Sunday, November 6, 2011

When They Liked Ike

Americans are a puzzling bunch.

They can be hopelessly nostalgic, yearning for the simplicity of the past, yet demanding and unforgiving when things don't happen as quickly as they would like, ignoring completely the fact that speed is often achieved at the expense of other things.

It is a lesson that history has taught us repeatedly, but each generation seems intent upon re–learning it, and modern presidents are often the whipping boys, deservedly or not.

Since the midway point of the 20th century, nine different men have been elected president and only five have been re–elected.

One (John F. Kennedy) was assassinated before he could seek a second term so I suppose he really doesn't count. His successor (Lyndon Johnson) served less than a year before winning a full term on his own, but, although he could have sought a second term, he was so unpopular that he chose not to.

Another (Gerald Ford) was never elected; he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency and then became president when the duly elected president resigned. When he ran for president 35 years ago, it was for the first time — even though he had been president for more than two years.

But even when you allow for those exceptions, America still has seen — in my lifetime — three sitting presidents (including the unelected Ford) who asked voters for four–year terms and were refused.

Such a thing was practically unheard–of for people of my parents' and grandparents' generations.

Of course, before 1950, one man (Franklin Roosevelt) was elected four times. And my grandparents were old enough to remember Woodrow Wilson, who was narrowly re–elected in large part because he had kept America out of war — only to be sucked in to World War I the following year.

A third president, William McKinley, was re–elected in 1900 but was assassinated the following year.

In the first half of the 20th century, two presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge) decided not to run a second time, and one (Warren Harding) died before he could make the decision.

Two sitting presidents were refused re–election in the first half of the 20th century, and there were extenuating circumstances for each. One (William Howard Taft) didn't like the job and, from the accounts I have read of his re–election campaign in 1912, didn't make much of an effort to keep it. The other (Herbert Hoover) had presided over the start of the Great Depression.

Otherwise, the American people seemed willing, if not eager, to renew a president's contract in the first half of the 20th century. They just didn't always have the opportunity to do so.

Times change, of course, but I think it is fair to conclude that modern Americans have grown impatient. Perhaps it is due, to a certain degree, to the instantaneous nature of modern society.

When I was a child, it was a given that just about anything that was worth doing or worth having would take some time as well as an investment of money. Somehow, though, the investment of time seemed to make the achievement that much more special and valuable.

For instance, when I became old enough to receive an allowance and start making money decisions for myself instead of asking my parents for things I wanted, I had to start making decisions, when appropriate, to hold on to my money and accumulate it for larger purchases.

And sometimes I had to make sacrifices. I remember once in the late spring, when I was perhaps 9 or 10, and the neighborhood kids and I were idly tossing small rocks at the roof of my house, trying to get them to land on the roof and stay there.

Why were we doing that? I haven't a clue. Why do kids do anything?

My house was a two–story building, and it took considerable effort for a 9– or 10–year–old to heave even a small rock as high as our roof.

I remember throwing one as hard as I could — and hearing a sickening "cra–a–a–ack!" as it struck the window in my parents' bedroom.

My father came rushing out the front door minutes later, demanding to know what had happened. We were all too stunned by what had happened, I guess, to make up an alternative story, and the truth came tumbling out.

I was told that I would not receive my allowance until a new window had been paid for. As I recall, the window cost $3, which doesn't seem like very much now, but it represented a summer's worth of allowance money for me at the time. I wasn't able to buy baseball cards all summer.

When the window was paid for and I began receiving my weekly quarter again, I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment. In many ways, the time I had sacrificed in pursuit of this goal was as significant to me as the money itself.

When I was in college and I was working on a research paper, I had to spend hours, if not days, in the library, following leads that might or might not contribute much to my paper. A "term paper" was frequently descriptive — the work often did take an entire term to complete.

The same research, in the internet age, can be done in minutes.

Things are different today. We eat pre–cooked meals that we heat in microwaves, or pick up fast, artery–clogging food on the run. We record TV programs and watch them at times that are convenient to us instead of sharing the experience with millions at the same time. We take pills if we have even a slight pain or if sleep doesn't come to us right away.

We are a highly fragmented culture, obsessed with ourselves as individuals and our needs. It really isn't surprising that the names of some of the more popular magazines in the United States focus on the individual or small groups — i.e., Self, Us, etc.

The people of my parents' day became known as "the Greatest Generation" because of their dedication to long–term group goals and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other.

My generation was more self–centered, and it seems to have become easier to exist in that mode as time has passed. I've noticed that the people who have come along since my generation are even more prone to this kind of behavior.

We want what we want when we want it.

That's what makes what happened on this day in 1956 so intriguing for historians.

It may well have been the last time a president was elected almost entirely according to the standards that motivated the "Greatest Generation." Dwight Eisenhower, who was re–elected president 55 years ago today, had no political background when he ran for president the first time. He'd been an Army man most of his life, and he was in charge of the "Greatest Generation" when it stood up to the Germans, Italians and Japanese.

It probably didn't require much effort on the people of that time who had entrusted their lives and futures to Eisenhower to trust Ike with the presidency as well.

In many ways, it is the world of the 1950s to which people have been trying to return ever since. It was a world before my time so I can't say whether life was preferable then or whether the leaders of that time were more successful at selling the concept to people as the way things should be.

My thoughts are that it was a time like any other time. There were new and seemingly miraculous inventions, and there were the almost constant growing pains of an evolving culture. The civil rights movement was beginning to blossom, which meant white America had to start coming to terms with its racial past.

And there was a nuclear tension between the superpowers. Of course, terrorism was not part of the equation then — so I guess that's kind of a wash.

I remember, though, when the Happy Days show was on the air, and some of the kids in my class asked one of our teachers if the 1950s really had been "happy days."

He pondered the question for a minute, smiled, shook his head and said, "No."

I guess it's really all a matter of perspective. When Happy Days was on the air, I knew many people who would watch it and tell you, wistfully, that the 1950s really were happy days.

Those times would seem primitive — no cell phones, no computers, no cable TV — and hopelessly naive — no security procedures to speak of in most airports, even in the largest cities — to 21st century Americans if they could go back in time like Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future."

But, from what I have read, the Eisenhower years were a time when Americans felt they had a paternal role model in the White House, a kindly father figure who could be trusted.

With the possible exception of the Reagan years (which is kind of ironic in itself), there has been no period like it in my memory.

Was it better? Was it happier? Who knows?

But that hasn't kept Americans from pursuing it, anyway.

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