He Follows the Leaders

Michael Barone sizes up US presidents from FDR to Reagan. AUTHOR INTERVIEW

MICHAEL BARONE finds aging election results, dusty demographic studies, and past polling data fascinating. He argues that these statistics can unlock the reasons why the events of 20th-century America happened. ``There's life beneath those numbers,'' Mr. Barone insists. ``When the birth rate goes down during the Depression, you're looking at something that really pierces to the heart of people's lives.''

Mr. Barone - a one-time political consultant, now a writer at U.S. News & World Report and one of the authors of ``The Almanac of American Politics'' - has written a new book, ``Our Country,'' which spans American history from the 1930s to the '80s (see review at right).

The book sets today's political scene in historical context. Although his narrative begins with the Roosevelt administration in 1932, he found he had to reach further back to set the stage. ``American voting patterns in the 1930s were largely determined by where [each family] was during the Civil War,'' he says. ``Why is Georgia the No. 2 state for John F. Kennedy in 1960? [Union General] Sherman. [Democrat Kennedy is] still carrying the counties that Sherman marched over.''

In a recent discussion with Monitor editors, Barone offered candid observations on the United States presidents from FDR to Ronald Reagan:

Franklin Roosevelt

I came into [writing the book] as a Roosevelt fan and ended up as a bigger fan. He was not only good, he was shrewd.... I think beneath that surface geniality that people noticed was the systematic way he administered government. What you see is that for every major decision the guy had or task he wanted done, he hired first-rate people.... He proved this in the military leadership in World War II....

After a while you are thinking this is not an accident, it's not the result of a smile, it's not just that the guy had a good radio voice. There was some design here and some shrewdness, some sense of what was important, the ability to see the path clearly ... in a time of turmoil....

We all take it for granted today that the economy recovered [from the Depression], economic growth came back to some extent. I don't think that was inevitable....

Roosevelt [also] bet $4 billion on [the atom bomb] project, which was a good bet.

Harry Truman

Truman is now, in a way, almost overrated.... He prided himself on making decisions. But he made them almost too fast.... People would come to Truman and it'd be ``yes,'' ``no,'' ``yes,'' ``no'' - four decisions before breakfast....

His record in 1946 was terrible; in 1947 it was great. In 1948 he ended up winning an election which everybody thought he was going to lose....

[His opponent] Thomas E. Dewey went to Gallup and said, ``Why are you quitting polling on Oct. 25th? Wouldn't it be smarter to keep polling later?'' And Dr. Gallup, a very wise and wonderful man, on this occasion said, ``Oh no, we know opinion doesn't change late in the game.''

Dewey was right.

Dwight Eisenhower

[He was] the best prepared man to come to the presidency in terms of knowing about foreign policy.... Eisenhower wanted the US to stay in the NATO alliance, committed to Europe, and not have an Asia-first foreign policy. He was successful in that. He stopped the Korean War, successful; cut down inflation, successful. Beyond that, He didn't want much else.... He didn't want [conservative] Republicans to get a majority in Congress, and they didn't.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy was far better than we had a right to expect from a man whose father bought him the presidency.

Lyndon B. Johnson

He was very shrewd about the Senate and the South. He advised Kennedy to push hard on civil rights, for example....

He was agonizingly unshrewd about the country and the world. He failed to build a stronger Democratic Party, even though he wanted to. He weakened it....

[In Vietnam], he never really got from his generals a plan to win the war. He never asked them for it....

Richard M. Nixon

I'm not a Nixon revivalist.... I think he was a lousy politician. Here is a guy who was so obsessed by his enemies that he is constantly letting them set his agenda and establish crises to which he sees himself responding.... He gets absolutely fixated on his political enemies....

Nixon in many ways is our most-liberal president. He put in EPA, OSHA, ... affirmative action, pushed for a public-assistance plan.... He liquidated the war effort in Vietnam.... He did a lot of the liberal policies. [But liberals] hated him so much that they gave him a lot of hassle and he, in turn, got mesmerized by this.

Gerald Ford

A caretaker. His problem was that if he pardoned Nixon he was in trouble; if he didn't pardon Nixon, he was in trouble.

Jimmy Carter

Give him credit for Camp David. This is one area where his penchant for detail, for which he was criticized so much, actually worked to his benefit.

I think [the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt] was a serious contribution to peace in the world because otherwise the Mideast could have drawn the superpowers into some kind of a confrontation.

He ran as an outsider.... I don't think he ever made the pivot and became a leader in office.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan was successful in large part because he was an imitation, perhaps a pale imitation, of Franklin Roosevelt. I was fascinated to find out that Reagan's phrase in the 1980 debate, ``Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is the country better off?'' is an almost direct steal from the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chat [in] June 1934. The idea of the comment was suggested to [Reagan] by his handlers, but the words seem to have come back ... into his consciousness from 46 years before....

He wanted to lower tax rates, hold down the size of government, vastly increase the defense budget. All those things were accomplished and seem to have led to good results.

Now, in second-line issues he was far inferior to Roosevelt.... But we had seven years of low inflation and economic growth. Nobody in 1980 was predicting that. We had the ``evil empire'' collapsing.

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