Recently, the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign began. How, where, and with whom will the winnowing end? Supposedly, next year.
As of now, more than 20 candidates look in a mirror — and see a president staring back. Instead of handicapping them — intriguing but bootless — far better to look for which of the best qualities in Democratic presidents of the last century that this election’s candidates might possess.
A president must practice realpolitik. Yet he or she must possess idealism. Woodrow Wilson said, “At last, the world knows America as the savior of the world.” His principles for peace — the “Fourteen Points” — included diplomacy, freedom of the seas, and a new League of Nations. Wilson knew that if America did not lead for good, other nations would lead for ill.
Much about Franklin Roosevelt should suggest itself to a voter. Does any candidate rival his respect for language? He enlisted us to “win through” in our “righteous might” to “absolute victory” for the “Four Freedoms” of “speech, worship, and against want and fear.” My favorite line — “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it” — mocked the folly of appeasing fascism.
The presidency demands courage. FDR led America through its two great 20th-century crises, neither victory ever sure: the 1930s global Depression and 1941-45 World War II fight-to-the-death against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Roosevelt rallied a nation when all looked lost, as it must have seemed for him when polio crippled him, at 39, in August 1921.
FDR could be duplicitous, yet so trusted America elected him four times. His greatest bond was the “Fireside Chat,” a simple talk among friends — “you and I,” “our neighbors.” When he died, almost everyone felt a private memory: a tear at Pearl Harbor, his D-Day prayer, “my little dog, Fala,” the notes of emotion played by friendship or more. Which candidate stirs such trust?
Harry S Truman’s quality is hardest for Democrats to mimic. He touted everything U.S. in business, World War I service, and politics, American exceptionalism extending to cards. Of playing Churchill, Truman told aides, “The reputation of American poker is at stake, and I expect every man to do his duty.” What would Truman think of the current crop?
This year’s candidates might ape another HST trait: authenticity. He donned an engineer’s cap and drove the locomotive. He visited a barbershop, saying, “None of that fancy stuff. I don’t want anything that smells.” He dubbed wife Bess “the boss” and daughter Margaret “the boss who bosses the boss.” Swearing frequently, he got away with it. The press liked him.
At a time when history means to some people what they had for lunch, a voter should prize John F. Kennedy’s love of yesterday. Kennedy’s grandfather was John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a congressman and Boston mayor. The president’s New England past and Irish sensibility — “Dad taught me politics. Mother taught us history” — made him, as his inaugural address said of America, “proud of our ancient heritage.” In 1957, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography, “Profiles in Courage.”
Kennedy’s humor was more au courant. In 1962, Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK at Madison Square Garden. “Having been sung to in such a sweet, wholesome way,” he said, “I can now retire from politics.” In another event, Kennedy hosted a dinner for distinguished Harvard alumni, most a generation or two older. “It is difficult to welcome you to the White House,” he told them, “because at least two-thirds of you have attended more stag dinners here than I have.”
Jimmy Carter’s quality in 1976 was perhaps a moral to correspond to now. The Democratic Party was thought elitist, secular, and wastrel. Carter was a born-again candidate from a small town of Plains, Georgia who taught Sunday school and inhaled the Faith of our Fathers. How antipodal to the Watergate scandal of the Nixon presidency! What a vision existed — a ticket back to power.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 ability to argue mattered especially in debate. Donald Trump doesn’t argue: he repeats. By college, Clinton had focused on the law, wrote David Maraniss, “his budding rhetorical skills” evinced in defense of the ancient Roman senator Catiline in a Latin class mock trial. Looking ahead, Clinton saw that a majority and plurality of members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, had legal training. They still do.
Barack Obama taught that a campaign succeeds only by stirring opportunity for every race, sex, and creed, realizing that his legacy as president lay in representing and treating all Americans alike. Today’s Democratic Party is casting one group against another, dividing, not uniting, and refusing to enforce immigration law. It does not realize the degree of that disaster — and unlikely to soon repent.
This list is not complete, of course. Other presidents had the same qualities I mention here: Kennedy clearly shared FDR’s courage, emerging from World War II a hero. Truman shared JFK’s reverence for history, becoming probably our best-read president. Moreover, no leader is perfect. The art of making a president is to measure the past against the present. Ask who is best for your party — and above all, our land.
Curt Smith is the author of 17 books, including the new “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House.” He is a former speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush, Associated Press “Best in New York State” radio commentator, and senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. He writes twice monthly for Gatehouse Media Newspapers. Email: email@example.com.