H. Brandt Ayers: Presidents I have known
Feb 26, 2012 | 1744 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The PBS special on William Jefferson Clinton pretty much swamped my plan to write a Presidents Day column on presidents I have known, but I didn’t have another idea for my Sunday piece.

“Should I go ahead and write it anyway?” I asked myself. “Don’t,” I was advised by someone near and dear, “it will sound pretentious.”

So what to do …? I could reverse the idea as Dad used to do, sweeping his hand in the direction of a wall of pictures, he’d joke, “Here are some of the famous people who have known me.”

No no no no no no, that would be really pretentious. So, let’s proceed in all humility with personal snapshots of four presidents: Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Former President Truman arrived at Raleigh-Durham Airport the morning after the Kennedy-Nixon debate, during which Nixon had criticized Truman’s language on the campaign trail.

I was the first reporter to get in a question about Vice President Nixon’s critical remark. “Don’t talk to me about that man,” Truman responded, “it’s liable to start me to cussin’.”

Next morning, I could barely keep up with the 78-year-old former president on his morning walk during which he told how he reined in independent Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes who, before briefing the president, announced a press conference. “You better get your ass up here and report to the boss first,” Truman said in a note.

Truman was lionized in later years for his unadorned, plain-spoken honesty, but in office he suffered in comparison with the charismatic FDR, and the stalled Korean War meant he would leave office in 1953 among the least popular of modern presidents.

As a result of poll numbers driven down by the stalemated war, the one cabinet officer who came to see him off on the train was his personality opposite, the elegant, aristocratic Secretary of State Dean Acheson, for whom integrity mattered more than a common background.

The first time I met John Kennedy was in 1962 on the porch of the North Carolina Governor’s Mansion, where I had taken the 9-year-old daughter of friends to meet the campaigning senator.

She had been bubbling with questions for him until the tanned, young senator bounded up the steps and took her hand. She was dazzled, not a word came out.

The next time was at a White House luncheon for Alabama editors during the civil rights crisis, when I found myself in the dilemma of Forrest Gump and violated protocol by having to leave the table.

I did not see the elegant, articulate, witty president again before leaving Washington and mourned his untimely death back home, where he was not a beloved figure.

JFK is our most popular former president and it is just possible that, had he survived, he could have maintained that high standing. He surely would have won in a landslide over Sen. Barry Goldwater. It is conceivable that he would have gotten us out of Vietnam, and neither politicians nor the press of that time were as acid-mean as today’s.

Jimmy Carter’s final approval rating was tied with George W. Bush at 34 percent, 10 points above Richard Nixon’s last-place rating of 24. Carter’s after-office approval was much higher than Bush’s.

Of the many memories of him in and out of the White House, one leaps to mind. He was my seatmate at an Atlanta conference when I asked how he’d keep busy after being governor. “I have some plans,” he said. Some plans!

The first time Josephine and I met Bill Clinton was in Little Rock, where he was the very bright, baby-faced attorney general. Even then there was talk of him as “a comer.”

His polls on leaving the presidency put him slightly higher in public esteem than the godhead of the modern right, Ronald Reagan, amazing given a predatory opposition that hounded him to impeachment.

But the one indelible picture of him is at the Atlanta airport, shortly after I learned he was on the verge of announcing during a flight from Washington with the former governors of Mississippi and South Carolina, William Winter and Dick Riley.

William, Dick and I were looking for their ride from Georgia Gov. Zell Miller when we spied Bill and Josephine sitting in the front seat of her Isuzu Trooper, which looked slightly like a Nazi staff car, chatting and — eating ice-cream cones Bill had scavenged.

If there is a point to this rambling essay, it is not to salute the power and glory of presidents past and present, but to celebrate their everyday, commonplace humanity.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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