By J. Michael Willard
Even after these many years, I can still hear the sound of my former boss on the campaign trail: “Let me tell you. You have three friends: The Sears Roebuck catalogue, the Lord God Almighty, and Robert C. Byrd.”
It was meant as a touch of campaign levity, but to the folks that revered him — and he was and still is the undisputed crown prince of West Virginia politics — it was the honest-to-gospel truth.
Byrd said the punchline with such raging river flourish that it never failed to bring people to their feet. It wasn’t unusual for these mountain dwellers to have three pictures on their walls — Jesus, FDR and Byrd.
Then, he would break out his fiddle, play and sing the old standard “Amazing Grace”, and tears would flood eyes. There would be a scattering of spontaneous “Amens” respectfully shouted.
With nine months to go before Americans elect a new president, or perhaps stick with the current one, thoughts of the former US Senate Leader bring pleasant memories back to me.
I went to work for him in December, 1976, the month prior to his election by his colleagues as Senate leader. It was a life’s lesson, and a bronco ride on El Diablo that I wouldn’t trade for coin or position.
Over my nearly eight years at his side — whether at critter and bean dinners in Mercer County or meeting with the leaders of far-flung countries from China to Iran, Egypt to Russia, Saudi Arabia to Turkey— his few bad qualities stuck to me like boat-bottom barnacles.
My only hope is that I appropriated a few of his many good ones.
Whether a blessing or a curse, I tend to measure all politicians for the top job through the rearview mirror of Robert Carlyle Byrd, an orphan child who grew to manhood eating from the coal miner’s table of his foster parents. He died 10 years ago at the age of 92 while still serving in the Senate.
I miss him and his wisdom, and often wonder — though I think I know — what his prognosis would be about today’s tribe of political leaders.
It is with this yardstick, I set about to gage my personal ranking of the notables and the notorious who have occupied the White House since I was born in 1945. I admit from the outset it is an extremely subjective exercise, but, in order of my fandom, I submit the following for acceptance or ridicule:
1. Franklin D. Roosevelt: It could be because i get a Social Security check thanks to FDR, but I like to think his №1 ranking is because he saw the US through the depression and World War II. He died a month prior to my birth.
2. Barack Obama: This, of course, is a controversial pick to be so high and so recent. He increased our prestige abroad, pulled us out of an economic quagmire, lowered unemployment, provided health care and broke the color barrier for the top job.
3. Lyndon Johnson: He gave us the Great Society which was mainly a Good Society. He out-maneuvered the southern Senate Democrats and gained a measure of civil rights unheard of before that time. But he also bogged us down in Vietnam, which was his undoing.
4. Dwight Eisenhower: One heck of a peace time president. Sure, there was a Cold War, but somehow we felt safe with Ike, even though a few purchased private bomb shelters. He was a great general.
5. Harry Truman: I am not as enamored with Truman as many are, even after reading David McCullough’s biography on him. However, you don’t take office after an FDR and end a war in the Pacific without being celebrated. Whether he had to approve dropping the big one on Japan or whether victory was in our grasp already, will be debated for the eons.
6. Jimmy Carter: Carter is greatly underestimated. He ranks №1 as our best former President. He has had a post-presidential career of service, and has won the Nobel Peace Prize. While President, he normalized relations with China, brokered a Mid-east Peace agreement, and signed the Panama Canal treaties. Not bad for a single-termer.
7. Ronald Reagan: Reagan was more reasonable, more compassionate and even politically smarter than we generally give him credit. I met him on occasion and personally liked him. He was good for America. However, his trickle down economics came from La-La land. To say he brought about the fall of communism is the great exaggeration of our time — but he helped.
8. John Kennedy: I would like to put him higher, but his mere three years in office were simply way too short. He challenged America to greatness and launched the Peace Corps and the space program. He had his Bay of Pigs fiasco, but yet he stared down the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis. Oh, what might have been if he had lived.
9. George Bush 41: He had the good sense to put a coalition together, beat the bejesus out of Saddam, and then pull out without becoming bogged down. I favored him over Clinton in the 1992 election because he had more foreign policy experience.
10. Bill Clinton: This one is difficult. Of course, there was Monica thing, but there was so much more, both in terms of foreign policy and domestic responsibility, including getting the nation’s books in order. i don’t think he was a great President, but then we weren’t involved in any wars either.
11. Gerald Ford: I’m rather ambivalent about Ford. I think he was a hell of a guy and I understand a decent football player at Michigan. He was never elected, but was elevated to the Presidency when Nixon resigned. He gave us WIN buttons (whip inflation now).
12 Richard Nixon: What can be said? The fellow was a common two-bit burglar. However, he managed detente with the Soviet Union and opened up China. His character flaws were fatal.
13. George Bush 43: I honestly can’t think of anything he accomplished that was good. America’s economy nearly collapsed and he got us into wars we are still fighting. But, he had a very nice and gracious First Lady in Laura Bush.
14. Donald Trump: It was my intention to keep this column non-political. So, let’s just leave it at that, and let the November elections be the judge.
But, hell, I don’t like the blowhard very much.