Larry King on Presidential Greatness

Plus An Apocryphal Story

Since you ask ...

``The top presidents, according to the American people? In order, they are: Lincoln, Kennedy, G. W. Bush, and a tie between Clinton, Reagan and FDR. As they used to say on Sesame Street -- which two of these don't belong? Heck, which three of these don't belong?''

I would argue that's slightly the wrong question. It would have been simpler to put it: which of these belongs on a list of great presidents? The correct answer would have been, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Leaving aside any partisan bickering over their merits or defects, all of the rest are just too close to us in time for any determination to be made. As the apocryphal story goes, Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger or somebody asked Chou En-Lai or maybe Mao Tse-Tung what he thought about the French Revolution, and whichever Chinese thinker it was replied, it's too early to tell. As for the eighth graders who couldn't identify video of any president before Reagan, I'm not sure that's much of an indictment of American eighth graders. They're, what, fourteen? They were born during the final years of the Reagan presidency. How often have they seen images of Nixon or Johnson? When today's fourteen-year-olds were born, three ex-presidents separated them from Lyndon Johnson. That means they're separated from Johnson by the same number of ex-presidents as I was from Calvin Coolidge, a thought that makes me want to call for my shawl and hot chocolate and ask the nice girl from the senior center to wheel me up closer to the fire. I console myself by remembering one of my three, FDR, spent longer in office than all three of theirs, so mine cover a much greater span of time. But the issue here is immediate ex-presidents, not length of time. I could probably have identified film of Franklin Roosevelt when I was fourteen, but I'd hate to swear I knew Harry Truman by sight, and I'm pretty sure I'd have drawn a blank on Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge. In all modesty, I was quite a well-read fourteen-year-old, with a precocious interest in history. My average classmate wouldn't have recognized Harry Truman if he'd tripped over FDR in his wheelchair and landed in Harry's lap. If anything, I think the lack of recognition says more about American media than about American teenagers. Film or video of presidents dating back to at least Theodore Roosevelt is available. Whose fault is it kids haven't seen it enough to remember who the ex-presidents are? I know journalism is supposed to be about what's happening now, but what happens now has a lot to do with what happened yesterday and last month and five years ago. The institutional memory of the average American newspaper is two to three years. Television's is maybe a couple of hours. It also says something about American primary and secondary schools, but I'm not sure it says they're doing an awful job. Maybe they are. But are they doing a more awful job now than they used to? It's easy for bright people like you and I and your readers -- college grads, people who read, whose friends are college grads who read -- to misremember what we knew and when we knew it. I groan aloud at some of the ungrammatical sentences, badly punctuated and with bent and twisted syntax, that I see in the course of my work. I've understood grammar and punctuation forever, it seems to me. You'd think the credit goes to my schools and college. In fact, they did a lousy job of teaching me grammar, punctuation, and so forth. Most of what I know I taught myself after college. What they gave me was a certain foundation, enough for me to realize I knew nowhere near as much as I ought to. Conceivably, they could have beaten more into me, but I'm not sure that would have been terribly efficient. Giving me a bit of background that equipped me to find out what I wanted to know when I wanted to know it may be about as much as you can ask of a teacher (aside from some basic skills in arithmetic). America's schools, especially its junior high and high schools, do an excellent job of fitting Americans for adult life, which really is all you can ask of an educational system. American teenagers are taught, very thoroughly, how to function as part of network of people within a large institution. The average American teenager coming out of a decent high school is a battle- hardened veteran of prolonged guerrilla warfare on a social battlefield. That perfectly describes the working life most of them will endure.



p.s. My spellchecker missed ``apocryphal,'' but that may be because it checks for British English, and in British English, particularly that practiced by British journalists, no story is apocryphal.

There are more Larry King Letters available.