In my lifetime, I have experienced the administrations of 14 American presidents, beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today on the threshold of a new year, I will attempt to summarize what we in America remember about them, their accomplishments and legacies. I invite you to compare and draw your own conclusions.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1934-1945, Democrat
I was born in 1934 and was seven years old when the Pearl Harbor bombing started World War II, so FDR was my president from my birth until I was 12.
Sworn in at the height of the Great Depression, FDR immediately acted to end it with his New Deal, which put Americans back to work. The World War II effort boosted the economy further. Americans have Roosevelt to thank for Social Security, minimum wage, child labor laws and insurance for our bank deposits.
Harry S Truman, 1945-1953, Democrat
Truman completed his term of office about the time I was completing high school.
In 1948 Truman abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces. His Marshall Plan stimulated economic recovery in war-torn Western Europe. He probably is remembered most for putting an end to World War II in the Pacific by dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1961, Republican
Ike was president during my late teens and early 20s.
Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sent Army troops to enforce federal court orders, which integrated schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. His largest program was the Interstate Highway System. He promoted the establishment of strong science education via the National Defense Education Act. Americans also remember Eisenhower, a five-star general, as having served as Supreme Allied Commander of military forces in Europe during World War II.
John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963, Democrat
Kennedy lost his life to an assassin’s bullet in November 1963, a few days after I had returned to my university campus following a visit to Washington as a member of a group of students who went there to urge their members of Congress to support what was to become the Civil Right Law.
Kennedy served in the Navy in World War II and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for heroism. His reforms lifted the U.S. economy out of recession. He averted nuclear war through his negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy also created the Peace Corps.
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1969, Democrat
LBJ served as I was graduating from college and beginning work as a newspaper reporter in South Florida.
Johnson designed “Great Society” legislation to expand civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, the arts, urban and rural development, public services and his “War on Poverty.”
Richard M. Nixon, 1969-1974, Republican
I continued to work in Miami and Fort Lauderdale as a newspaper reporter, feature writer, section editor, columnist and arts reviewer during the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Americans remember that Nixon resigned in disgrace in the wake of the Watergate affair that began with a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. He also ended the military draft, passed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and made an important visit to China, which became the subject of an opera.
Gerald Ford, 1974-1977, Republican
Ford, a former congressman, presided over the worst economy in the four decades since the Great Depression, with growing inflation and a recession during his tenure. In one of his most controversial acts, he granted a presidential pardon to Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal.
Jimmy Carter, Democrat, 1977-1981, Democrat
In 1977, our family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I served briefly in the University of North Carolina’s office of Medical Center Public Affairs. I was 43. In 1978 I joined the faculty of the university’s School of Journalism, serving there until my retirement in 2000.
Americans remember Carter as a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, who made it all the way to the presidency. During Carter’s term as president, he established two new cabinet-level departments, the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. He also created a national energy policy that included conservation, price control, and new technology.
Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989, Republican
Reagan, a former movie actor, signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which simplified the tax code by reducing rates and removing several tax breaks, and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which enacted sweeping changes to U.S. immigration law and granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants. Critics point out that he also eliminated numerous popular social support programs established during the JFK and LBJ administrations.
George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993, Republican
President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the broadest arms reduction agreement in two decades. Bush reneged on his “no new taxes” campaign pledge by stating that tax increases might be necessary for the 1991 fiscal year. He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act but vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990. The first President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Bush is also remembered for the failure of his deregulation of the savings & loans home-finance industry, which resulted in a significant financial-sector crisis that ultimately was resolved through a government bailout funded by taxpayers in 1991.
Bill Clinton, 1993-2001, Democrat
I retired from the University of North Carolina faculty in 2000.
Clinton’s first term was marked by successes, including the passage by Congress of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Clinton also appointed several women and minorities to significant government posts throughout his administration, During Clinton’s first term, Congress enacted a deficit-reduction package and 30 major bills related to education, crime prevention, the environment, and women’s and family issues. The nation experienced an extended period of economic prosperity during the Clinton presidency. Clinton also is remembered as having been impeached following a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.
George W. Bush, 2001-2009, Republican
The legacy of George W. Bush remains a subject of controversy. He entered office having lost the nation’s popular vote and was awarded the presidency by a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court. President Bush issued an executive order creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which alienated some who believed that government money should not go to organizations affiliated with churches. Following an authorization from Congress to eliminate those who perpetrated the attacks of 9/11, Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan. This turned into the longest war in American history. In his second term, Bush sought major changes to Social Security, arguing that partial privatization could ensure its solvency, but his efforts went nowhere in Congress. He also sought major immigration reforms that never materialized.
Barack Obama, 2009-2017, Democrat
Throughout his two terms, Barack Obama faced stiff resistance from a Republican-led Congress that blocked his every effort to pass legislation he believed important. Despite this, he addressed the global financial crisis and included a major stimulus package, a partial extension of the Bush tax cuts, legislation to reform health care, a major financial regulation reform bill, and the end of a major U.S. military presence in Iraq. He signed the Affordable Care Act, which provided health insurance to more than 20 million uninsured Americans. Saved the U.S. auto industry. Reduced the unemployment rate from 10% to 4.7% over six years. Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
Donald J. Trump, 2016-present, Republican
How will history remember the administration of our current president? Donald Trump’s scandals and misdeeds as president might be too numerous and varied to list fully. Here are a few: He prefers lies and exaggeration to truth. He values personal loyalty over issues of national importance, including national security. He ridicules, humiliates, or punishes anyone who disagrees with him. Immigration reform ranks among his most cherished priorities. This includes building a border wall and separating children from parents and detaining them in caged enclosures. Trump admires the world’s dictators and tyrants, befriends them, meets with them, hides the content of their discussions, and trusts their views over those of his own professional staff. He cheats on his wife and pays prostitutes for silence. He obstructs investigations into his misdeeds. Trump tries to circumvent separation of powers in government. He adds to his family’s fortune while in office. He has been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.