GEORGE SKADDING / Time-Life Pictures / Getty Images
Franklin Roosevelt, left, and Harry Truman, shown here in 1944, had little to do with each other in the White House—which meant that Truman took office in April, 1945 with very little preparation. “I’m not big enough,” Truman said to a Senate friend the day after Roosevelt died. “I’m not big enough for this job.” Which is one reason he would reach out to an unlikely ally for help.
Paterfamilias~~Frank Roosevelt, left, having a word with the world, as his understudy and shortly, his successor, Mr. Truman, waits in the wings. I knew FDR only by ferocious family anecdote and rapacious reading, but from my later studies of Frank~~I wrote this of him while I was at seminary school~~
~~”Frank Roosevelt had a heart as cold as glacial ice and a soul as black as pitch. Frank Roosevelt was the greatest politician on a retail level in American history and very likely any other history.”~~
John Daniel Begg, 1966, Letters to Myself
I suppose I was bred and born at Washington for a reason~~I can’t think what that reason is other than it cannot be polite~~but I do remember a dozen Presidents~~some fairly well~~and have this to say of them now~
As the sun sinks now low over the yard arm, I have been asked by friends to recollect that I have been contemporaneous with more than one-quarter of the Presidents, and I’ve had a hawk~eyed perch from which to watch them and that it is now time to give my impressions of these men~~comme ca~~
So as to afford no one man undue advantage, or harm, all of these brief expositions and one-word descriptives are here accompanied by photographs taken for Time, Life and related magazine and other major press outlets of good repute~~publications I thank for providing these snaps~~
I am very often asked, as accident of birth placed me at this city many years ago~~dead into the swim of politics~~ what traits all politicians I have known or read about share, yet, absent ambition, I can’t think any one trait shared by all these men~~and, as we shall see, a number lacked even that characteristic.
I will go in order here, from my birth, and give a snap and a one-word descriptive followed by a brief exposition~
Harry S. Truman~
~~He’d a middle initial~~ S~~ which did not stand for any middle name~~a tradition in his day of the middle western states from whence he came to us~
IN ONE WORD~~Retired
I was born only a year and a few days when Mr. Truman left office. I’ve no memory of him personally but if I had to tell him something, I would say that double breasted suits can be very tricky. Only tall and lean mean wear double breasted suits to their advantage~~Mr. Truman was of a boxy build and he didn’t belong in DBs~~I have noted that Truman was the last President to wear double breasted suits~~I flatter myself that his successors were attending to my sartorial advice even from my crib~~yet I know otherwise~~as, if there is a fashion grave yard~~it is at Washington. Mr. Truman has a pleasant enough smile on the news reels and I suppose he tried his best at a job, he was humble enough a man to concede, he was not tailored for.~~
Ike Eisenhower: Dwight D. Eisenhower was born on October 14, 1890 in Denison, Texas. (Photo Credit: CORBIS)
IN ONE WORD: Cunning
I met Dwight D. Eisenhower on the evening of his second inauguration in 1957. Told by my uncles to call him “General, as he is more proud of having beaten Hitler than in being President,” I proceeded to say just that. There is a picture of me shaking his hand~~myself in short pants and tuxedo jacket~~shaking his hand and saying, again via family anecdote, “Good evening General, congratulations on having beaten Mr. Hitler. I apologize for having missed your first dance as I was but a few weeks old.” I am told he and Mamie and all around laughed at this. I remember it though a cloudy glass now~~made~~mostly anecdotal. Ike was far, far from the harmless, cuddly grandpa that was sold the public. He had razor-sharp political instincts and an iron will. He was a leader.
Cigar, May 11, 1963 Taking a smoking break at Hyannis Port, Mass.
Cecil W. Stoughton / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Read more: http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2030983,00.html#ixzz2XkLgrGyL
John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963)
IN ONE WORD: Intellectual
Most unlike Senator Lloyd Millard Bentsen, Jr., I actually did know Jack. When he was a Senator in city, I was already irremediably deep in the “swim” of Washington. I liked Jack very much. He was kind to take the time to be friendly and talkative to a boy far too young to ever be able to vote for him~~and a boy from a family so blatantly, and actively, on the other side of the political ball field from his own. He was very interested in ideas. We spoke about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 and how outraged~~at age 4~~I’d been that the Americans left the Hungarian freedom fighters hanging. Jack said he agreed that we encouraged the uprising and then abandoned the fighters. Politics is a very peculiar sport. Jack was sold to the public as a too pretty to believe paragon of virility, home and hearth. He in fact was very frail and sickly throughout all his life~~and in great pain. He was terribly shy and was forced to stand for politics only following the death at war of his older brother. He was socially hesitant~~his money was so new and so audaciously acquired that I always felt, while watching him, that he was starring in his own home movie of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme~~trying too very hard to guess how rich people behave. I admired his mind and his intellectual curiosity. I think he is the only truly intellectually curious President I’ve known or ever read about, save, perhaps, Mr Jefferson–about whom Jack and I spoke and for whom there was, for both of us, great admiration.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (August 27, 1908 – January 22, 1973)
IN ONE WORD: Alcoholic
Alcoholic. Bullying. Loud. Pretentious. Nagging. Vulgar. Self-Loathing. There were two occasions when I was in his office~~when my family was needed to work some fix or the other on the Hill from our side. I remember saying to Uncle Richard~~on leaving the second meeting~~”If I never see him again, it’ll be soon enough.” I recall a subsequent discussion about drinking years later with President Reagan which was both frank and illuminating. I told President Reagan, on being asked it, that the most useful lesson I’d taken from university was from Father Joseph Moody~~in God Jesus’ Hands Now Above~~”more great men are ruined by that bottle than by any other single thing on this earth.” Reagan agreed and well he knew~~his own father and many, many of his Hollywood friends died from that bottle. President Johnson was leading a nation at war and, by all accounts I’ve ever heard, from friend and foe alike, he was never, ever, sober. Ever.
With the Boss at Camp David~~Ike and Nixon, 1958
Richard Milhous Nixon (January 9, 1913 – April 22, 1994)
IN ONE WORD: Studious
We knew Dick Nixon since before forever. His family was 8 years one block over and one block down from the house in which this note is now penned. He, like Jack, took an interest in what a kid had to say. The sorrow of Nixon was his being Nixon. Had he not been, he very likely would have been listed as one of the all-time great Presidents. But, of course, he was Nixon. And that, was that. Dick Nixon feared only one man in American politics~~George Wallace~~in whose eyes, Nixon saw the frightening glint of the people~~a nightmarish sight for any politician at this city~~and, when Nixon saw that glint~~he was deathly afraid. I remember standing on the White House porch with him on a State visit from the Emperor of Persia. Uncle Richard nudged me and said “say something to His Majesty–where are your manners?” I turned to Mohammad Rezā and said “what a great jacket”~~ Mohammad Rezā was all done up in a Royal Blue dress military jacket~~really a swell jacket~~in particular for this city~~ and at first, when I said this to him, Uncle Richard and Nixon and his men looked alarmed but the Emperor smiled at me, laughed and, pointing at the traffic going by the fence said “the absolutely worse use of petroleum I can ever imagine.” No President I met or knew of worked harder than did Nixon–he was incredibly studious–but–in the end~~very sadly~~as LBJ had his bottle, so Nixon, who also took up that bottle when the going got rough, had himself~~and died because of it. I wonder that, if even now, in death, it has ever dawned upon him that Jack was far, far more class-concerned, timid, and socially maladroit than was Nixon–had he known that, might it have changed things~~as with life generally, post-mortem “what ifs,” are foolish and useless chatter. Even still~~Still~~what if?
Gerald R. Ford being sworn in as U.S. President, August 9, 1974.
Gerald Rudolph “Jerry” Ford, Jr. (born Leslie Lynch King, Jr.; July 14, 1913 – December 26, 2006)
ONE WORD: Competent
President Ford~~The man Uncle Richard called the “Roger Eugene Maris” of our enterprise at this city~~the man forever with an asterisk after his name as the only non-elected President in history, was a very knowledgeable and likeable guy. As he spent most of his career in Congress golfing on Burning Tree, I saw him quite regularly, in summer, often on a daily basis. He was perhaps the best-read politician I ever met~~at least as to current events. Since his time at Yale, he devoured newspapers and was truly up on things. What I remember most is his saying to me on the links of Burning Tree~~likely dozens of times~~”Beggs~~what would you say is the very best political job at Washington?” “I don’t know, Sir.” “Well, Beggs, I’ll tell you~~The minority leader of the Lower House–the best job ever~~there’s nothing to do there you see~~you walk out, vote against the majority, get shut down and head to the club room or The Burning Tree~~there simply isn’t much to do, you see, Beggs?” “And, of course when I go home, I just tell the people~~ “Well. we just need to elect more Republicans and then we’ll be in the majority–but I don’t really want that–that is a helluva rough job~~Speaker of the House.” I very much liked President Ford for his competence, candor and above all else, for not taking himself too bloody seriously.
President Jimmy Carter addresses a Joint Session of Congress, announcing the results of the Camp David Accords, with Vice President Walter Mondale and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill seated behind him~~
Warren K. Leffler~~US News and World Report
James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr. (born October 1, 1924)
IN ONE WORD: Consequences
Apologists for James Earl~~there aren’t many~~ will say that his life after leaving office is an example to all about how to live a Christ-like life. I am Catholic and not Southern Baptist and if one were to endeavor to know James Earl one must know what a Southern Baptist is~~and if you don’t know what that is~~stay, my dears, forever in the dark. It may be that he is now Mother Theresa come again, but we know James Earl for his being President~~and that is no heavenly thought. Had James Earl wanted to help out, he could have simply become a social worker a great deal earlier and spared the rest of us the agony of the Consequences of Watergate. For that is what Carter was~~A consequence–Watergate was a tumultuous series of mistakes~~Carter was an absurdist, historically accidental, consequence of those mistakes. Inside baseball~~Carter considered himself an irresistible lady-killer. Hilariously~~But~~Truly. His was an, overweening, vanity and conceit about his hair and general appearance. Short guy complex, Nana maternal used to call it. Consequences, my dears. Dire, dire consequences. I have tried in this little notebook to be kind in some way to all the Presidents, and not petty, as there is good and bad in all men to be sure. But I have on good authority that Carter was savagely and deliberately cruel to his servants and retainers. That behaviour is unforgiveable. Von Goethe wrote to us long ago that “no man is a hero to his valet”~~and that may be true~~but some men are far less heroic to their valets than are others–in that light, Carter was an abrogate failure as a man. Nana Maternal always said “you can take the true measure of a man by observing how he treats his servants.” I agree with Nana and I do not excuse ill-treatment of servants and subordinates. I am very sorry. I cannot do.
|Permission (Reusing this file)||Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library|
IN ONE WORD: Kindheartedness
So many laudatory things have been written about President Reagan by others that I will simply say here that the character trait he best exemplified of which I made personal note of was his kindheartedness. This attribute was best dramatized by his personal correspondence. All Presidents write letters to American citizens who’ve written them for various reasons that are hand selected by staff for response. Most are composed and auto-penned out at lowly clerical level and never seen by the President. President Reagan took pains to write his notes personally, by hand and the subjects addressed were of many different kinds~~often very intimate and touching upon the long nights of the soul through which we are all destined to eventually go. He cared for people and was fascinated by them~~on a personal, one-on-one basis. Often, he would put a bit of money in the envelope to a writer who was down on his luck~~designed to accompany his note of encouragement. He was a gentleman~~in the purest sense of that term. Sui Generis. He broke the mold. The mold is broken. He was a great leader to be sure~~but all that sort has been covered by others many times in other venues. I remember what might strike the reader as a comparatively small matter~~I remember President Reagan’s kindheartedness. That trait was twin brother to his boundless optimism and both were very real and visceral and they resonated with people directly, tangibly, personally. He and I were of like mind that charity–caring for one’s fellow man~~is one’s personal responsibility~~not to be fobbed off on the government or the Church~~he believed as do I~~that caring for the sad, the poor, the misbegotten, is one’s personal responsibility and, in sharing that belief, he is a most fond memory. He was inspirational. Simply. Inspirational.
George H. Bush, age 13, at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. 1937. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)
(Not for One’s Self)
Finis Origine Pendet
(The End Depends Upon the Beginning)
Mottoes of old PA
IN ONE WORD: Oblige
Nobility obliges~~might strike the current ear as either quaint or lacking in meaning altogether. And that is not for the better, but rather for the poorer, for all of us. George Herbert Walker Bush took to heart and took to high office a sense of DUTY~~that, from itself, emanates from the proper notion of noblesse oblige. As an aside, King George died shortly after my birth and Queen Elizabeth has repeatedly mentioned that her Father schooled her principally as to Her DUTY. Queen has performed Her DUTY admirably and without any trace of scandal or personal aggrandizement in the intervening 61 years. She is, truly, an admirable figure. So, too, George Herbert Walker Bush, took his sense of duty, of giving back to the nation that had given him such great advantage, very, very seriously. It has been said of him and it is true that he is the only President, save perhaps some of the men who were here at the foundation, who was “born to be President.” And, so he was. The PA world that so formed and likewise so suited President Bush arguably doesn’t exist anymore. Life is all Helter-skelter and we are not better men for that~~but~~well then~~there it is. The world lacks for order and constancy~~and selfless duty. George Herbert Walker Bush did not inspire in people love and affection in the way that President Reagan did~~but of course he was a very different sort of man. And, he was a good man. A man driven principally by duty derived of social ranking~~which today we could have a great deal more of~~if we can, please. Thank you. He was, first, middle, and last, a swell PA lad.
Official White House Portrait: Bill Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946 in Hope, Arkansas. (Photo Credit: White House)
William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton (born William Jefferson Blythe III; August 19, 1946)
ONE WORD: SALESMANSHIP
Ours is, of course, a Republican household, but in this little diary of Washington, I have endeavored to give devils their due and, as such, comes now to us, Mr. Clinton~~sly devil, he. As I go down the list of the Presidents noted here, I make note of a number who were very, very successful salesmen. One such was FDR, to a lessor extent, Jack Kennedy, more so, Mr. Clinton. Sales is having a sense of the people~~what they want. Sales is about appearing to satisfy desires in the buyer that oftentimes the buyer doesn’t recognize he has. Sales capacity is a great gift. Pointedly, it is the sine qua non~~without sales~~and salesmanship~~nothing moves. Friends of mine who look upon the craft of politics as some sort of religious vocation are askance when I hold that having a keen sense of “retail politics,” is a very desirable trait to have. After all, politics in a democratic republic is just that~~and little else~~it’s sales. It’s selling yourself as though you were a commodity to the people and having them buy it. This sounds craven to those who think that politicians have a calling to the cloth, but right-minded men understand full well that a successful politician is first and foremost a salesman~~and as a good salesman~~he is always ready to stand another round~~to re-package and~~to re-sell the same commodity~~all over again~~himself. I am in the other Party but I will say that politics on the retail level is something that a budding, aspiring politician had better know in his bones~~or else~~off to the monastery he ought go~~and double quick. President Clinton understood all of this in his bones–in his DNA~~he was a world-class salesman~~not more~~not less~~in the end he understood his job and did it very well. On this list of a dozen Presidents, he is very close to, if not at the top of , the dozen salesman named.
(Not for One’s Self)
Finis Origine Pendet
(The End Depends Upon the Beginning)
Mottoes of old PA
ONE WORD: PIOUS
At seminary, I was largely absent, and always inattentive and, yet, I learned a great deal through what, I think is called, osmosis. Yes, that was it~~osmosis. I remember this~~ “The man who has never seen the devil cannot ever fully desire to know Jesus.” I am not sure if that is scripture itself or the ruminations of an inventive, and very talented, priest, of which we had a few, but the answer to that doesn’t mater. What matters is the message~~attend carefully to it. Earlier, and from time to time throughout this epistle, I have touched on the devil in the bottle that has ruined so many men~~including many Presidents. One such who met that devil, but had the very good fortune to escape His Evil embrace is George Walker Bush. What other things may be said, in favour and in anger of George Walker Bush~~this cannot be said~~during his 8 tumultuous years in office he did not flee back to the easy path of the devil in the bottle~~he was true to his vow to forswear the devil in the bottle, true to his lovely wife, Laura, one of the really magnificent First Ladies of our History, and above all else, true to God Jesus. To those unmoved by this observation let me say–kindly take, by osmosis here this message~~“The man who has never seen the devil cannot ever fully desire to know Jesus.” I have never known a man in all my journeys through this fascinating life who, at one time or another, has not had to look in the shaving glass and stare down that devil in the eye. Mr. Reagan did~~he told me of that session in the glass~~it was not pretty~~and that cold, hard look, requires that a man be very brave. George Walker Bush looked squarely in that glass and he did not flinch from its message. That is more than enough good work for all of one man’s life.
ONE WORD: Algeran
Is it the singer to whom we are drawn~~or is it the song he sings to us? The young incumbent I understand has caused a fair amount of ink to be spilled concerning both himself and the songs that he sings to the citizens. What if the singer sang a different song? Would that matter~~that is~~if he were to sing songs pleasant to my Party~would my Party endorse him? Would his Party reject him? Conceded that this is a loaded question~~but consider that in the stream of history~~none of the dozen men whose stories are briefly recounted here have been in that stream of history long enough to be dispassionately dissected. Men who many may intensely dislike may later develop bromidic~~evenly good and kindly~~ reputations in history books~~while others loudly cheered in their day may vanish altogether. True that this is a Catholic and Republican household and true it is that this household has not endorsed or voted for the incumbent Barack Hussein Obama II either time we were invited to do so. We do not regret declining either invitation. That cleared away, I wonder these things~~are the incumbent”s most ardent followers new converts to their Party~~are his most ardent detractors new converts to my Party? I mean this~~any priest will tell you that there is no devotion as ardent as the devotion of the newly converted. I see this in the Catholic Church and in my political Party~~there used to be a saying that had some validity~~“everybody used to be a Democrat,” by which was meant, I think, that the general upward movement through the social rankings that so exemplifies the Americans causes them to cast off the affiliations they once held when they were not so flush. I pray that mobility continues, not because we seek more Republican converts but because I seek a better, more fulgent, life for all Americans. As I am Republican, it is not my place to scold the standard-bearer of the other Party while he holds office but I think it is well within my place to ask my Party this question~~is not the incumbent the quintessential Algeran? Is he not the very embodiment of the hero of Horatio Alger, Jr.~~ that prolific 19th-century American author, best known for his many juvenile novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security? My Party preaches up by the bootstraps and all that and I must ask~~while it is often remarked that the incumbent came out of the clouds from nowhere at all~~and I stipulate that he most certainly did not put in much time in the political trenches as is the custom in his occupation~~so what? My readers know that I view all life through the eagle eye of a jockey boy–openings come up in a split second~~ride through them or they will close forever and you will not win Derbys that way. Didn’t the incumbent merely ride his horse hard, sensing that he was against weak opponents and win his races~~ isn’t winning the races of your life the singular preaching of my Party–grab opportunity when she knocks as she will move on to the next lucky house if you dally–that is what I was taught~~kill or be killed~~eat or be eaten~~is that not the Republican Credo? If it is~~why the animus for the young incumbent Barack Hussein Obama II, who, to my eye, merely rode his horse alertly, attentively, savagely, to victory when he sensed his chance? Didn’t he? Well~~Didn’t he? If he did, he is far more the Republican than he is the Democrat~~the way I learned race riding.
This little diary is mine alone~~my musings of long years at a city I know likely better than any man ever has~~by accident of birth I swam into the waters described here this morning. As with Her Majesty, I have been the constant presence~~looking out at, through an often cloudy, tinted glass, fairly free of emotional involvement~~watching~~the comings and goings of the men who have been our Presidents for the past 61 years.
Through it all, taking all my stories and the many other stories Her Majesty might tell ~~all these vignettes together~~these 12 men remain always to us enigmas~~we never really know who they are~~it is likely that most~~even all~~ of them likewise have a very unformed view of who they are, themselves. Man is far less conniving and calculating than many would have us belief~~much of what he does he could not even explain to himself.~~
Rejoice and Glad!!
John Daniel Begg
Washington, District of Columbia
Monday, 1 Juillet, Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, 2013
JOHN DANIEL BEGG
john daniel begg public affairs and speechwriting
Washington, DC 20016-2323533
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