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Guest column| James Pettican

17th president in lifetime will be 'first' in a way

I just turned 88, and it dawned on me that I've lived through more U.S. presidents —16 in all — than Fidel Castro.

Being born in 1920 means I arrived in the world the year Warren G. Harding was elected and Woodrow Wilson was nearing the end of his presidential term. Historians have pegged Harding as probably the worst administration we have suffered, although many contemporary pundits feel that a new champ will be recognized after the current incumbent leaves office.

"Silent Cal" Coolidge, a man of few words and little action, succeeded Harding and was in turn succeeded by Herbert Hoover, dubbed by some the "Great Engineer" because of his engineering background. Critics said he "engineered" us into the Great Depression, but most historians refute that claim. He lost the White House in 1932 to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide.

Teens didn't pay much attention to politics back then, although I do remember being assured by the Hearst Newspapers when I was 16 that the "Landon Victory Parade" was marching on. No one told Alf Landon, however, and he took a drubbing from FDR.

By my college years, I got interested in politics and enjoyed the in-person drama of it, long before TV's up close and personal coverage. In 1940, GOP candidate Wendell Wilkie swept into town in a fast-moving motorcade, made a brief but dramatic speech, and departed to the mesmerizing, semimusical chant of "We Want Wilkie." Not enough voters did want him, however, so he lost to FDR, who then won a fourth term in 1944.

In college, I wrote anti-Roosevelt editorials for my college newspaper but eventually repented, recognizing that he was one of our greatest. After FDR's death, Harry Truman took over, a plainspoken man, strong on common sense, who used it to guide the nation through war and crises.

Next was "Ike" Eisenhower, a war hero whom we were told to like. A sort of grownup version of the all-American boy, Eisenhower proved human when his driver-companion Kay Somersby was linked to him romantically while he was serving in England as Supreme Allied Commander.

John F. Kennedy came next, and as a journalist I met him one night at a resort hotel, an occasion I have previously written about. I was visiting in San Antonio, Texas, the day he was slain in Dallas.

During Lyndon Johnson's term, I worked in Washington, where my colleagues filled me in on the White House gossip, not always too credible. There were many LBJ tales.

Richard Nixon was next, trickiness and all, followed by Gerald Ford, whom I dubbed Mr. Bland but who seemed to fill the bill after the Nixon resignation and Watergate scandal.

Jimmy Carter, a better past president than incumbent, then gave way to Ronald Reagan, whom I saw during a dramatic motorcade stop in St. Petersburg, which seemed like 1940 all over again. Despite never rising above the B-movie level in Hollywood, Reagan could follow a script well.

Next came Reagan's veep, George H.W. Bush, who showed all those who paid attention that in war, you need a raison d'etre for starting it and a plan for finishing it. Bill Clinton, a blend of good ol' boy and Oxford scholar, then took over, followed by our current prez.

Coming up this year is a campaign which should be different, exciting and holds a promise of a White House "first." I'm looking forward to my 17th prez.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

17th president in lifetime will be 'first' in a way 04/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2008 9:29am]

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