Eric Ebinger

Author | Historian | The Presidents Gather

Category: Presidents, Etc.

Styling the Inaugural Address

Donald Trump has announced he is fashioning his upcoming Inaugural Address to the speeches given by John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Every President wants his address to remembered like John Kennedy’s. Few live up to the task because few 1. Spend the time to keep it short and 2. Spend the time to make the phrases and sentences that sound good even better with word choice. There are a lot of good sentences in each Inaugural Address. But gosh, this comes once in a century:

“The energy, the faith, the devotion, which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” John Kennedy, January 20, 1961.

That sentence, coupled with Kennedy’s closing benediction, “And so my fellow Americans, ask now what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country,” were not just words that sounded fine in the cold January air, making heads bob up and down. They were calls to service. Kennedy backed them up with real policy like the Peace Corps and a challenge to devote peaceful efforts to space and science.

Donald Trump would like to hit the high notes Kennedy reached, but he is most likely to mirror Ronald Reagan, who had the incredible opportunity to put many, many years of governmental distrust and hatred behind him with his own Inaugural Address on January 20, 1981. Reagan started off with a twist- his ceremony faced West- facing the country. Presidents before him had all faced East. It was a refreshing change, symbolic more than anything. But in a ceremony of symbols, it felt right. The country was turning from the past. Not our entire past, but the past of the last sixteen years- a past that included a stalemate in Vietnam leaving 52,000 dead, a crippled economy and a President who just couldn’t make sense of any of it.

Reagan started as only a few presidents have: with a gentlemanly nod towards his successor, James Earl Carter. Carter was sitting behind him on practically zero sleep in the previous 72 hours, working tirelessly for the release of the American hostages held captive by Iran.

Those hostages would be released as Reagan took the oath.

Carter may have appreciated the sentiment of Reagan’s second paragraph, grateful for one more round of applause on the world stage. But it did not last long. Reagan then launched into a diatribe against the current state of the nation, and how he would fix it.

In his 1989 Inaugural Address, President George H. W. Bush talked about “a new breeze is blowing, and a generation, refreshed by freedom, stands ready to push on.” That breeze started blowing in 1981, and Reagan captured the nation’s attention with a long discourse with one major theme: The people are what’s right with America- and the people will see us restored.

In 1981, Reagan not only but Carter to bed, he put Nixon to bed, too.

Donald Trump does not have the mandate to put Barack Obama to bed. If anything, I expect a glowing tribute, much like Reagan’s to Carter, and then a turn to page after page on how he will fix the country.

Reports today announce the Inaugural Balls have been cut back from ten to three, and the Inaugural parade will be shortened to one hour so the President can get down to business.

Inaugurations set the tone for the entire administration. I look forward to a Reagan-like call to put power back on the people:

“We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.

Now, I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your,” because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak—you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God. ” Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981.

But gosh- a little styling after Richard Nixon on January 20, 1969 would be good for all of us, too. Nixon spoke about greatness:

“Greatness comes in simple trappings.

The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us.

To lower our voices would be a simple thing.

In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.

We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another–until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.

For its part, government will listen. We will strive to listen in new ways–to the voices of quiet anguish, the voices that speak without words, the voices of the heart–to the injured voices, the anxious voices, the voices that have despaired of being heard.

Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in.

Those left behind, we will help to catch up.

For all of our people, we will set as our goal the decent order that makes progress possible and our lives secure.

As we reach toward our hopes, our task is to build on what has gone before–not turning away from the old, but turning toward the new.” Richard Nixon, January 20, 1969.

Here’s to a new year, a new president, and a new breath of freedom.

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One Coming… One Going

No, this is not another transition post, although I am shortly going to tackle the “Trump- Obama 2016” question of who would have won. (Short answer: Obama, in a 1940-esque squeaker much like FDR’s Third Election.)

This is a post about #tdh, otherwise known as Today in History. On December 28, we recognize the birth of Woodrow Wilson, and over in Independence, it is the day they laid Harry Truman into the ground.

I do not like Woodrow Wilson. This has been documented. Among some of my favorite reactions to my novel, The Presidents Gather, was this: “What do you have against Woodrow Wilson?”

Well, for starters, he campaigned in 1916 against joining the war effort in Europe.  Oh, those darn campaigns that make us say what we want but not what we mean. Had it not been for Winston Churchill refusing to offer military support to the arrival of the Lusitania (Thank you, Erik Larson), The United States may well have stayed out of it. But back then, American lives lost on foreign soil (Ahem, Benghazi) meant something to the country. Churchill knew it, and knew the backlash of American dead would force Wilson’s hand.

It did.

Wilson entered the United States into the war with full-throated enthusiasm. And then, though American involvement in war was short, he (the man who campaigned on American NOT entering the war) had a full list of Fourteen Points with which he thought the world should follow, not the least of which the defeated Central Powers.

It would be the first time an American President tried to bend the world to his own liking. It’s an awful long leap, from Isolationism to His Own World Order, but Wilson jumped as high as he could. Unfortunately for the 28th President, he suffered a stroke as he traveled the country trying to convince his countrymen to adopt the League of Nations. Seems the country, Isolationist as it was in 1916, had no trouble returning to that sentiment as quickly as our boys returned home. Wilson, on the other hand, had tasted the power of Global Interference and relished it.

The foundation of my dislike for Wilson, however, stems from his inclination towards racism. Very few of our Presidents have quite so blatant references to looking down on another race. Wilson does. And it’s disgusting.

______________________

This is also the day Harry Truman was laid to rest, the official end of a very long and remarkable life. History regards him high, but gosh, high enough? He literally stepped into the shoes of the President knowing nothing in the middle of the end of World War II. And not just any shoes: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If Washington and Lincoln are the go-to great leaders of our nation’s founding era, Franklin Roosevelt is the go to of the country’s saving era. And Harry Truman replaced him, in an instant, without fail.

Although he would one day dislike Eisenhower and (gasp!) fire MacArthur, Harry Truman, on April 12th, 1945, had a heckuva job commanding two generals on opposite ends of the world against two enemies while 99.9% of the people doubted whether he had the gall to get it done.

Harry Truman (spoiler alert) got it done, and in an upset no one talks about anymore (1948) won four more years on a straight talking, no-nonsense approach to government. (Again, why is 2016 not drawing parallels to 1948? Truman defeated the ‘next man up’ and shoo-in New York Governor Tom Dewey, a man who spent way too much time in his New York townhouse (resting?) instead of campaigning.)

Truman’s Presidency is marked by two huge landmark decisions. One was dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in August of 1945, effectively ending the war without a massive invasion of Tokyo. And the second, the firing of General Douglas MacArthur, who was effectively inviting World War III with the Chinese during the Korean War. Both decisions were made by a civilian president, Commander in Chief, and both decisions emphasized his mantra, The Buck Stops Here. I love it when a man backs up his ego with actual decisions.

But I have always liked President Truman, despite the very public manner which he tried to force John Kennedy to ‘wait’ in early 1960. Seems Truman wanted another go with Stevenson. Last night I tried to watch a 1956 TV “Commercial” with Stevenson and John Kennedy. I didn’t make it through Stevenson’s introduction. He looked about as uncomfortable as Hillary being ‘genuine.’

Truman wanted Kennedy to wait. “Senator, are you certain you are ready for the country, and that the country is ready for you?”

With all due respect to the Man from Independence, that’s what campaigns are for.

Harry Truman lived an incredibly long life. He died at the end of 1972 at the age of eighty-eight. He took daily walks in the neighborhood of Independence for as long as his health allowed. And through the 1950’s and 60’s, drove himself in his own car. One of my favorite stories came from a stop to fill up for gas somewhere in the farmland of Missouri. The owner of the gas station came out, filled up his tank, checked his oil and when the former President handed him the money to pay, the owner stopped him and said, “Hey, aren’t you Senator Truman?”

I’m sure he and Bess had a good laugh about that at the dinner table, which is so easy to place this giant in our history right where he belongs, at the dinner table across from Bess, trading stories of happy times.

 

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Unprecedented

As mentioned in an earlier post, we have experienced only three presidents since January 20, 1993. Which means backing up one day, we have also experienced only three transitions. All of them, however, have occurred between political parties.

I remember reading in 1992 after the stinging loss of the elder Bush to the younger Clinton that the outgoing President would not criticize the incoming. This did not seem like a shock. It did not seem out of the ordinary. Bush had class and character, despite his political failings and knew the new President would not- did not- need him chirping from the recliner in retirement.

Perhaps this is a Bush family ideology because Geroge W. Bush made a similar announcement in 2009, despite the fact OBama ran against Bush in 2008 and as late as 2016 was still blaming his own problems on the previous president.

Bill Clinton was very busy during the transition from himself to George W, but made a similar announcement he would not criticize the incoming president. And of course, just under nine months into his term, there was very little criticism of President Bush as the country focused on Osama bin Laden. And for President Clinton, there was the refusal to criticize any action taken due to the fact there was a slight undercurrent of fingerpointing that bin Laden had started his terrorism while Clinton was president.

Before the Triumvirate, Reagan certainly did not criticize 41. Carter couldn’t criticize Reagan without guffaws of laughter (though he has technically criticized every president since.) And before that (Watergate), the country was in such a mess you could read criticism into the daily weather report.

Personally, I have spent the last eight years of my life very quiet on the subject of our president and his policies. Reason: Shortly after he was Inaugurated, I was in a conversation with someone who noted my lack of support for the new president thusly:

“You don’t like him because he is black.”

It’s a shame you can’t slam cell phones down, or afford to bash them against a brick wall.

And so it continued for most of the next eight years, disagreements between political ideologies disintegrated into the color of someone’s skin. It was an easy out for the left, and an infuriating accusation on the right.

I believe we are all equal, but we all have certain responsibilities. I believe in expanding equal rights so that the rights I enjoy as a white male are enjoyed by all human beings, no matter their gender, race, sexuality, or religion. As John Kennedy said in Berlin in 1963, “When one man is enslaved, all are not free.”

But it became a rampant, idiotic answer for most of the left to withstand any criticism of President Obama by retiring to the, “Racist” label to anyone who disagreed. Pay it no mind Obama sat (every Sunday) in the church of Jeremiah Wright, whose racist diatribes against whites in the nation was as repulsive as our country’s disgusting treatment of African Americans (and Native Americans for that matter) since we arrived.

Please Note: This is not an essay against criticism. I am certainly NOT saying we all need to agree with each other. And I am not advocating we bow to the party in power. My focus on this website is on the Presidents and in this instance, the Transition periods, and finally- the recent outspoken criticism by our First Lady, Michelle Obama.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Mrs. Obama stated, “Now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”

This could be (simply) a Democrat continuing to whine about the fact their party is out of power. But Michelle Obama is not simply any other Democrat. She is the First Lady, whose words carry weight and (most of the time) honor and dignity.

Is this the same woman who said, “When they go low, we stay high?”

Perhaps. But she is also the same woman who stated in 2008 after her husband was nominated, that it was the “first time I have been proud of my country.”

The full interview of Obama and Winfrey airs tonight on CBS. I am sure this statement was used in advertising for the interview because it is possibly the most flammable. And perhaps some would caution me not to read too much into it. But you can’t pick and choose when you have class and dignity. You can’t say you are going to take the high road and then announce the country has lost ‘hope’ because we have a new President hell bent on dismantling the previous eight years. It happens. Obama was certainly hell bent on dismantling the previous eight.

That’s politics. Usually, First Ladies stay out of it.

 

 

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The New Electoral College, or the Last Gasps of the Clinton Machine?

In the Washington Post yesterday, article here, EJ Dionne, Jr. is grasping (gasping) for some kind of revolt in the Constitutionally based Electoral College to keep Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States.

The basis for the argument is not just Trump’s off-putting Twitter explosions (that many on the left honestly believe will become actual nuclear explosions on January 20.), it is the fact Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by close to three million votes.

Mr. Dionne and his band of rebels need to get a grip.

One of the first things students learn about the founding of our country is the great debate which took place between the populous states of the north and the agrarian, lesser populous states of the south. The nation’s founders knew the larger states should not run the smaller ones. So they compromised in what became Madison’s bicameral legislature. The compromise was also developed into the Presidential Elections: The big states would not rule out the smaller ones. The President would not be elected by popular vote, but by Fifty popular votes.

In elections before 2016, this would have easily been explained thusly: “We do not want New York City and Los Angelos electing a president every four years.” It would certainly make for cheaper campaigns, but gosh, Dubuque Iowa would never see another Presidential Candidate, Ever.

But 2016 has changed the conversation. Instead of warning against the metropolis’s electing the President, we are calling for exactly that to happen. Democrats do not like the county map of the United States showing Presidential winners- because it looks like Hillary only won New York City and Los Angelos.

Because it fits the narrative, somehow this year, the popular vote matters more than the Electoral College. In 1992, when Hillary’s husband defeated George Bush with the glorious help of Ross Perot, USA Today claimed the victory was a “LANDSLIDE!”

But his landslide was in the Electoral College. In terms of popular vote (the same popular vote Democrats are trying to knock the Electoral College with today) he won only 43% of the vote.

What was hot in 1992 is not in 2016.

Hillary’s strategy of ‘mentioning’ the good folks in Madison, Wisconsin did not translate into the good folks voting for her. That’s so 1984. Tim Kaine’s attempt to mention every state in the Union didn’t work either. Dear future Presidential Candidates, long gone are the days when the shtick of mentioning a city on national television endears that city to vote for you.

And please read Former (and late) Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s riveting memoirs, All Politics is Local. There is a section in there which warns against mixing sports with politics. People don’t go to baseball games to see the Governor or a campaigning politician. They will boo you. And apparently, the choice of our sports stars don’t matter much either, as King of Ohio Lebron James’ support of Mrs. Clinton did not translate into the 500,000 votes she needed to overcome Donald Trump.

Keep the College. It is there for a reason. Hillary did not step foot in Wisconsin after the primary loss to Bernie Sanders by 135,000 votes on April 6. So they didn’t vote for her. Same story in Michigan. She ‘headlined’ a concert in Cleveland with Jay Z to get out the vote, an event upstaged by Jay Z’s profanity-laced tirade which did nothing to spark his followers to go to the polls, but most likely drove the little old ladies to vote against anyone associated with him.

In some ways, I shall contradict myself, it still is 1992, when a celebrity standing up and spewing a foul-mouthed diatribe would backfire for their candidate of choice. Hollywood has no stars anymore. Why do politicians continue to believe we will do what they say?

The same woman who stood smugly by as the debate moderator asked Trump if he would accept the results of the election, needs to accept it as she expected it. And send an email to her followers to do the same.

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Donald Trump, You’re No John Kennedy

It takes a long time to thoughtfully reply to every Presidential link to the transition period between Trump and Obama. Maybe I should try Twitter more exclusively, but being thoughtful is a characteristic I dare relinquish.

The title of Monday’s headlines caught my eye: “Bill Gates says Donald Trump has the opportunity to be like JFK.”

I may have rolled my eyes. Knowing Bill Gates is still relatively young, (Yep- 61 years old) I know he is young enough not have been intellectually involved in the Kennedy Administration. But he has also been retired for quite some time, and recent retirees usually become nostalgic for the period of their birth. Gates was lucky to be born in the Eisenhower Administration (and was six when Kennedy became President- about nine when he died.)

I was born, by the way, about forty days into the administration of Jimmy Carter. Yay, me.

A few thoughts flashed through my mind when I read the headline. First, when I think of Donald Trump’s comparable presidential predecessors, none spring to mind. Kennedy, my unapologetic favorite, is perhaps the last I would compare the incoming President Elect.

There can be a great deal of thought inside one’s head between reading a headline and reading the article. I suffer from the same attention span deficit as a dog outside on the first nice summer day. Trump has been in the news constantly for his tweets, this I knew Gates would not compare him with Kennedy. He has made news for ‘saving’ some companies from moving out of the country and claimed victory (perhaps rightly) for some of them expanding. This cannot be compared to Kennedy.

Cabinet Picks? Kennedy is well known for making brilliant cabinet picks, a theme perpetuated by the first level of his biography, written by shell-shocked admirers just months following his tragic and sudden death. Do not read sarcasm into that sentence. Apologies abound -that- in this one instance, sentimental biographies meant to portray the subject in sympathetic and glowing tribute are actually right on the mark.

The thought it might be the cabinet picks intrigued me. Trump has been picking fellow billionaires and generals. Kennedy had two ‘out of the box’ picks. Robert McNamara for Secretary of Defense came from his position as President of the Ford Motor Company, perhaps comparable to one of Trump’s successful businessmen. And he chose Republican (gasp!) Douglas Dillon for Treasury (gasp again!) Secretary. (Dillon was also a successful businessman, but also an official in the Eisenhower Administration. The courage and decency of President-Elect Kennedy to nominate such a person is a shock not just because of his Republican Party loyalty, but the fact he was involved strategically and financially in Republican Presidential Campaigns.)

But the rest of Kennedy’s Cabinet Picks, noted historically as the Best and the Brightest, are career diplomats and politicians. The lone exception might have been his best and brightest pick, his brother Robert for Attorney General.

So what else did Kennedy do in his transition period to warrant Trump’s comparison? He didn’t make waves, (President’s Elect usually don’t- especially when the incumbent retiring is a beloved figure as was Eisenhower and as is Obama. Yes, Republicans, Obama is beloved.)

So what could elicit the brilliant Gates to line up Donald Trump next to John F. Kennedy?

According to the article, Gates said, ““But in the same way that President Kennedy talked about the space mission and got the country behind that, I think whether it’s education or stopping epidemics … [or] in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that [Mr Trump’s] administration [is] going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation be one of the things that he gets behind.”

Original story from CNBC: here

Ahhh…. Innovation. I’ll give Gates even more help: Kennedy’s slogan was to ‘get America moving again.’ Not a far stretch from Trump’s Make America Great Again. Kennedy had a line oft-quoted, “I think we can do better.” And in his singular Kennedy drawl, the word ‘better’ was pronounced, ‘bettah.’

Bill Gates has a point. Kennedy’s youth and vigor (vigah), backed up by intelligence and focus, was indeed inspiring- and did much more for this country than land a man on the moon. Donald has an energy, perhaps if you have the determination to sift through the tweets you can find a distinct focus, and perhaps, as we have seen in the first few weeks, he will harness an ideological nation to be great again. As long as along the way, he harnesses the mantra of Thomas Jefferson that ‘We are all Republicans, We are all Democrats.’

The comparison to Kennedy is allowed. Now it’s time to back it up.

—-     —–    —–

Not so Quick History Lesson:

Before Donald Trump uttered the words, “Because you’d be in jail,” in Hillary Clinton’s direction during the second debate this year, the biggest line in Presidential Debate history was uttered by the late Lloyd Bentsen.  You may not have seen it live, as it came at the end of a very boring 90-minute debate between the unknown Bentsen and Dan Quayle, a curious choice for Vice President by then equally curious Vice President George Bush.

The backstory is legendary. On the stump, Quayle had begun making claims that he had as much experience as John Kennedy in 1960. Sure. Democrats across the nation winced every time the up and coming Quayle took the mantle of Camelot from (at that time) the last Democratic President they could rightfully quote in public. But they didn’t like it. One bit. Dan Quayle was making enemies, just trying to prove himself worthy of second in line.

As the debate neared, Lloyd Bentsen came up with a terrific one-liner to destroy Quayle and possibly derail the Bush Campaign, but only if he brought up John Kennedy. On October 5, 1988, the time was ripe for the harvest.

I watched the debate a few months ago. (I had some time to kill.) My purpose was initially to watch what happened before and after the ‘Kennedy comment.’ What, exactly, was the question, and what, exactly, was the aftermath? I remember Quayle’s shocked expression after the (brilliant and effective) comment from Bentsen, but what were the parentheses around this earth-shaking moment?

The debate in its entirety is not worth watching. But I was waiting for the Kennedy line. The first time Quayle was asked about whether he was qualified to be President came early. But oddly enough, no comparison to Kennedy by Quayle.

What? Did they edit this version of the debate?

About a half hour later, the question of experience rose again. Quayle was asked (again!) what made him qualified to be president. He seemed a bit exasperated he was being asked again the same question.

But again, the answer did not include a comparison to Kennedy.

The debate is coming to a close. The minutes tick down on YouTube. What exactly is going on? How in the world are they going to fit this in? I felt like I was watching a movie knowing the length and knowing they have a lot of loose ends to tie before the credits and are running out of time.

Then Tom Brokaw asked the question…. again. “Senator Quayle I want to go back to the question of experience.”

Now Quayle is mad. Angry. Exasperation is over. If he was not on television with millions of people watching, he might have asked Tom Brokaw just what the hell he was trying to prove.

You can tell in his answer- the choppy, determined, strict answer that James Danforth Quayle is trying not to blow up in front of the American People. And then, finally (mercifully if you are Lloyd Bentsen), he mentions John Kennedy.

And then Senator Bentsen, the twinkle in his eye, looks off in the distance as if he just thought of the one liner that did not end up killing the Bush-Quayle candidacy, “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Quayle stared straight ahead. Then, glancing at Bentsen whispered, “That was really uncalled for, Senator.”

The now second greatest line in debate history, and only slightly ahead of Reagan’s third place “There you go again,” was delivered. And it started the worst four years of a Vice President’s life ever. Honestly, until Tim Tebow became the ultimate whipping boy of ESPN, there was Dan Quayle.

Second Quicker History Lesson:

The aforementioned line by Reagan was uttered near the end of the only presidential debate of 1980, held on October 28. (Wow that’s close to the election, isn’t it?) Reagan and President Carter were even in the polls, and some point to this line as the dam breaking in Reagan’s favor.

“There you go again,” came after Carter, like Hillary tried (also unsuccessfully), to paint Reagan into a corner by telling the audience just what he (Reagan) would do as President.

Cut to 2016 and the Vice Presidential Debate. Most of the cringe-worthy moments came from Senator Tim Kaine. But smack dab in the middle- the comment that made this presidential historian wince. Governor Mike Pence looked over at Kaine and smiled, like Reagan, and said, “There you go again.”

Oh.My. Gosh.

Fortunately for Pence, the headlines that night and next morning were all about Kaine constantly interrupting and badgering like a little child in a candy store. (Anyone care to guess why he disappeared from the campaign thereafter?) Hillary Clinton has repeatedly blamed the FBI for her loss, but it was not one big moment, but a thousand little ones. And overlooked in all of the post-election analysis is the inept, bumbling, strange behavior of her VP Candidate during his debate.

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Jump Aboard the Obama Train

North Portico White House, Eric EbingerIn 1993, the bespectacled, bow tie blazing, Republican curmudgeon George Will published an essay titled, “Here Come the Eager Beavers.” And come they did, Democrats descended on the United States Capitol in droves after twelve years of Republican rule. Will, in a style only Will employs, played on the freshness of a new administration, and a new party to boot, espousing that they will try to change everything.

The title stuck with me, and every new administration brings me the same sigh. “New World Order’s” are thrown around as easily as “I’m With Her” buttons are tossed in the trash. (No, trust me, they are not going to be worth something someday. They made a trillion of them.)

With the change in carpets in the White House comes the inevitable reviews by pundits, media, and historians on the man with much more gray on his head than when he entered. The website, McClatchy DC has one of the first, “Is Obama the greatest president or worst ever?” 

Oh gosh, could we at least wait until January 21? (By the way, it’s a poll, so guess what the answer will be?)

Americans sure do love ranking things, or making them great, ‘not so great’, near great, or average. (Richard Nixon had a habit of naming his top seven Presidents, always including himself, imagine that. He also included Wilson, so here again his logic is questioned.) When people ask me who my ‘favorite’ presidents are, I make a point to add that by being ‘favorite’ I am not labeling them as ‘great.’  Take Nixon again- one of my favorite presidents because he is so very good and so very bad at the same time. But Great? With all due respect, No.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. created the Presidential Greatness Index and for a man I highly respect for a lifetime of service, I hate that he did this. To determine the ‘greats’ we have to first eliminate the faulty and the failures. That we can handle and usually all agree. But how on earth do we compare the administration of Franklin Roosevelt with the administration of James Polk? Apples and Oranges there, Arthur.

My biggest problem with the rankings is that year after year they change as if we are ranking College Football teams on the rise and fall of their records. Donald Trump has a rating system for the Obama Administration, and even that changed. I believe the word he used over a million times during the campaign was, “Disaster.” However, during the transition he is soliciting his advice on everything. Apparently, the Bushes aren’t returning phone calls, or there is a new Trump Presidential Ranking System out and he had Obama pegged wrong.

It’s difficult, premature, and ridiculous to assess the Obama Administration at its close. In 1961, Schlesinger ranked outgoing President Eisenhower 22nd out of thirty-four Chiefs. Comparatively, that makes him stink. But in the most recent poll of 2015, Eisenhower had graduated into the top ten list of our Presidents. That makes him “great.”

What gives, Arthur?

In 1961, Eisenhower was viewed as a hands-off president, out of touch and merely a figurehead. As classified memoranda, letters and files have been released over the past five decades, that view has changed. Eisenhower was Man in Charge. And a good one at that. Not sure why 1961 historians felt the man who commanded Overlord in Europe would let someone else handle the reigns of the White House, but that’s another topic altogether.

Democrats will shower President Obama with accolades he will not deserve for fifty years. In 2001, Vice President Al Gore introduced an outgoing President Bill Clinton as “The Greatest President Ever!” I am sure we will get a lot of that same sentiment and decibel level for President Obama as well. Until, like Eisenhower, the full gamut of information is released and we can non-politically assess his role.

The truth is, we don’t know. At the time (2001), Clinton could herald NAFTA as a success. Twenty-five years later, we can count the number of jobs lost to Mexico (because of it) in the hundreds of thousands. And the banking collapse of 2008 that was blamed on President Bush actually has roots in the Clinton Administration legislation of 1999 and 2000. So, Al, ‘Greatness’ is always relative.

One thing is for certain, I dare say with less than forty days to go before his presidency ends, Obama managed to skirt the Curse of the Second Term. You may be familiar with this presidential phenomenon that stretches back to President Washington. Second terms do not go well. In the 20th Century alone, Wilson encountered World War I and failed on the League of Nations, FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court and was still struggling to pull us out of the Depression, Truman went to war with Korea, Eisenhower had to send troops to a Middle School in Little Rock and was embarrassed with a U2 Spy Plane crash in The Soviet Union, Johnson’s ‘second term’ was entirely engulfed with Vietnam, Nixon (do I even have to write it?) resigned amidst a massive cover-up of Watergate, Reagan traded Arms for Hostages to Iran (a far cry from Obama just dropping millions in cash on pallets to them) and Clinton was impeached on the charges of perjury. Lastly, President Bush reacted slowly to Hurricane Katrina almost blowing New Orleans of the map, and could not show progress in the shock and awe promised to root out terrorism in the world.

Second terms do not go well. President Obama has deftly managed to escape this doom, although the cash payment to Iran would have scored massive fallout if performed in a Republican Administration. And the retaliation on police officers across this country should fall on the desk of the president, but again, somehow President Obama gets a free pass. Can you think of any other president who would accept a running message that police officers are the enemy? 

Barack Obama cannot be rated ‘great’ or anything else for at least fifty years. As we experienced with NAFTA, his ObamaCare legislation could very well leave a negative impact in the next ten to twenty years. One of a million tiny shatters in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 glass ceiling is that the weekend before the election, those insured under ObamaCare opened new bills for coverage. The premiums skyrocketed. As Obama heads for the exit lights, his signature legislation, meant to bring affordable health insurance to millions of uninsured will bankrupt families across the nation, as lost jobs to Mexico did in 2007 and 2008.

From 1961-1981, the United States experienced seven presidents, including outgoing and incoming Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan. From 1996-2016, there have been three. The stability of our nation’s leadership in longevity will be viewed a century from now as a calming period.

Let’s hope the Beavers keep the dam.

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Recap, Rutherford Hayes Library and Museum Lecture, October 30, 2016

 

Eric Ebinger presents Lecture at Rutherford Hayes Library and Museum, Oct. 30, 2016

Eric Ebinger presents Lecture at Rutherford Hayes Library and Museum, Oct. 30, 2016

Fremont, Ohio, Spiegel Grove.

The opportunity to bring my perspective on President Hayes to his official Library and Museum was a moment unlike any other in my life.

I have been enamored with Presidents since the age of eleven, with my favorites ranging from the obvious choices of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt to Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Truman. Rutherford Hayes is a relatively new favorite, and not just because of my new consolidated 211-page biography.

Hayes speaks to us in 2016 loud and clear. His thoughts on Civil Rights, Equal Rights, Corruption in Government and his peaceful arbitration of a myriad of crises that crossed his desk give us a vibrant blueprint for our modern, tragic era.

And it was an honor to bring these thoughts to life inside the First Presidential Museum in our nation’s history.

Since the book was released in June, I have traveled the state of Ohio promoting, lecturing, and (begging) audiences to take a second and third look at Hayes. During that period, I have often been mistaken as an employee of Spiegel Grove, the beautifully restored and ‘remastered’ home of Hayes in Fremont, Ohio, adjacent the Library and Museum. I teased the staff in attendance during the lecture that I have stopped correcting people on that assumption.

The film of my presentation can be found on YouTube here: [To be posted by the evening of October 31.]

To visit Spiegel Grove and the Rutherford B. Hayes Library and Museum, click here.

Eric Ebinger stands with a replica of the famous Resolute Desk, presented to President Hayes by Queen Victoria. Desk was made famous by President Kennedy and has been used by US Presidents ever since.

Eric Ebinger stands with a replica of the famous Resolute Desk, presented to President Hayes by Queen Victoria. Desk was made famous by President Kennedy and has been used by US Presidents ever since.

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Jackson vs. Hamilton… Tubman Wins!

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Last year the Obama Administration, specifically Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, announced the redesign of the ten-dollar bill. Buried in the announcement was the admission the administration would seek to replace Alexander Hamilton with someone else.

The move struck me as curious. You have to dig deep to find anything on Hamilton which deserves scorn. The financial system on which the United States was founded has Hamilton’s fingerprints all over it. Had it not been for the duel with Aaron Burr who killed Hamilton at the age of forty-nine, it is possible Hamilton might have, with a change of party, run for and been elected President of the United States.

The announcement from inside the Treasury Building, adorned with Hamilton’s statue facing the Washington Monument, was met with immediate opposition. And each argument presented asked the Secretary to consider walking from the south end of the Treasury building where Hamilton oversees the landscape- to the other- to the president memorialized with a statue in the middle of Lafayette Park.

Mounted on his horse in a triumphant pose, hand outstretched, face looking west toward the Appalachians, is Andrew Jackson.

The monument, erected in the 1840’s, is a tribute to the seventh President. Jackson has enjoyed widespread popularity from the moment he saved New Orleans from British capture in the War of 1812. Hailing from Tennessee, he served in the House and Senate and was elected president in 1828 after an unsuccessful attempt in 1824.

A few anecdotes which endeared him to the people: He opened the doors of the President’s House for parties which became legendarily rowdy. And he was almost killed when a man stopped him on the stairs of the Executive Mansion and shot one pistol which misfired, then revealed another that misfired also. He entered office a legend, and during the next eight years it only grew.

The argument to keep Hamilton, the founder of the United States Treasury, among many other popular legacies, was pitted against the argument to instead remove Jackson- a slave owner and architect of the Indian Removal Policy, a hideous transport of Native Americans in a continuous, brutal shove from their native lands across the entire span of the continent.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton has won.

The Treasury Secretary announced this week he has withdrawn his plan to remove Hamilton- or combine Hamilton with another American- and instead remove Jackson. The nation has cheered the announcement, not just because Hamilton is now a Broadway star and enjoying a resurgence of popularity, but because we are uncomfortable with the honor afforded Jackson, a man whose treatment of minorities is so far out of line with the intent of the Constitution we are left scratching our heads at why Jackson was still there in the first place.

I agree with removing Jackson. And I am very happy with the choice of Harriet Tubman to replace him. We have for far too long ignored the brave women in our country who have moved us closer to Jefferson’s creed that we were all created equal. Tubman was as important to the advancement of the rights of African Americans as Abraham Lincoln. Her story desperately needs to be told and her life desperately needs to be appropriately honored.

(Personally, I was hoping for Rosa Parks. She also has a singular “American” story. Imagine a woman standing up for her rights by sitting down.)

Although I applaud the promotion of Tubman, I hope this does not create an avalanche on President Jackson. We do not need to remove statues and erase history books. We do, however, need to place him in the proper context. All our presidents have done great things, and terrible things that have been either a reflection of their times or a personal vendetta.

Replacing Jackson is not due to his legacy ending, but because it was finally time for Tubman’s to start.

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Mount Vernon Mourns

George Washington was not supposed to die.  Not because the Father of Our Country and arguably the nation’s greatest president was intending to live forever, espousing the virtues of the Republic and aging gracefully at the same time as the country he led in War and Peace.  No, he was not supposed to die in December, 1799.

George Washington walked away from the Presidency on March 4, 1797.  His successor, John Adams, had won a close election over Thomas Jefferson.  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Aaron Burr, John Hancock, John Jay and at times LaFayette himself were still mulling around New York City, in charge of the fledgling nation, and all very anxious to keep the momentum rolling after eight formative, desperate, but successful years of the first president.

George Washington, on the other hand, was anxious to get back to Mount Vernon.  He had almost (almost!) declined the Presidency in 1789 just to stay on the 8,000 acre farm nestled on the banks of the Potomac upriver 100 miles from the Chesapeake Bay.  The property was his solace, his heaven, his complete joy.  The livestock, the fields, yes, the slaves, the family, and the children.  Mount Vernon, it is sometimes hard for people to admit, was ultimately more important for Washington than the country who would honor him with a capital city bearing his name.

That Capital City, now pulsating just sixteen miles to the north of George Washington’s beloved estate, connected by a rolling, curving Parkway also bearing his name, brings neighbors and tourists to the front door of the President, beckoning seekers from all across the United States and World beyond to study and reflect on his life, walking in his footsteps, breathing the same air, enjoying the same views, even, enduring the same weather.

It was not as cold on December 13, 2015 as it was 216 years earlier.  The abnormally warm air caused visitors to leave coats at home, even as the afternoon slipped into evening and dusk fell.  The date in 2015 matched the date in 1799 that Washington set out for an afternoon tour of his property, checking, monitoring, and making his presence known.  The first president of the United States and arguably the world’s most important person was not above the hard work that accompanied Virginia’s largest farm operation.

He was also not above doing it in the middle of December in a cold, dampening, soaking rain.

The Official Mourning Card

The Official Mourning Card

Today, guests of Mount Vernon, specifically Dr. David Stuart, have come to pay their respects to the family of the President.  Walking by candle light up the round pathway next to the bowling green of Mount Vernon, guests stop to listen and reflect on the night Washington, ever the punctual, debonair, manner-minded sage of Mount Vernon, opted against changing out of his damp frigid coat so that dinner could begin on time.  Washington, it was well known, followed a strict schedule but was also mindful of guests and hated keeping anyone waiting.  He politely refused to take the time to change.  His family and servants, it was also well known, were not going to pressure him otherwise.

And so they ate.  And we, as guests of the mourning family and staff, walked up to the house.  Mount Vernon is not usually open after 5:00 P.M.  The experience of walking up to the back door of the General’s house is much like
walking up to the back door of a neighbor.  You wait to enter, watch your step on the porch, and are quietly mindful of the surroundings.

Inside the house, Washington’s secretary is reading aloud his letter to President Adams. The dinner lasted a long time. Too long for Washington to sit in his damp coat.  He caught a chill and not more than forty-eight hours later was gone.  Mr. Lear is upset.  It was not supposed to happen this way.  Washington was strong, top of his form. He was checking on his animals and grounds and staff, for goodness sake!  This was not a dying man!

Guests walk through the back of the house, up the stairs to the room frequent visitors already know is the room where Washington passed.  A servant is outside, coming to grips with cleaning the bedding and preparing the house for the mourning period.  She mentions Martha.  The President’s wife would never go back in the room again, perhaps as if to leave the painful memory inside and focus on the bright moments out.

Down the hall, guests encounter another servant, in the middle of preparing the family crest for hanging.  Wrapped in the painful experience of the past twenty four hours, the servant was in the room during the last moments of Washington’s life. Stricken with that memory was not enough, as he repeated shockingly that Washington spent the last few sentences of his long illustrious career asking him to sit down.

Washington's Bedroom window

Washington’s Bedroom window

Servants did not sit down in the presence of George Washington. The President, the General as he preferred to be called, was a man whose countenance demanded respect.  Very few words needed spoken, the man was every inch a proper, distinguished Virginia gentleman. He commanded attention and respect with the legacy of his life, and the honor which he carried his name.

George Washington was not supposed to die in December of 1799.  It was a long afternoon touring the grounds of his property.  He did it, without question, all the time.

Guests are next led into the dining room, met first with a somber, devastated Martha Washington, clutching a letter he wrote to her during the Revolution. Beside her, the casket- the casket bearing the body of her husband, who seventy two hours earlier was virile and majestic, making plans with his friends for the new century about to dawn.

Amidst her grief, she reads the letter, a stark reminder and comforting voice of his undying love for her.

To guests in 2015, the death of George Washington taught in the history books is one of natural causes for an old man at the end of the eighteenth century.  As is always the case with the pages of a history book over two hundred years old, death is expected, controlled, recorded and forgotten with the turn of the next page, the next century, the next president.

To the mourners of Mount Vernon on a warm December evening in 2015, the death of George Washington is as sudden and real as his wife’s painful tears.  George Washington was not supposed to die in December of 1799. There was so much yet to do.

Washington's Tomb

Washington’s Tomb

Guests of Dr. Stuart take the walk to the west and the tomb which bears the remains of Washington.  Veterans of our wars are chosen to lay a special wreath in the candle-lit tomb.  They salute the Star Spangled Banner.  The cold, white marble of the sarcophagus of Washington lays silent in the tomb.  The words of Henry Lee ring through the dark evening, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

And we exit in silence.

I was privileged to attend the special event, Mount Vernon Mourns on December 13, 2015.  From the moment we walked in the door of the Visitor Center, the staff of Mount Vernon matched the significance of the moment with the little things that make such an experience come to life.  Black arm bands were handed out, tours guided by candle-lit lanterns, tour guide spoke in respectful and thoughtful tone, re-enactors were wrought with grief.  The tour (as is Mount Vernon everyday) was a constant, vivid reminder that at one time, Washington was a living breathing man, with work to do when he rose in the morning, with the needs of his staff and servants to look after, with family to raise and nurture, with a property to maintain, with bills to pay and a legacy to protect.

At the end of the event, as we were served cookies and warm apple cider while accompanied with a beautiful string duo, we were asked to place our arm bands in one of three glass boxes.  Each box symbolized a word for our experience: Informative, Patriotic, or Sad.  I chose the sad box.  The experience touched me as if I were actually a guest of Dr. David Stuart.  I was moved, perhaps as a neighbor or family friend would have been, experiencing the mourning period of a house like Mount Vernon, for a man like Washington, only days after the Greatest Living American passed away. 

Mount Vernon, through the tireless (and amazing) effort and guidance of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, presents the gift of this house to those who walk through the door with the most pleasant and effective historical presentations of their kind.

History can sometimes be dismissed because, as silly as it sounds, we know what happened.  But there is great joy in the study of what happened before, if we allow ourselves to be moved, perhaps, by a man and his property, on a cold, rainy, windy afternoon, and mourn the tragic loss with the rest of the house.

Mount Vernon is the home of General and President George Washington. Grounds are specifically restored to the time of Washington. Guests can tour the house and grounds but also view the seasonal gardens, experience real livestock on the property, enjoy a cruise on the Potomac from Washington’s wharf, learn about the life of slaves and tour a magnificent museum filled with artifacts from Washington’s life not displayed in the house.  

To make plans to visit Mount Vernon, please visit their website:  George Washington’s Mount Vernon

They are currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign to restore the Cupola of the Mansion House, please thoughtfully consider a donation.  Donate to Mount Vernon.

Eric Ebinger at Mount Vernon, December 13, 2015

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