Monday, February 16, 2009

Thoughts on President's Day

Ever since Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday were lumped into "President's Day" I lost respect for the new holiday. Millard Fillmore in the 19th century and Jimmy Carter in the 20th bear living witness to the inequality in stature of of former presidents.

There is a Jewish saying that "The heart of a leader is in the hand of "G-d". This principle becomes apparent in Exodus in 14:4: And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that he shall follow after them"
It has happened that more than once in recent history that Presidents who harboured strong personal prejudices against Jews were instrumental in helping Israel at a critical time. Richard Nixon gave critical help to Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. It is reported that Nixon ordered an airlift of thirty plane loads of badly needed weapons to Israel.

In the tape recordings made in the White House that proved to be Nixon's undoing, he war heard on numerous occasions giving vent to crude anti Jewish remarks. Despite this, Nixon is remembered with gratitude by Jews who recall his extension of critical assistance to Israel in its time of peril.

Harry Truman is lauded by supporters of Israel for extending American recognition to Israel within minutes of its founding. What was not widely reported is that Truman's private attitudes towards Jews were quite checkered.

David Susskind, well known producer and talk show host worked on a television documentary about Truman, traveling to the former President's home in Missouri to do so. In his book Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter, James Humes reported the following about a conversation with Susskind concerning his collaboration with Truman.

Susskind said that each morning he would arrive at Truman's house at Independence [Missouri]. He would wait on the porch on a cold February day while Mrs. Truman went to inform her husband of his arrival. After about the fourth morning, he asked the president in his walk why he was never asked inside.

"You're a Jew, David, and no Jew has ever been in the house."

A nonplussed Susskind replied, "I am amazed that you who recognized Israel and championed the integration of the army would say such a thing!"

"David," he explained, "this is not the White House – it's the Wallace [Bess Truman's maiden name] house. Bess runs it, and there's never been a Jew inside the house in her or her mother's lifetime.

I wish there were more "Jew haters" like Truman and Nixon.

Herbert Hoover is unfairly pegged with responsibility for the Great Depression. While a President may have a lot of influence, economic policies tend to be like acorns which take a long time to become trees and give meaningful shade. A lot of the problems that gave rise to the depression were systemic shortcomings that were only discovered after the fact.

One achievement of Hoover that is little noted by historians is his work in hunger relief during the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1921 as reported on

As World War I ended, the United States helped many countries around the world recover from the effects of war through the American Relief Administration (ARA). Herbert Hoover headed the ARA and had opened numerous missions in Europe by 1919. The primary goal of the ARA was to provide food relief, but it also provided medical aid, relocation services, and much else. The ARA attempted to open a mission in Russia in 1919 and 1920, but they were unsuccessful because the Bolsheviks suspected that the Americans had intervened in the Russian Civil War. However, after the horrible famine of the winter of 1920 and 1921, and after writer Maxim Gorky petitioned Vladimir Lenin to provide relief, the new Soviet government recognized the need for the ARA in Russia.

It takes a long time for history to properly assess a president. Reagan, although scoffed at during his presidency is widely credited with being instrumental in the fall of communism. The jury might still be out on his economic policies. If the current economic crisis is properly studied and learned from, its roots will need to be traced back through several presidential administrations. What caused our current slump? Was it extending countless bad mortgages? Was it deregulation of financial institutions? Honest history is a prerequisite for any effective economic remedy.

Who was the worst President of the twentieth century? I would nominate Jimmy Carter. It was under his administration that Iran was transformed from an American ally into a sworn enemy due to refusal to support the Shah against those seeking to overthrow him. Predictably, the human rights so championed by Carter suffered dramatic setbacks in Iran after the Shah was overthrown.

The advantage of President's Day over over a focus on Washington and Lincoln is that it moves one to focus on leadership in different circumstances. Some of the mediocre men who preceded Lincoln in the presidency laid the foundations for crises that spun out of control during the Civil War and the Lincoln administration. Study of some of the lesser known presidents sheds some light on issues related to the Civil War that are less discussed such as the relationship between agriculture in the south and industry in the north.

Times of crisis demand greatness of those in power. Peaceful times demand quiet and unheralded wisdom. Everyone remembers September 11. Every day of peace, every "slow news day" is by grace of G-d the product of thankless self sacrifice on the part of America's defenders. We should be as thankful for each day of peace as we are for each great victory.

The Fourth of July and Memorial Day have obvious meaning and value. One is the birthday of the country. The other honours those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defending our country. Thanksgiving affirms our dependence on a higher power. With the outsourcing of jobs and attacks on the earning power of American workers, perhaps a renewed commitment to the ideals of Labor Day might be in order.

I almost always work on civil holidays. It is the nature of my profession. But I do reflect on the message of each holiday. President's Day is a fitting time to pray for the welfare, wisdom and courage of our President. It is also a good time to think about the challenges faced in each administration as well as each generation. As Israel chooses its next leader, I find myself extending the same prayers and fond thoughts to the leadership and people of Israel. To both nations, each dear to my heart I wish a happy President's Day.

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