One of the early political lessons I learned from my dad was this evaluation of presidents: "Franklin Roosevelt showed us that an individual could be president for life; Harry Truman that anyone could be president; Dwight Eisenhower that we may not really need one; and several others that we might be better off without one." I have searched high and low for the author of that quote and, finding none, I have concluded that my politically astute father may have been the originator.
I bring this up neither to denigrate nor to cast doubt on our leaders but rather to identify some of the characteristics of that office and an understanding of the leadership requirements in driving the ship of state. In his presidency, FDR did institute a "welfare state" mentality, one which has flourished among the proponents of the "your government knows best" philosophy, robbing many of any sense of responsibility or obligation. Nevertheless, Roosevelt proved to be a bold, intuitive and resourceful president who guided us and the rest of the world to victory in World War II.
Harry Truman, thrust into office after FDR's death, was an unassuming and relatively unknown Missouri senator. He had but a high school diploma and was the fourth choice of the state Democratic machine to run for that office in 1934. When informed he was FDR's choice for vice president after Henry Wallace was dumped from the ticket, he responded in his soon-to-be-recognized rhetoric, "Hell with him, I am supporting Jimmy Byrnes."
His reluctance notwithstanding, this erstwhile "political nobody" became our 33rd president and was the epitome of decisiveness, courage, responsibility and plain spoken rhetoric — a true man of the people. Similar to President Bush in approval rating (a high of 92 and a low of 19 percent), Truman's popularity approval vacillated from 87 percent in 1945 to 22 percent in 1951 during the Korean War. He will always be remembered for his rare courage in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unpopular but necessary firing of General MacArthur, his unwavering pursuit of victory in Korea and his unerring "the buck stops here" sense of responsibility.
President Eisenhower, in office from 1952 to 1960, had the good fortune to preside over a period of relative peace and prosperity and had the good judgment to recognize it — accordingly, he governed with a light hand. His legacy was the Interstate Highway System that made coast-to-coast and border-to-border travel a pleasant reality. Paralleling Ike's political acumen in avoidance of fixing something not broken was that of President Clinton. While hardly a paragon of character or of integrity, Mr. Clinton also possessed the keen political insight to keep the train on track by merely oiling the wheels as opposed to an engine overhaul.
Arguably, in my memory, the president we may have been better off without was Mr. Carter, but that is water under the bridge. The qualities that one should consider in choosing the best qualified candidate are his perceived capacity to act firmly and decisively in time of domestic or foreign crises and to recognize the difference between crisis and routine. Leadership and courage are traits indispensable for president and commander in chief.
Campaign rhetoric and promises are designed to frighten or to reassure, but typically, provide more entertainment than substance. Every four years, as regularly as clockwork, the opposing candidates decry negative campaigning and mudslinging, each accusing the other of the most egregious and untrue attacks. Senators Obama and McCain are not appreciably different in this respect from previous office seekers — is anyone so naive as to expect opponents to campaign for one another?
The sincerity of their promises to the contrary, neither candidate will rid the government of evil lobbyists, create jobs, hire more teachers, provide universal health care, end dependence on petroleum products, tax our way out of debt or personally roust Osama bin Ladin from his cave. The president is responsible to the people for enforcing the laws, conducting foreign policy, protecting our shores in his capacity as commander in chief and providing policy guidance to the legislature. In short, the presidency is an action position as opposed to a debating society or committee activity.
Either candidate is eligible by constitutional standard and both are also presumed honest and sincere. To determine which possesses the decisive leadership traits is not cut and dried as both are senators with limited executive experience. Nevertheless, investigation of Obama's voting record in the Illinois Senate is an indicator — his propensity for voting "present" on legislation is hardly an endorsement of his resolute decisiveness.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.