Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

For a change of pace, I thought I'd reach into the history box instead of the politics box - ie, let's let where we've been inform where we're going. Adapted from a post at Blue Moose Democrat.

The office of the presidency has generally been occupied by strong individuals, but with big pros come big cons. Johnson passed sweeping and positive domestic legislation of the sort most presidents can only dream, but micro-managed and lied his way into the deepest jungles of Vietnam. Reagan sped up the end of the Cold War and restored a sense of national optimism, but also racked up record deficits, encouraged an immoral culture of consumerism, and allowed Iran-Contra to occur. Still, there are a few bright spots. Here, in my opinion, are the six greatest displays of presidential courage from the latter half (or so) of the twentieth century. I am defining "courage" as a decision where the president intellectually weighed pros against cons and decided to risk his own political future to make an unpopular move that has since been proven best for the country.

#6) Kennedy taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs, despite the risk of seeming weak to American voters and to Khrushchev.

#5) Bush Sr. raising taxes, putting the nation's need for a balanced budget ahead of his own need for a second term.

#4) Truman desegregating the military, ignoring the day's racial tensions and the possibility of harming "unit cohesion" to do what was moral, just, and right.

#3) Ford pardoning Nixon, putting the nation's need to heal its wounds ahead of his own need for a second term. It was unpopular and may have furthered injustice, but it was necessary to avoid unproductive further rancor, and the history books will judge Nixon far more than any court could have done anyway.

#2) Kennedy ignoring the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite the seeming naïveté of ignoring military advice on military matters. I do not believe it is exaggerating to say that Kennedy and Khrushchev's level-headedness may have saved the human race from the nuclear annihilation "duck and cover" was meant to prevent.

#1) Truman canning MacArthur. General Douglas MacArthur is one of the greatest generals in American military history and may have been the nation's most popular public figure in 1950, but come the Korean War, he gave poor strategic advice and found himself guilty of insubordination. Had he chosen, he just may have been able to pose a threat to the republic and stage a coup against Truman, but Truman took that risk and fired him. MacArthur, like the good soldier he was, stepped aside, thus preserving and cementing America's unique tradition of civilian control of the military. Both men deserve an honored place in the canon of American history.

My questions to you: Would you change the order of this list? Take anything off? If Barack Obama successfully passes substantive health care reform despite the anger of the Glenn Beck fringers, will he belong on this list? Above all, what moments would you say are missing?

Tags: George H. W. Bush, Harry Truman, history, JFK, Richard Nixon (all tags)



Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership
Looks fine as is. I'm glad that some liberals are honset enough to recognize that what Ford did in pardoning Richard Nixon was the right thing to do, regardless of politics.
But as much as I don't like saying it, that's something to be said for liberals.
by spirowasright 2009-09-20 01:11PM | 0 recs
This liberal has a different point of view

The rule of law is absolute, and if you break the law you pay the price, doesn't matter if you're a bum on the street or the President of the United States.  The general agreement seems to be that Ford did the right thing by sparing the country a lot of pain.  Is that really what matters though?  Seems to me, the courageous thing to do would be to allow the system of justice put in place by the founders to prevail to show that no one is above the law and that, even in the most difficult of circumstances, the American system works.  Instead of treating the whole country like children, I think Ford should have let us tough it out and deal with it like adults.

by ARDem 2009-09-20 02:39PM | 0 recs
Re: This liberal has a different point of view

I think the system of justice should be allowed to work in a case like Nixon's. And I've never bought into the notion that the sky would have fallen in had an indictment and trial occurred: "the country will just be torn apart", is what you heard from the cassandra's.

One of Bill Clinton's lasting contributions is that when faced with a politically inspired impeachment and show trial, he didn't back down. He hung in there, kept going to work every day, and compartmentalized things very nicely. And the country didn't fall apart. It all just blew over in a few months like some really bad wind. I'm not excusing his misdeeds....sadly, there were people who never accepted his election to the Presidency, and he just handed them the rope.

by BJJ Fighter 2009-09-20 04:09PM | 0 recs
Re: This liberal has a different point of view

"The rule of law is absolute."

Absolutely, but part of that rule, part of our judicial system, is the presidential pardon.

I agree that Nixon was a bum who didn't get what he deserved; I just don't think putting an individual in his or her place is always the most important goal. Moving the country forward is, and sometimes smaller aims get in the way of the biggest aims. And like I said, history will do more to judge Nixon than any court could have ever done. If he'd gone to prison, there would be those able to argue "He paid his debt to society, lay off!" But now, not so much. Never convinced, but never exonerated, either.

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-20 05:57PM | 0 recs
Re: This liberal has a different point of view

*Never convicted.

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-20 05:58PM | 0 recs
Re: This liberal has a different point of view

By that rationale shouldn't you be clamoring for Bill Clinton to server time.  He did LIE under oath, which is a crime.    Granted, what NIXON did was far far far worse and I don't think Clinton's actions warranted impeachment since his crime was not performed in his duties as President, whereas Nixon's was.

That's why I'm not so sure I agree with your statements as I have seen many liberals willing to look the other way depending on the level of transgression and the political positioning of the person in question.  

Granted a MAJOR crime, everyone would be calling for justice, whereas I'm not sure certain republicans would.  

by 30000Fine 2009-09-20 06:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

Why should Liberals be any more "honset" that the corrupt conservatives!

by captain dan 2009-09-20 04:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I disagree with that. Pardoning Nixon was not necessary and did nothing to 'heal the nation'.

by vecky 2009-09-20 05:58PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I think I'd add one, and take one of yours away:

1) I've always thought that Ford pardoned Nixon just to get him off the national stage---well in advance of the '76 elections. He and his team probably didn't anticipate the degree of the  negative fallout. So I see it as a miscalculation, rather than as an act of courage. His press secretary at the time, Jerry ter Horst, showed courage in resigning a plum job he'd only had for a few weeks.

2) I agree with you on Truman's points, but believe the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe was even more courageous, and more significant in historical terms. Republican isolationists pilloried the plan, and many in the country didn't have the stomach for it after the agony of WWII. But it was obviously far-sighted, and visionary.

Good point on Bush Sr.; it made Clinton's job a lot easier when he took office in '93.

by BJJ Fighter 2009-09-20 01:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

Excellent point re: Marshall Plan, I had not thought of that. This is exactly why I included those questions at the end! ;)

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-20 01:28PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

Surely Johnson signing the civil rights act warrants a mention ?

I'm not sure of the chronology, whether he'd made his decision not to stand again before or after, but even if after..... he was writing off his party "for a generation" in the south.... and if before I think he was aware he was writing off his re-election prospects.

It may not have been unpopular overall (I'm not aware of any data either way on that).... but it sure as hell was unpopular with a crucial region which LBJ would have needed for re-election.

I think it meets all the criteria you mentioned. I was just surprised not to see it on the list.


by TheGreasyPole 2009-09-20 03:33PM | 0 recs
you beat me to that

Dragging Congress along kicking and screaming, then signing the bill knowing how much it would cost his own party in the south. Absolutely that belongs on this list.

by desmoinesdem 2009-09-20 03:37PM | 0 recs
Fully agree; good addition to the list.

Johnson's decision to go full bore on this issue before the 1964 election took a lot of courage, as it began the end of "the solid south" for Democrats. When rebuffed by his old Senate colleagues (e.g., Richard Russell) to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he wisely turned to Everett Dirksen---who was also one of the heroes in the Civil Rights legislation---for help. That sealed its success.

While LBJ ultimately won in a huge landslide a year later, it was by no means assured when he began work on his legislative program.

by BJJ Fighter 2009-09-20 03:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

Absolutely, a grievious ommission on my part. Good point and thank you!

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-20 05:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Bush Sr. and Ford?

I think I probably agree with you half-way, as far as 41 goes. Responsible fiscal policy doesn't really rise to the level of "greatness"; it's more like part of the job description. On the other hand, Bush Sr. came from a party which periodically requires people to sign a no-new-taxes pledge, which he essentially did when running in 1988.

I didn't have sympathy then or now for his predicament, since he laid his own bed on the issue. When Reagan chose him as VP, he turned into the most rabid conservative in the country; it was kind of sickening to watch. But I do give him credit for finally growing a pair when it really counted, and raising taxes. He paid the price; given his listless performance in the 1992 debates and campaign, he knew full well what was coming to him.

by BJJ Fighter 2009-09-20 03:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

"spirowasright" is as morally corrupt as was the original Agnew.  Nixon should have been tried for his crimes.  Ford was about astute as portrayed by Saturday Night Live; Ford had no clue as to what he was doing, he just hoped that we would forget about Nixon.

by captain dan 2009-09-20 04:05PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I'd nominate Eisenhower's response to the Russian's Sputnik launch.  At the time this sent the Better Dead than Red crowd over the edge, or should I say into the shelter.  The military industrial complex was salivating over an endless future of space weapons, and some of our highest ranking generals were quite vocal about putting nukes in space or we'll all become Russian slaves.

Anyway, Ike created NASA as a civilian space agency.  This was basically giving the finger to the wingnuts of his day wanting to pursue world domination thru space domination.  And he created the world's first communications satellite through a highly skilled working group called ARPA which would become DARPA and invent the internet.  Anyway, this communication satellite was our response to Sputnik.  It carried a looped message from President Eisenhower that you could pick up by short wave radio:

"This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you via a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one: Through this unique means I convey to you and all mankind, America's wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere."

Boy oh boy have Republicans changed or what?

by BSelznick 2009-09-20 04:16PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

Obama would have been on that list if he would have fought for and enacted single-payer. Otherwise, no.

by RDemocrat 2009-09-20 04:20PM | 0 recs
Jimmy Carter

How about Jimmy Carter appointing Volcker to run the Fed?  Then allowing that agency to allow interest rates to scream up.  Thus ending inflation.

Unlike what Nixon did to end inflation -- price and wage controls.

Or what Ford did, create WIN buttons.

Carter essentially sacrificed his Presidency for the destruction of inflation.  He did it and now Reagan gets all the credit.

(I know the Fed is "independent".  But I am not so naive as to believe the President cannot manipulate that agency.)

by prius04 2009-09-20 04:28PM | 0 recs
MacArthur most over-rated General in U.S. History

Rivaled only by brevet General turned Colonel Custer. He bungled his retreat from the Phillipines in ways that undermined what could have been a determined defense of the islands south of Luzon. As a result the Navy and the
Marines had to pull his chestnuts out of the fire.

MacArthur essentially got slotted into a job that his father established and ended up in a central position in the war in the Pacifc way out of proportion to his actual contribution. Which ended up carried over when his position of Chief Occupier of Japan put him into position as top Commander when Korea broke out.

He joins Montgomery in my choice for most overrated military commanders in history. Oh and you history buffs can throw in 'Bomber' Harris.

by Bruce Webb 2009-09-20 04:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

truman is the great maverick. a real one. note- he ran on civil rights for aas in 48. everyone told him dont but he did and ran on universal healthcare. there wont be another truman.

lincoln deserves mention. he was couragoues enough to issue the emancipation . he had the ability to grow on aas having equal rights and was courageous enough to push for what was realy needed in 1865.

fdr a great in courage on the use of govt to improve lives of americans. it doesnt sound so radical now but what he did by creatin g ss etc was highy courageous. he welcomed the hate of special interests and used govt.

by art3 2009-09-20 04:52PM | 0 recs
I would throw in the 1993 Clinton tax increase

He had sacrificed Democratic control of congress(although not his own Presidency) by passing what was at the time a highly unpopular tax increase, which led to the balanced budgets and economic boom of the late 1990's.  Of course, the Republican Congress took all of the credit.  

by Kent 2009-09-20 05:15PM | 0 recs
I do

raising taxes might be the right thing to do, but when you're a Republican President, it's political suicide.

Bush fell on his sword to do the right thing. That's what this diary is about.

by DTOzone 2009-09-20 05:21PM | 0 recs
Clinton's budget

deserves to be on the list. So far I would say the only thing Obama would make a list like this for is his bailout of the auto companies. That was a courageous move.

I suspect history will list that ending the missle defense system might be another one.

by DTOzone 2009-09-20 05:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Bush Sr. and Ford?

I don't think the words "responsible" and "courageous" are mutually exclusive. DTOzone gets my point - it was the right (responsible) decision, but a politically costly one. It's natural for a politician to take the wrong policy route if it's the right political route, and in this case, Senior didn't do that. He risked (and committed) political suicide to do what was right, and that's an admirable thing.

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-20 05:53PM | 0 recs
If Nixon had been prosecuted

Would Reagan have "allowed" Iran-Contra or would Bush have "allowed" torture?

If Nixon had been prosecuted, it would have sent a message to future presidents that they have consider the legal consequences of their actions, rather than merely the political ones.  Had Reagan or Bush known that, they might have been less willing to "allow" lawbreaking under their watch.

by Drew 2009-09-20 05:59PM | 0 recs
Re: If Nixon had been prosecuted

I disagree. Nothing was ever so blatant and illegal as what Nixon did - Reagan and Bush's issues were probably more immoral and harmful, but done in such a way that they were legally grey (Bush) or with plausable deniability (Reagan). A better parallel would be the Gulf of Tonkin.

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-20 06:15PM | 0 recs
Re: If Nixon had been prosecuted

How do you know this?  Reagan and Bush1 never faced a serious investigation? If they faced a real investigation and grand jury inquiry the truth of whether they broke the law would have been clear. It's time to stop this precedence of Justified Executive lawlessness now!

by eddieb 2009-09-21 09:25AM | 0 recs
Re: If Nixon had been prosecuted

"If they faced a real investigation and grand jury inquiry the truth of whether they broke the law would have been clear."

I pose to you the same question you posed to me - how do you know this? It didn't happen. Maybe the President truly didn't know a thing (which would be a different type of awful) and nothing would have been made clear.

This ambiguity is why I said "I disagree" rather than "You're wrong." None of us knows; all of this from all of us is conjecture.

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-21 10:24AM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

Ford's pardon of nixon started the string of republican presidential criminality and malfeasance that has yet to play itself out:

nixon escaping accountibility gave us Iran contra and the right wing bravdo of lying to Congress.

nixon pardon + Iran contra gave us the unbribled criminality of the bush/cheney regime including lying us into wars, illegal indecent torture, and illegal spying on Americans.

The next republican president will give us the next step of worsening criminality stemming from: nixon pardon + Iran Contra + bush/cheney criminality.

The failure to hold republican criminals accountable starting with Ford's pardon of nixon is one of the worst things ever to happen to America AND has yet to see its worst manifestation. Until America holds republican criminals accountable their criminality will continue to escalate.

There is no doubt that Ford's pardon is the exact opposite of a "great moment in Presidential Leadership". It was partisan hackery of the highest order that has given us 38 years of unpunished republican criminality and assault on the rule of law that only portends more of the same and worse for the future.

Republicans are corrupt criminals. Not holding them accountable for their criminality only emboldens them.

by gak 2009-09-20 07:30PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

Some comments:

The tax increases of Bush Sr. and Clinton were nowhere near enough to balance the budget.  The Reagan-era tax cuts and military spending increases were, and still are, there, and without getting rid of them one cannot have real fiscal sanity in this country.  The balanced budgets only came years later, lasted for only 4 years (1998-2002), and were due to a brief period of prosperity (1997-2001).  Once the prosperity came to an end, so too did the balanced budgets.

LBJ losing the South for the Democrats due to his Civil Rights Laws?   The Democrats gained over half the South in the 1964 election, and continued to gain large chunks of the region for years therafter.  It was only in the 80's that the South really turned Republican.

Volcker a great guy?  His interest rates hikes plunged this country into a recession (the most severe until now) and did not really solve inflation (which only went really down in the early 90's, when interestingly enough rates were much lower).  Give one a break.  

by demjim 2009-09-21 06:49AM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I just don't understand why so many liberals and  progressives have bought into this idea of a "A special class of citizens" who for some reason should be above the rule of law? When we have no problem with throwing thousands and thousands of our citizens in jail for decades and decades for selling pot! Bush and his cronies, for example through their lawless deeds have toutured and imprisoned hundred and possibly thousands illegaly. I can understand Repiglicans, Neoconvics and the likes looking to absolves these criminals  but Progressives? The Nuremberg trials were established to set a standard for ALL countries to abide by. The Law is the Law for Pot heads as well Govt heads.

by eddieb 2009-09-21 09:14AM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I call Godwin! Nuremburg trials? Are you seriously comparing Nixon to the Nazis? He was bad, but come on.

I don't believe in a "special class of citizens" and I would thank you not to put words in my mouth. What I do believe is that sometimes a focus on one individual is not what a nation of millions of individuals needs. Nixon lived out his life in shame, and in that there is justice. Had he gone to trial, this nation would have rubbed salt in its own wounds rather than bandaging them, and his apologizers could have claimed his record was wiped clean either because a) he was exonerated or, more likely b) he served out his sentence and paid his debt to society. There's more justice, in this singular case, in letting history rather than a judge decide. And if you think that that position can be summed up by the words "special class of citizens," then you didn't read a word I said.

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-21 10:29AM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I read every word you wrote and I stand by what I said. How you can consider a Pardon for Nixon an act of courage by Ford, rather than considering it a Political act of a fellow Republican that set a standard  establishing a "Special class of citizens" who are above the law is beyond me. My argument may upset your theory but has, I believe History on it's side. If Nixon had been prosecuted in a court of law it would have set a standard for all Presidents and their underlings that NO ONe even a they are above the Law. We are a Republic where all men are suppose to be equal under the law. Instead we have witnessed a gradual but steady increase of lawlessness that has been justified and gone un-punished by our Political "Special class of citizens" ever since.

by eddieb 2009-09-21 11:28AM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I would also like to make another point. I believe rather than and act of courage Ford's pardon was an act of political cowardice. Now if ford had not kept his deal with Nixon and let his prosecution go forward, refusing a pardon would have been a real act of courage! I'm sure when Ford weighed his options, he realized his only chance to survive politically was giving him his pardon. The fact that his party chose him and he did run again tends to give weight to my argument. If he didn't pardon Nixon you can imagine the uproar from his own party to be sure. You know the Republicans would have chosen another candidate to be their standard bearer. But unfortunately history has no alternatives and we can only speculate how different our world would be if we treated our higest of high like we treat we ordinary citizens.

by eddieb 2009-09-21 12:23PM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

I'm surprised no one has cited Washington's decision not to seek a third term (or more generally, not to aggrandize the role of the Presidency.)  Yes, part of that was the spirit of the times, but I really doubt many of the Presidents we've had since would have had the strength of will to stand on principle (even ignoring those who lacked the principle in the first place.)

by nkedel 2009-09-21 10:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Great Moments in Presidential Leadership

There's a lot to cite about Washington, FDR, Lincoln, and others. That's why I limited it to Truman forward.

by Nathan Empsall 2009-09-21 10:35AM | 0 recs


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