Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Who Was President When You Were Twelve?

As 2014 draws to a close, I'm enjoying David McCullough's masterful biography of Truman, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1993.

Since Truman was president well before I was born, most of what I've learned about him over the years, prior to now, came in conversations with my dad. My father loves to talk history and politics, especially presidential politics, which is likely where I get some of my fascination with the subject.

One of the things I remember my dad telling me most clearly was how strange it felt for him at first to think of Harry S. Truman as president. When Truman became president in April 1945, on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, my father had no memory of any other president ever. FDR had been elected to an unprecedented and never to be repeated four terms (though he would serve only three months of the fourth term). He was first elected in 1932, the year both of my parents were born. Mom was a newly turned 13 and Dad 12 almost 13 when FDR died and Truman became president. No wonder he had a hard time fathoming that anybody else could have the job! That little anecdote has been  lodged in my memory for years. Interestingly, McCullough spends a lot of time explaining how Truman himself (in his first dazed reaction) had a hard time thinking of himself as president too.

Maybe because my own daughter is now 12, I've found myself thinking through other "12s" in our family history. It's interesting and revealing to think about U.S. presidential history in terms of the youth of different generations. My daughter, of course, is 12 during the second term of Barack Obama, the first African American president. When I was 12, Ronald Regan had just been elected for the first time (he would be president my entire adolescence), though Jimmy Carter was actually in office through the end of the year I turned 12. When my husband was 12, Richard Nixon had just been inaugurated for his second term, a year prior to his resignation of the presidency (a political environment to which my husband still attributes much of his own attitudes toward and ideas about politics). My middle sister turned 12 the year Nixon resigned. My oldest sister turned 12 less than half a year before Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, and my brother turned 12 the next year, just two months before Nixon was first elected.

My mother-in-law, five years younger than my parents, would have been 12 the year that Harry S. Truman was inaugurated for his first full term (but essentially his second) following his improbable election victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. My husband's aunt, ten years his junior, was 12 the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

My maternal grandmother turned 12 in 1921, the year that Warren G. Harding was inaugurated (in March, as they did back then). My maternal grandfather turned 12 in 1924, the year that Calvin Coolidge delivered the first radio broadcast from the White House. My paternal grandmother would have turned 12 in 1917, the year Woodrow Wilson was elected for his second term and the U.S. went to war (for the first time) with Germany (a war in which Harry Truman would serve as an artillery captain.) My paternal grandfather turned 12 in 1913, the year Wilson was inaugurated for the first time, succeeding William Howard Taft.

I find this so interesting that I may go back even further and figure out who was president when my great-grandparents were 12!


Eeyore said...

Interesting question. When I was 12, John F. Kennedy was President. That was 1961, so he took office when I was in 6th grade. The election in 1960 stands out in my memory because my father died in June 1960. Both my parents were life-long Democrats and had been fairly active in the Democratic party in Kansas (yes, there was one then).

Candidates didn't campaign for two years like they do now, so there wasn't much going on until that summer and fall. I watched the Kennedy/Nixon debates on TV with my mother and heard her thoughts about both men. It was the first time I paid attention to politics. He was amazing to me and when I was in 9th grade it was all the more devastating when he was assassinated, because he was the first President I followed.

I remember being inspired by his inaugural speech - the first time I had listened to one. The idea of the Peace Corps and the possibility of sending a man into space were the kinds of things that inspired young people and challenged those who had lived through one or two World Wars and just wanted peace. The Cold War loomed large in our lives, even in southwest Kansas. Missiles fired from Cuba might actually reach my little corner of the world. I became aware of civil rights while Kennedy was President; even though my school was always integrated, some businesses in town were not and I started paying attention to how others were treated.

President Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic to be elected as president, and that was a big deal. That was actually the thing that concerned my protestant mother the most - would the Pope be in charge of our country if we elected John Kennedy. (Of course not, as it turned out, and she was glad that she had voted for him in spite of her misgivings about his religion.)

So much of his presidency was full of historical mile stones. As it happened I went home sick the day he was assassinated and watched all the coverage on television as I curled under a blanket on the sofa. My mother had to go back to work and took my little transistor radio with her.

I think there have been some presidents that were just not memorable, and some that people would like not to remember. I have always been glad that I was old enough to remember President Kennedy, all the good and the parts that weren't good, the happy moments of seeing a young energetic President and his lovely family and the very sad and tragic end of his time in office.

His presidency was a time of learning and awareness for me that would not have been the same with any other president.

Erin said...

We shared a table at a dinner theatre show over the summer with a man who also was born early in FDR's term and was very weirded out when he died and realized there would be another president. Quite an interesting time to live in!

I turned 12 a few weeks after Bill Clinton became president. What was cool about him to me was the fact that he had a daughter close to my age. That made what was going on in the White House feel more relatable...

Beth said...

Pat, what beautiful reflections about your beginning interest in politics and Kennedy's legacy. I often find that discussing people's earlier political memories (or first memories of national or world events) is so eye-opening!

My first political memory is actually Nixon leaving the White House, but I was very young when that happened and didn't entirely understand it. I remember feeling very worried over the Iranian hostage crisis in the mid-70s.

I do wonder how much our view of how things are/should be run in our country doesn't have a lot to do with our earliest memories of who was in charge! Though I have changed quite a bit from my youthful years when I lived in a household that was solidly behind Regan.

Beth said...

Erin, I remember that election so well! It was only the second election I could vote in, and I was very enthusiastic and hopeful about Clinton.

I hadn't thought about the fact that you and Chelsea are close to the same age. I think I am probably pretty close in age to Amy Carter, come to think of it.

Erin said...

Okay, looked it up - Amy was born about five months before you and Chelsea almost exactly a year before me. 8-)

Beth said...

Well, that's kind of cool. And there really weren't any first daughters in the White House in between the two! :)

Free Range Anglican said...

Reagan was president (second term) when I was twelve. What fascinates me is how much of our modern technology would boggle my father's imagination. He's been gone only 14 years, but never saw a smart phone, iPod, tablet or GPS. He was pretty sure laptops were a bad plan because the all-in-one factor was hard to repair. The internet as we know it was a baby and he only managed to use it to send email in his last year or two. He would have hated compact fluorescent lights and been fascinated by pocket lasers and LED technology; after all he was an engineer! 14 years, and all that. For what its worth, Eisenhower was president when dad was twelve.

OlDave said...

If you want to take an interesting and less scholarly look at Truman:
Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller
Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo