Monday, February 18, 2008

The Presidents and Me

Sunday evening in Madison Square Park. 5:15 PM. Photo: JH.
As today is Presidents Day, and since all Americans have some kind of personal relationship (at least in our heads) with our Presidents, I thought I’d write about mine.

When I was born, Franklin Roosevelt was at the end of his third term and about to run for his fourth and last. I have no recollection of him. The house I grew up in was mainly Republican by sentiment. I had a “rich uncle” who was a Republican through and through although I never heard anything untoward said about FDR or “Mrs. Roosevelt” (which was pronounced Roo-sa-velt). All of the adults had vivid memories of the recently passed Great Depression and the Second World War. Mr. Roosevelt as the leader united and led the American people through both of those cataclysms. He was a hero of folk-lore dimensions.

  William McKinley
  Theodore Roosevelt
William H. Taft
  Woodrow Wilson
  Warren Harding
  Calvin Coolidge
My first image of a President was Harry Truman. I must have been eight or ten. He and his family lived much of the time at Blair House, across the street from the White House while it was being fixed up.

President Truman had a dowdy looking wife name Bess who looked like my sister’s mother-in-law, always with a funny looking hat perched on her head. He also had an adored daughter named Margaret Truman who sang on the radio and at the opening  of the baseball season --although even I could tell she was no Judy Garland or Dinah Shore.

The President looked somewhat like my pa – stern, grey-haired, glasses – when I saw him on the newsreels at the Saturday matinees. And he played “The Black Hawk Waltz” the piano. (I took piano lessons so these things resonated.) Whenever he went to New York, he went for a “stroll” up Park Avenue with two Secret Service men, otherwise unattended.

I had a weird uncle who used to argue politics with my father about Harry Truman --  my uncle being “pro” and my father being “con.” Uncle had a framed very short letter from “Harry S. Truman” on his dining room wall. The words “Commie” and “Red” filled the air of their “debates.” My mother and my aunt just sat there and said nothing.

I learned my first lesson about political opinion during Mr. Truman’s Presidency. One Sunday, looking at the papers spread out on the living room rug (probably looking for the funnies) when I came upon the magazine section with President Truman’s picture on the cover. Adopting my father’s sentiments, I made a mock spitting sound and slapped the image. My mother, hearing this, told me to “cut that out; that’s no way to behave about our President!”

When President Eisenhower was inaugurated, we were let out of school early so that we could go home and watch it on television. I watched it at my school chum and neighbor Johnny Earle’s house as they had one of the few televisions in the neighborhood. “This is a very historic time,” Mrs. Earle told us. 

Mr. Eisenhower was known as “Ike” to everyone. “I Like Ike” was the campaign slogan. His wife Mamie had a prettier smile than Bess Truman and wore her hair in bangs that my mother and many other women copied. The Eisenhowers had a son named John who was in the service, a daughter-in-law named Barbara and two daughters and a son named David who looked a little like his grandfather, and was, at least from what I could see in the papers, the grandfather’s favorite – so much so that the President’s hideaway in the Catoctin Mountains was named after him – Camp David.

President Eisenhower liked to play golf. He was never discussed around our house or even between my father and my uncle who continued to argue about Harry Truman and the Commies and the Reds. This was the 1950s when the cars were getting bigger and shinier, where the Cadillacs had the most fantastic taillight fins that every kid (boy kids, that is) on the block dreamed of growing up and owning, where more and more houses were getting televisions (we were one of the very last), and Elvis Presley came on TV one Tuesday night, sang “You Ain’ Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle Show, changing the world for all teen-agedom.

I was at Colby College in Waterville, Maine when John Kennedy ran for President. He was the Senator from my home state although out where I lived he was not popular (at least among my friends’ parents) mainly because he was an “RC” (Roman Catholic). It was widely believed that his father had been a bootlegger during Prohibiton (hence the family fortune) and that if Kennedy ran for President, he’d “turn the White House over to the Pope.” This kind of “serious” talk could be found in the national commentary as well.

He came to Lewiston, Maine on a campaign stop on an October later-than-midnight with a crowd of several hundred mainly college students from Bates, Colby and Bowdoin waiting for him. He brought with him such an excitement and fervor about the Presidency, that hundreds of college boys went back to their dorms that night with visions of someday sitting or working in the Oval Office dancing in their heads.

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy went to Los Angeles to the Democratic convention that year and stopped off to visit his sister Pat and her movie star husband Peter Lawford, he went for a swim in the Pacific and emerged from the surf for the photographers and the crowds, bare-chested with that shining smile, touseled hair and golden youth flashing over the front pages across the world; everything changed. The Age of Eisenhower had passed.

Years later out there, my friend Jean Howard told me how the night he received the nomination he later went up to her house in Beverly Hills where she had a real “Hollywood party” at which Judy Garland, among others, sang for him. He stayed late into the night, charmed and dazzled the guests, left and then amorously returned a bit later to be ensconced with his hostess. Another close-up.
Mamie Eisenhower poses with her sister and two nieces in the Green Room for their debut party November 25, 1960.
President Ronald Reagan hosts former Presidents Ford, Nixon and Carter as they share a laugh in the Blue Room October 8, 1981. Since the opening of the White House in 1800, presidents and first ladies have used the Blue Room to formally receive and greet guests.
Clockwise from top left: Jacqueline Kennedy greets the wives of astronauts in the Green Room May 8, 1961; President John Kennedy meets with his halloween-clad children, Caroline and John, Jr., in the Oval Office; With her brother-in-law Edward Kennedy at her side, Jacqueline Kennedy greets guests in the Red Room following the funeral for her husband, President John Kennedy.
L. to r.: First Lady Pat Nixon greets visitors to the White House on December 23, 1969; With a curious look, first pet Millie Bush has her paw print made for a greeting card in the China Room on July 2, 1991. Millie's owners were President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. Millie's offspring, Spot, now lives in the White House with President George W. Bush and Laura Bush.
When he came into the White House, the movie stars came with him. Esquire called him the first movie star President. This was a new kind of Presidency. In his inaugural speech he stood out in the wintry cold hatless, exhorting the American people to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country!… ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Noble youth emblazoned; it was hard to resist (even though by then I was following Barry Goldwater who wrote a book called “The Conscience of a Conservative.”)

Herbert Hoover
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Harry Truman
I never saw John F. Kennedy again after that night in Lewiston, Maine, although I had a friend, whose stepfather, Morton Downey, had lent Jack and Jackie his summer house on Squaw Island in HyannisPort in 1962, making the man only one degree of separation from me; a very heady notion to a young man.

The excitement that embraced the land was not everywhere, however. Years later I learned from a friend who was there that on the night of Kennedy’s election, out in Beverly Hills, Edward G. Robinson the actor, and his wife, had a dinner party at which the host at table urged his guests raise their glasses in toast “to our new President.”

“He’s not my President,” one of the guests, a film actor and television spokeman named Ronald Reagan said out loud. The host, incensed by this remark, responded that anyone who felt that way was not a desired guest at his table, whereupon Mr. Reagan removed himself.

John Kennedy’s Presidency was the most “publicized” probably in American history. NO matter the degree of separation, millions felt as if they knew the man, or wanted or hoped to know him. The kids who went off to join the Peace Corps were his brethren; he was their mentor. When I saw Barack Obama give his speech in Springfield, Illinois announcing his run for the Presidency, I could only think of John Kennedy – a fresh, new light, impossible to avoid, beseeching us to hope.

It is often not noted that two years into his Presidency JFK’s public image had lost much of its luster in the national press. Senator Barry Goldwater had published “The Conscience of a Conservative” and was considered a candidate in the next Presidential election. The father of a college roommate was a friend of Senator Hugh Scott in Pennsylvania who reported privately that Khrushchev had made mincemeat of JFK at the Summit in Vienna because the man (the President) was ill-prepared. True or not, I was hearing about the President and the Presidency from the inside where “authoritative” opinions are born.

Dallas changed all that in a gunshot; the nation mourned. The big man from Texas came into office. I never saw Lyndon Johnson except once from afar as he emerged from his limousine in front of the Waldorf-Astoria one night to attend a dinner, surrounded by an army of Secret Service (which had grown measurably during the Kennedy Administration). The press often made fun of Lyndon but carefully -- no one questioned his power, and few wanted to run into it.

After Johnson came, much to the astonishment and loudly voiced chagrin of many, Richard Milhous Nixon, the Eisenhower Vice-President, often called “Tricky Dick,” the man who after losing to the election to JFK in 1960, then lost the California gubernatorial race in 1962 and bitterly told the reporters at his concession that he was finished with politics, that “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”

I never saw Nixon, never met Nixon. A friend of mine told me not long ago that she met him several times because her father-in-law worked for him. She told me she was very impressed by his humanity, by his intelligence and perspicacity, and by his tragedy. Richard Nixon encapsulated the American drama of his time. Good things, bad things, came out of Richard Nixon and his time in office.
Dwight Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson
Gerry Ford came into the dark times with a lightness and an airiness that inspired silly jokes (he “couldn’t chew gum and walk up stairs at the same time”), but with a solid family, a forthright wife, goodl ooking children and a mild-manner that served as a balm after the final stormy days of Nixon. I never met Mr. Ford, and saw him only once, from afar in New York. He looked like the all-American man; a big guy, not lumbering, but with a commanding although not intimidating presence.

A friend of mine, Luis Estevez, Mrs. Ford’s favored designer, reported that the President once told him that the surprising thing about the office was how much went on and along without the President’s decision, that much of the trappings of power, were ceremonial in substance.

Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter
“My name is Jimmy Carter and I am running for President of the United States.” That modest presentation of a big idea was actualized by the man known as the peanut farmer from Georgia. His Presidency and his persona was later heaped with all kinds of scorn thanks to the hard times and dark days that followed him through his four years.

I’ve met and conversed with Jimmy Carter --more than with any other man who became President in my lifetime, thanks largely to our mutual friend Alice Mason who was one of his major fund-raisers. My meeting Mr Carter came long after he left office – in the 1990s. We know that he is resolute, an active humanitarian  and industrious. In person he has gracious manner of a gentle man, a Southern man, often with a smile on his face, as if delighted to be in your company.

I was a Ronald Reagan fan when I was a kid. In December 1979, then living in Los Angeles, I was invited to a big holiday dinner dance given by Lorena Nidorf, the widow of Louis B. Mayer, at a popular restaurant of the time called The Bistro. I was new in town, a relative stranger, and the crowd at this black tie affair was stellar – many many famous stars, famous faces, Hollywood glamour exemplified.

Cowed by the guest list, none of whom knew me, and feeling as awkward as a stranger in a party of friends. I stood around and watched the arrivals, the air-kisses, observing the real-life looks of the screen faces, completely uncomfortable and completely fascinated. I noticed that almost everyone, as they entered, headed straight for a white-haired woman swathed in pastel chiffon. I recognized her as Dorothy Chandler, the widow and the mother of the owners/publishers of the Los Angeles Times. On this night she was holding court at another woman’s party.

Because I knew hardly anyone and yet recognized almost everyone, I stationed myself in the crowd with my back to the back of Mrs. Chandler. Shortly thereafter Mr. and Mrs. Reagan entered, and like many others, moved straight to Mrs. Chandler’s side. I’d read only a day or two before in the LA Times that Mr. Reagan was planning to announce his candidacy for the Presidency. In retrospect, this seems even ordinary, but at the time, Ronald Reagan was almost a newcomer, albeit a famous man in comparison, the way Barack Obama is a newcomer today.

He was a handsome man, an older version of the screen hero I loved as a kid. His cheeks were rosy, his head bobbed every so slightly as he spoke, and his manner was characteristically mild and unobtrusive. He spoke to Mrs. Chandler about the Times’ editorial chastising Jimmy Carter for disallowing the ill former Shah of Iran from entering the country for medical treatment (the hostages were already being held in Teheran).

 The conversation between the two was unremarkable and didn’t seem especially brilliant to these ears, but in fact, seemed as ordinary as “the man on the street” -- not exactly to my way of thinking “Presidential.”  The rest of course is human history. Ronald Reagan went on to have a Presidency every bit as successful as John Kennedy’s supporters had dreamed his might have been but for his ill-fated term in office; perhaps the most successful presidency in terms of public influence since Franklin Roosevelt. There was a lesson in that.
Clockwise from top left: President Franklin Roosevelt poses with his 13 grandchildren on his fourth inaugural, January 20, 1945; Rosalynn Carter admires a painting in the Red Room with White House Curator Clem Conger September 28, 1977; Betty Ford sits next to General Alexander Haig, a future Secretary of State (1981-82), in the Red Room during a dinner held in General Haig's honor October 23, 1974; The Ronald Reagan family poses in the Red Room for a family portrait on his inaugural, January 20, 1981.
I eventually came to know many many people who knew Mr. and Mrs. Reagan; all loyal, devoted friends and supporters, indeed backers of his political life even from the beginning. Ronald Reagan, it would seem, proved to be the master politician (like his fellow predecessor FDR) in letting so much that confronted him kind of roll of his  back as if it were merely a ripple in the tide of history.

When he and his wife returned to California after his final term in office, some friends gave a welcoming back dinner. At table one of the guests, an old friend, by now used to addressing him as traditional “Mr. President” asked how he wished to be addressed in returning to private life. His reply was quick: he wished to be addressed by his friends as he had always been before attaining the highest office in the land, as “Ronnie.”

  Ronald Reagan
  George H.W. Bush
William J. Clinton
  George W. Bush
George Herbert Walker Bush was a President I never met or saw. I have no sense of his physical presence other than what all of us have seen and heard in the media.

I first saw his successor, William Jefferson Clinton, at a fund-raiser here in New York in October 1992 when he appeared with his running mate Senator Al Gore. I was a guest of Dorothy Hirshon who had been a supporter of Democratic candidates since Roosevelt and her table was right next to the podium.

The then Governor Clinton, after an introduction by Senator Gore, walked up the steps and across the platform in a very relaxed manner. He was a big guy, well-turned out like a prosperous young country lawyer in a well-tailored grey flannel suit, and well-shined brown loafers. He was handsome, in that all-American way, like Ronald Reagan -- with bright blue eyes, a pleasant face and bit of a fullback’s swagger to his strut approaching the podium. His curiously self-confident gait caught my eye because it hinted at arrogance. However, when he spoke, plainly and intelligently, I was impressed by command of knowledge and by his large and sensitive hands with which he expressed his thoughts.

That was the first and last time I saw him up close throughout his entire Presidency. Although during that time I as well as hundreds of millions of others seemed to have learned more about his personal self and life than any other President in human history; more than we ever needed to know and more than is any of our business – although many of us have a double-standard when it comes to personal revelations of others versus personal revelations about ourselves.

A couple of years after he left office, I did have the opportunity to meet him personally, that is, to shake his hand, at a private dinner that Alice Mason gave for him. He was no different than the man we’ve all seen hundreds of times on television, commanding, affable, serious. A lifetime of experiences had passed in those eight years but he seemed very comfortable in a room full of men and women eager to speak to him, to have a passing word, as well as certain women who were all but throwing themselves at him.

I never got a chance to talk with him although those who were at his table had long conversations, or rather long visits at which he did most of the conversing. This seems to be the norm, I have since learned about the man: he likes to talk. He is apparently indefatigable, and has an amazing cache of knowledge on so many subjects, in so many areas, that it can be almost overwhelming.

I saw him late last year again, at a private fundraiser for Hillary where he seemed markedly different from the previous times. His hair had grown whiter and he seemed physically fatigued, as if his schedule needed a break. Many speculated that it is a result of his heart surgery. Nevertheless, he spoke on behalf of his wife, the way a man would be expected to speak of his esteemed partner, kindly and informatively.

I have never met or seen George W. Bush except like the rest of us – on television. I’ve met his mother several times, in passing, and once sat at table with his brother who was governor of Florida. I know many people who went to school with him, be it either Andover, Yale or Harvard. I’ve heard the stories that journalists hear, that are passed to them, among them, about his personality, so much so that I have a sense of his persona – which could very well be inaccurate.

I have, as readers of the NYSD know, met Hillary several times and had brief conversations with her, enough so that I have a sense of her personality which is quite contrary to the picture that many paint of her in the media. I’m often inclined not to believe the media because having observed the maneuvering of journalists up close, I find that their perceptions are often seriously lacking in objectivity, or that they are advancing their own personal interests, be it social, political or occupational. 

I have not met or seen Barack Obama up close although I had one brief experience hearing his wife speak and then meeting her. As it was with Hillary, I liked the person I met.

President’s Day was originally a holiday to celebrate George Washington’s Birthday, the father of our country. And then of course Mr. Lincoln’s birthday comes ten days before on February 12th. It can be difficult to imagine what either of those men were like – up close and personal, that is – just from the aspect of their fashions and their remarkable histories. Nevertheless, at this stage of what Richard Nixon called “the great game of life,” I’d be willing to bet that they were equally as real, as human, as amazing, as disillusioning (vis-à-vis their public reputations) as all the men who followed them, as it is with the rest of us mere mortals, most of whom have a profound longing to make the best of things for ourselves and, if possible, for others, for our fellow man. Happy President’s Day.

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