Three Presidents

Three Presidents

Sometimes things don’t work out as people expect. This statement is true across all walks of life and throughout human history. In politics we often hear of unintended consequences. Whenever a law is passed to prevent something, it can lead to other activities which the authors didn’t imagine. For instance, a heavy tax on tobacco products has been known to contribute to food insecurity among certain segments of the population. Another example would be how legalizing gambling to fund programs for the lower classes can lead to those groups having less money. In this essay I will explore how three individuals rose to the Presidency but did not govern in ways that their past suggested.

Before we go on, it is important to note that most of the time Presidents govern exactly as we expect. Franklin Roosevelt ruled as a revolutionary liberal, Ronald Reagan governed from the hard right, and Barack Obama emphasized and stressed rights for minorities. These three, and most others, did pretty much what they said they would and what the commentators predicted beforehand. However, in some cases we get a curve ball or at least something slightly different from what was envisioned.

U. S. Grant was one of the great military men in American history. He was the driving force that helped guide the Union to victory in the Civil War. Prior to becoming President, he was what one would label as apolitical. If he had any particular ideology, few knew what it was. In fact, he had close personal relationships with some who fought for the Confederacy. One such friend was Simon Bolivar Buckner. A few years before the war, Grant was broke and in need of money. Buckner provided him with what some historian have described as a life saving loan. During the war, Grant and Buckner were on opposite sides in the Battle of Fort Donelson. Grant cut Buckner no slack in this engagement, but this was not surprising since war, after all, is war.

When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Grant extended generous terms to the Confederates. Later he was on good terms with President Andrew Johnson, a man the Radical Republicans loved to hate and hated to love. Grant turned against Johnson when the President’s star faded, and he became the darling of the Radicals. When the general was elected President, he became the most liberal Presidents we had up to that point in time with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. His liberal policies included the Radical Reconstruction program toward the South, advocacy of women’s rights, humane treatment of the Indians, protection of Jewish rights in foreign countries, appointment of Jews to high positions in the federal government, and an attempt to block any religious instruction in public schools. We may agree with what he did or disagree, but there is no doubt that his agenda was liberalism.

Lyndon Johnson was never an advocate of conservatism, but he was on good terms with some of its leaders. One of his best friends in the Senate was Richard Russell. Russell was a segregationist from Georgia who was the recognized leader of the conservative coalition in Congress. Johnson was a protégé of Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn was a partisan democrat but in no way a flaming liberal. During Johnson’s time as majority leader of the Senate, he was known as a moderate who often sought compromise on critical issues of the day.

John F. Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate in 1960 to balance the ticket ideologically and geographically. Kennedy was from the northeast; Johnson resided in the southwest. Kennedy was liberal; Johnson was less so. When Kennedy was assassinated, liberals thought all was lost. They expected the new President to reverse many of Kennedy’s policies, and they were wary of his chances to win the next Presidential election.

The skeptics could never have been more wrong. Johnson presided over the landmark Civil Right Bill of 1964 and won a massive landslide election in the same year. In 1965 he pushed through the Voting Rights Bill and then embarked on the most liberal domestic program (the Great Society) since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The program included everything from Medicaid to food stamps to job training to regional development to enhanced urban renewal to Head Start and was designed to wipe out poverty in the United States. Had it not been for the Vietnam War and his lack of charisma, he would have gone down as a greater liberal icon than FDR or JFK.

In 1973 Joe Biden became the youngest elected senator in American history. He served in the “august” body until 2008 when he was elected as Barack Obama’s Vice President. As a senator he was known as a moderate who was on friendly terms with Strom Thurmond and other southern segregationists. He opposed school busing and was generally against abortion on demand. Biden was also on friendly term with Republican Mitch McConnell, a right of center senator from Kentucky. He was so close to McConnell that he was often referred to as ‘McConnell’s Whisperer.’

His selection as Vice President by Obama was obviously an attempt to balance the ticket from an ideological, experience, and age standpoint. The only things he did worthy of note during the Obama years was to oppose the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden and to lead the administration’s charge to promote gay marriage. Apparently thinking he was too old and too much of a moderate lightweight, the Obama team passed him over as a Presidential candidate in 2016 in favor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

When Biden challenged President Donald Trump in 2020, he did so as a moderate who would restore sanity and promote unity in America. After taking office he proceeded to trash Trump supporters as white supremacists, declare war on fossil fuels, and advance what the media referred to as the Green New Deal. As U. S. Grant had allowed the Radical Republicans to run the country, Biden gave way to the more extreme elements in his party. This is seen in his rhetoric from gun control to abortion to the Senate filibuster to court packing. Unlike Grant and Johnson, he hasn’t been quite as successful due to the lack of votes in the senate. He is like them in spirit, and only time will tell if he joins them in achieving political victories.

I received a bachelors degree in 1967 and a masters degree in 1971 from Western Kentucky University. I taught school for 44 years. One year was spent at Fordsville High School, 17 at Ohio County High School, and 26 at Trinity High School in Whitesville. The subjects I taught were government, history, and English. At Trinity I also served as coach, athletic director, and dean of students. I fancy myself a fairly good writer, and my main interests are sports and politics.

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