The first president I became aware of was John F. Kennedy. And I first heard about him on the day he got assassinated. So that was my introduction to the concept of the American presidency. The president getting his head blown off. I was in the 2nd grade at the time. And my mother had me taken out of school, because she thought the Russians might be behind it, and they might start launching atom bombs at us, so we might have to go to our “fall-out shelter” in the basement of our house (this room with some cans of food and bottles of water and some flashlights).
I vaguely remember the Johnson/Goldwater campaign in 1964. Some people were saying Barry Goldwater was a nut, and if he got elected he’d start blowing up atom bombs and get us into World War III. So we were for Lyndon Johnson. Johnson — good old LBJ — just reminded me of some old corn-pone fast-talking hillbilly politician — like a character on the TV sit-com “Green Acres” or “Hee Haw.”
Then in 1968 it was Richard Nixon. Nixon was the first in the long line of right-wing villains that all the righteous hippies and counterculture types and the liberals in the media hated. A lineage that would perpetuate itself right up to Donald Trump today. I remember this helpless feeling watching Nixon on TV explaining why the carnage in Vietnam had to continue. Even at 12 years old I could tell it was all bullshit — a terrible, pointless waste. And I remember this incredible effort by half the country to stop that war, that went on for years and years, to no avail. . . Nixon was the first president I tried to draw a caricature of. And he was amazingly easy to capture. As was LBJ. So I figured this caricature thing would be a snap. (Until Gerald Ford became president. And he was much harder to get. I hadn’t realized that Nixon and LBJ had faces like living cartoon characters. Which was why they were so easy to get.)
The Nixon/McGovern race in 1972 was the first presidential campaign that I followed a bit in real time. It was pretty easy to understand, even for a kid like me. McGovern would end the Vietnam war. That was it really. And it looked like he might have a chance. Until he named Thomas Eagleton his Vice President and it came out that Eagleton had had electroshock treatment for depression so he was painted as a mental case. And McGovern was doomed after that, losing by the biggest landslide of all-time. . . Years later, McGovern’s campaign manager said he actually recommended the TV news anchor Walter Cronkite for the Vice President — one of the most respected men in the country at the time. But the rest of McGovern’s staff were strongly against the idea. They felt Cronkite would almost certainly reject the offer — which would have been a big public embarrassment for McGovern. So they went with the “safe” choice, the useless political hack Eagleton. (Years later Cronkite said he definitely would have accepted the offer. Even though Cronkite took pains to project a neutral stance as news anchor, he was actually a liberal — like most of the people in TV news — and desperately wanted to end the war. History might have turned out much differently.)
And then there was Gerald Ford in 1974. I remember Ford as basically being a national joke. This buffoon. Ford was like comic relief, this little epilogue, after the evil one Richard Nixon had finally been vanquished by Watergate.
Jimmy Carter would be the first presidential candidate I ever voted for (and one of the few times I picked the winner). 1976, age 19. When I first saw Jimmy Carter’s photo in the newspaper, the person he most reminded me of was Johnny Carson, with the hair and the suit and the famous “Jimmy Carter smile.” And it occurred to me that the president was basically a national TV talk show host. . . I remember watching the Carter/Ford debate on TV while tripping on acid. And being impressed by Carter’s sincerity when he stared into the camera with those big blue eyes and spoke of his fervent desire to bring peace to a troubled world. So Carter won over the all-important acid-casualties demographic. . The other thing I remember was Hunter Thompson’s big endorsement of Carter on the front page of ROLLING STONE magazine (Carter quoted Bob Dylan in his speeches, after all, so he was hip). That would pretty much be Thompson’s last gasp of relevancy as a political pundit, before he devolved into a predictable media caricature. But it was a short but interesting run by Thompson while it lasted — 1972 to 1976 — before he burned out.
And then there was Ronald Reagan in 1980. Which seemed particularly depressing at the time to all of us hipster types. Because it seemed like a step backwards. A return to Nixon Lite. And it seems like half the country traces the rot and ruin of the American empire directly to Reagan’s policies in the ’80s. While the other half of the country considers Reagan one of our great American presidents. Who knows (and no, I am not going to debate the relative merits of “Trickle-down Economics”). All I know, personally, is that the Reagan/Bush years — 1980 to 1992 — were probably the most stable and productive years of my life.
Then there was the 20 year stretch from 1988 to 2008 where we had a choice between a Clinton or a Bush. I personally considered both families to be two sides of the same bad coin. And I take a certain perverse pride in never having voted for a Clinton or a Bush (though my over-all voting record for president is certainly nothing to write home about — I voted for Ross Perot twice, ha ha). With George Bush Junior being particularly singled out as the worst of the lot for getting us into that war in Iraq. . .
Some people express surprise when they find out that the Clinton family and the Bush family are extremely close friends, despite the differences in their ideologies (Bill sites George Senior as “like a father to me”). Myself? Not the least surprised. Two sides of the same bad coin.
Which brings us to 2008 and the beginning of the Obama/Trump era. Two presidents that will forever be joined at the hip. Two presidents that were completely unprecedented and completely broke the mold. Though in exact opposite ways. The first black president. Followed by the first billionaire, reality TV star, non-politician president.
It was as if America felt the old models no longer worked. So they were desperately flailing around for some new model, some new direction — from one extreme to the other — for something that might right the ship.
I voted for Obama in 2008 (the only time besides Jimmy Carter when the candidate I voted for won — I’ve been a consistent loser in every other election). Mostly just because I thought it would be an interesting experiment, to see what would happen with a black president. And I voted for Romney in 2010. What the fuck. People that don’t vote, I can certainly understand that. When the choice is usually one loser over another loser (pick the lesser of two losers).
And now we’ve got President Trump. And the country is as divided as it’s ever been. Maybe even more divided than during the Richard Nixon era. With the country virtually split in half with two very different visions of America’s future. And, as usual, this story will be continued . . .