This is not meant to be a political post, so NO “haters,” please. As an author, I DO NOT discuss politics or religion publicly. Heck, I barely discuss those topics with family and friends, for I consider both quite personal subjects. Therefore, I will delete comments that grow nasty or too opinionated.
We sometimes think that history happens elsewhere, and we merely read about it. But history has a way of extending its finger and etching a line upon our souls. Therefore, this is a quick look back at the U.S. in my near 70 years on this earth, especially from the perspective of my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington is a small town of some 70,000 people upon the Ohio River. Like many towns and cities in the United States, it has seen its moments of greatness and of despair.
In my lifetime, I have known thirteen presidents. They were…
33. Harry S. Truman (April 12, 1945—January 20, 1953). Democratic. Democratic. Truman served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third vice president and succeeded him on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt died less than three months into his fourth term. During his presidency Truman had to deal with many challenges in domestic affairs. He established the Truman Doctrine to contain communism and spoke out against racial discrimination in the armed forces.
(Truman spoke in Huntington, West Virginia, my home town, on October 1, 1948, near the end of a nationwide campaign tour. He spoke from the armor-plated Pullman private car Ferdinand Magellan, which was rebuilt for Roosevelt’s secure use during World War II. Nearly everyone was surprised when Truman defeated New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in the November 2 general election. Incidentally, Ken Hechler, who would go on to be a 4th District congressman from West Virginia and West Virginia Secretary of State, worked as one of Truman’s speechwriters for a while. I will admit not to recalling Truman’s presence in Huntington for I was but a year old at the time, but my Aunt Alma assured me I was present.)
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (January 20, 1953—January 20, 1961). Republican. Before his service as the 34th U.S. President, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the U.S. Army. During WW2 he served as Supreme Commander of Allied forces with responsibility for leading the victorious invasion of France and Germany in 1944 to 1945. His focus as President was to reverse end U.S. neutrality and challenge Communism and corruption. He drafted NASA to compete with the Soviet Union in the space race.
(I recall as a child marching up and down the sidewalk before our house and chanting “I like Ike.” Neither my cousins or I knew much about politics, but we enjoyed the Presidential slogan.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke in Portsmouth, Ohio (on Norfolk and Western Railroad) and Kenova and Huntington (on the Baltimore and Ohio) when his 18-car Look Ahead Neighbor Special stopped at those points on September 24, 1952. His talk in Huntington came from the rear platform of New York Central business car 17.
Eisenhower’s body came through Huntington again on the morning of April 1, 1969, en route to burial in Abilene, Kansas. And on the way back from Kansas, when the train stopped to change crews in Huntington on April 4. Mamie Eisenhower came out on the rear platform of the AT&SF Railway private car Santa Fe to thank people for their concern and sympathy.)
35. John F. Kennedy (January 20, 1961—November 22, 1963). Democratic. Also known as JFK. At age 43 Kennedy was the second youngest president ever when elected, after Theodore Roosevelt. JFK was the only president to have won a Pulitzer Prize and the only Catholic president. Events that happened during Kennedy’s presidency included the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the early Vietnam War, the Space Race, and the African American Civil Rights Movement.
(Ironically, I was in American history class when the school announced that Kennedy was shot in Dallas. We were devastated. My small town rolled up the streets. We all went home to grieve for the man. He was a Presidential candidate to come to my home state of West Virginia to campaign. There are images of him in the coal fields of the mountainous states. A whole scene in Homer Hickam’s best-selling novel Rocket Boys, later turned into the movie October Sky, was based on that experience.)
36. Lyndon B. Johnson (November 22, 1963—January 20, 1969). Democratic. President Lyndon Johnson was one in four presidents to have served in all four federal offices of the U.S. government (President, Vice President, Representative, and Senator). He was well known for his domestic policies, including civil rights, Medicaid, Medicare, Public Broadcasting, the “War on Poverty,” educational aids, and environmental protection. However, his foreign strategy with the Vietnam War dragged his popularity.
(Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War marked my generation. Friends and family went to fight in a country few of us could locate on a map. The experience scarred us, but made us stronger in so many ways.)
37. Richard Nixon (January 20, 1969—August 9, 1974). Republican. President Nixon was the only president to resign from office. His presidency involved improvement of relations with the People’s Republic of China, the ending of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and the achievement of détente with the Soviet Union. Nixon’s second term was riddled with controversy of the Watergate scandal.
(Many will think me a bit crazy, but I can honestly say I felt safer during Nixon’s presidency than at many times in my life from a worldwide standpoint, for he had served the U.S. as Eisenhower’s advocate to the world. He had dealt with many of the world’s leaders as Eisenhower’s Vice President. We simply remember him for his resignation, but we should also know that Nixon ended American involvement in the war in Vietnam and brought the American POWs home, and ended the military draft. He initiated détente and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. His administration generally transferred power from Washington to the states. He enforced desegregation of Southern schools.)
38. Gerald Ford (August 9, 1974—January 20, 1977). Republican. Ford was assigned vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned during Richard Nixon’s administration. When Nixon resigned, Ford became president. While in office Ford signed the Helsinki Accords, easing relations during the Cold War. Involvement in Vietnam essentially ended not long after he became president when North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam. The economy was the worst since the Great Depression while he was in office. He also granted a presidential pardon to President Richard Nixon for the Watergate scandal, which drew controversy towards his name. He is credited with helping to restore public confidence in government after the disillusionment of the Watergate era. Ford understood that his decision to pardon Nixon could have political consequences, and it probably cost him the presidency in 1976. That year, he lost a close election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Ford took the loss in stride, however, telling friends that he had planned to retire from Congress that year anyway. He viewed his brief tenure in the Oval Office as an unexpected bonus at the end of a long career in politics. Ford often said that he was pleased to have had the opportunity to help the nation emerge from the shadow of Watergate.
(As a teacher with a several degrees as a reading specialist, Ford impacted my life when he signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which established special education throughout the United States. I began my teaching experience as a special education teacher in an ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education] Title I program. I also recall sitting in gasoline lines in 1973. Do any of you hold this memory?)
39. Jimmy Carter (January 20, 1977—January 20, 1981). Democratic. Carter was the 39th President of the U.S. and the only to receive a Nobel Peace Prize (in 2002) after leaving office. As president, he created two new cabinet departments: the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. The end of his term saw the Iran hostage crisis and the failure of its major rescue operation, resulting in the deaths of eight American servicemen, one Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two aircraft, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the 1979 energy crisis, and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
(I recall how he boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and how he espoused a process of bureaucratic streamlining and was responsible for deregulating the airline, trucking, rail, communications, and finance industries.
To understand the magnitude of change we have witnessed in the last 20 years or so, remember that in 1980 the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated both trucking and the railroads. “Ma Bell” had a nationwide monopoly in which long distance calls came through copper wires, each strand with the capacity of carrying 15 calls. (A single fiber optic line in use today can carry 2 million calls.)
Airlines had been “deregulated” for only two years. Government controlled the pricing and allocation of oil in the United States. “Regulation Q” and other restrictions on banks and financial institutions kept capital formation in the doldrums. Another way of putting it was that many sectors of this economy were more socialistic then than they are now.Carter’s administration played a large part in many of the deregulation efforts.)
40. Ronald Reagan (January 20, 1981—January 20, 1989). Republican. Prior to becoming a politician Ronald Reagan had been a radio broadcaster and actor. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and economics. As president, Reagan implemented new economic policies that became known as “Reaganomics.”
(He advocated tax rate reduction to spur economic growth, control of the money supply to curb inflation, economic deregulation, and reduction in government spending.The tax cuts were signed in August of 1981. These enactments were a major reduction in domestic expenditures and the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, were designed to lower federal revenues over a five year period in the amount of $737 billion. Secondly, he advocated the reduction of nuclear arms with the signing of the INF treaty together with Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1987. This treaty eliminated all cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers. “Tear down this wall!” is a line from a speech made by Reagan in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, calling for the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to open up the barrier which had divided West and East Berlin since 1961.
In his first term Reagan survived an assassination attempt, which scared the “Bejesus” out of the county after what happened to Kennedy.)
41. George H. W. Bush (January 20, 1989—January 20, 1993). Republican. Before becoming the 41st President of the U.S., George H. W. Bush served as the 43rd Vice President, an ambassador, a congressman, and Director of Central Intelligence. He served as a U.S. Navy aviator during World War II. After the war he attended and graduated from Yale in 1948. He went into the oil business and became a millionaire by age 40.
(By this time, presidents and presidential candidates were spending more time in the air than on the rails. But George H.W. Bush (“Bush 41”) broke with the new tradition and rode a 19-car campaign train from Columbus, Ohio, to Plymouth, Michigan, on Sept. 26, 1992, and Plymouth to Grand Blanc, Michigan, on Sept. 27. The train, which was assembled in Huntington, was pulled by two of CSX Transportation’s month-old locomotives, 7812 and 7810. The lead unit was all decked out in a patriotic red, white, blue and yellow scheme that included American flags on its flanks and a phony number, 1992. Reserved for the president’s use was CSX business car Baltimore, and protective trains preceded and followed the POTUS train.)
42. Bill Clinton (January 20, 1993—January 20, 2001). Democratic. Clinton was elected into office at 46, making him the 3rd youngest president. He was the first president of the baby boomer generation. He graduated from Yale Law School. Clinton was involved in a scandal with a White House intern, which nearly got him impeached. Despite that, his work as president earned him the highest approval rating of any president since World War II.
(On August 25, 1996, Bill Clinton rode Amtrak’s 13-car Twenty-First Century Express from Huntington to Michigan City, Indiana, to convince Americans that the country was “on the right track to the 21st century” and to accept his party’s nomination for a second term at the Democratic National Convention meeting in Chicago in 1996. His private car was the Georgia 300, owned by Fernandina Beach, Florida, mortician Jack Heard. Locally, Clinton spoke in Huntington and Ashland; Billy Ray Cyrus sang the national anthem at the latter stop. Interestingly, another route through Pittsburgh was considered that would have avoided Huntington, but Dick Morris, in his book Rewriting History, says Hillary Clinton herself nixed it.
“She warned that the Secret Service ‘will shut down the entire Eastern Seaboard just to embarrass us,'” Morris quoted Clinton’s wife as saying. “‘They’re mostly Republicans. They hate us. They always take the most extreme option just to cause us embarrassment. We enter a city, and they close down all traffic. We can’t go to Pittsburgh!'”)
43. George W. Bush (January 20, 2001—January 20, 2009). Republican. Bush graduated from Yale in 1968 and Harvard Business School in 1975, working in oil businesses after. Bush advocated policies on health care, the economy, social security reform, and education. In 2005 Bush was criticized for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. With the combination of dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and the longest post-World War II recession in December 2007, Bush’s popularity declined sharply.
(George W. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney campaigned in several states by rail in 2000, but when Bush campaigned in Huntington, he came by air and stayed overnight at the Radisson Hotel Huntington, now the Pullman Plaza Hotel.}
44. Barack Obama (January 20, 2009—???). Democratic. Obama was the first African American U.S. president. He was previously a U.S. Senator from Illinois. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He will be remembered for Obama Care and some not so popular foreign affairs. His legacy is yet to be named.
45. Donald J. Trump (June 14, 1946 — ???} Republican. Trump is an American businessman, politician, and television personality. He is President of the U.S. as of today. His legacy, like Obama’s, is yet to be defined. Trump won the general election on November 8, 2016, gaining a majority of electoral college votes, while receiving a smaller share of the popular vote nationwide than Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. At age 70, Trump will become the oldest and the wealthiest person to assume the presidency, and the first without prior military and the first without either prior military or governmental service.
Except for Mr. Trump’s the bios listed above come from Totally History
. The first 44 Presidents may be found at this site. My comments are in parentheses.
The tidbits regarding train travel for the Presidents comes from Bob Withers, a retired Herald-Dispatch reporter and copy editor who pastors Seventh Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington. Much of the background information about local presidential visits comes from his first book, “The President Travels by Rail: Politics and Pullmans” (1996, Lynchburg, Virginia: TLC Publishing Inc.), which is now out of print.