationship with his young female chauffeur that today would be blog fare.

Truman's old Missouri-machine politics were every bit as dubious as Obama's Chicago pedigree — but largely forgotten when he became president.

Apparently a prior, more gentlemanly media had neither the access nor the technology nor the desire to remind us that our presidents were all too human.

In addition, our contemporary commanders-in-chief have had to be "global fixers" as much as American presidents. An AIDS epidemic in Africa, for example, would have been beyond the ability of Roosevelt to do much about.

Today in a more crowded, more interdependent world, an American president is a sort of global CEO who can misstep in ways unknown last century.

But the nature of our leaders themselves has also changed. Roosevelt fought polio. Truman was once broke and throughout his life remained a common man. Eisenhower led millions of soldiers. In contrast, Johnson and Nixon were known first as political manipulators. The Bushes were born into splendor. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama plugged into the Ivy League and soon after never left the government gravy train.

In sum, we have changed. The world is also different. And the types we now elect as our presidents are not like those men of the past. No wonder they seem now more like the mercurial Roman emperor Commodus than the sober Marcus Aurelius — the last of an era.

E-mail Hanson at author@victorhanson.com.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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