If you have even the slightest interest in who will be elected president next November, I have a suggestion: Beg, borrow or call your local library for a copy of “Listen Up, Mr. President.” It was published back in 2009 or so, but it’s still a perfect recipe for clear thinking voters, no matter what their political beliefs are.
The authors were — and are — two veteran journalists, Helen Thomas and Craig Crawford. You may recall Ms. Thomas as the woman who called out “Thank you, Mr. President “ at the close of the hundreds of White House press briefings between 1960 and her retirement a few years ago.
Crawford was a longtime reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, and worked as a columnist for the Congressional Quarterly.
The book’s subtitle is “Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do.” Most of the chapter headings are advice for future presidents. Such as: Read the Constitution; Open up — the people have the right to know; Tell the Truth; Have courage, even if it hurts; Give us vision — it’s your legacy; Do the right thing — you’ll never be wrong.
If there’s either a liberal or conservative slant to what Thomas and Crawford have written, I haven’t detected it. The book is filled with anecdotes and incidents that both praise and criticize the presidents.
I learned things that I had not been aware of, such as JFK’s unwitting contribution toward his own death by insisting he would ride in an open car in Dallas. His security people had begged him to choose the bullet-and-bomb proof limousine, to allow Secret Service agents to at least stand on the running boards of the convertible to be used, and not to allow the motorcade route to be published in advance. Before the event, one aide said, “He’s not coming down here to hide.”
Indeed not. And Lee Harvey Oswald was waiting for him. This reinforced the advice to all presidents: “Listen to your protectors.”
The authors cite the strengths and victories of some of the White House occupants, but they also compiled a list of what they believed were the most shameful mistakes various presidents made.
In the presidential terms beginning in 1960, the alleged king-size goofs were:
• Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.
• Lyndon Johnson’s allowing the unwinnable Vietnamese war to continue, rather than resort to peaceful negotiations.
• Ronald Reagan’s clumsy handling of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair, keeping it on the front pages longer than it warranted.
• John Kennedy’s failure to squelch the CIA’s Bay-of-Pigs invasion before it even took place, thus contributing to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
• Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in coverup.
The “worst mistake of all time,’’ according to the authors, was:
• President James Buchanan’s failure to oppose the South’s efforts toward succession from the Union. The result: the Civil War.
Although he did not quite make the “10 worst” list, George W. Bush came close, mostly because of his belief in the wisdom of invading Iraq and overthrowing its imaginary cache of WMD — weapons of mass destruction. As was the case with other presidents, Bush paid too much attention to advisers who believed that military action was, or could be, the ultimate solution to Mideast problems. Or so Thomas and Crawford felt.
The friendly-enemy warfare between presidents and news media deserves a separate book, or several of them. Incoming presidents usually promise to be open and available to journalists, but that’s seldom what happens. In the “Listen Up” book, Lyndon Johnson was described as especially devious in his attempt to outwit the press. Example: he might gather a small group of reporters around him, but then speak so softly that no one could be sure of what he said.
The book was completed and published just as the Obama years began. The authors took a generally positive view of Obama, hoping that his admittedly limited political experience would be balanced by his willingness to learn from his predecessors.
I felt a kind of sadness as I read about the presidencies that spanned the Helen Thomas years of 1960 to 2008. Whatever the highs and lows of those who occupied the Oval Office during that period, there was a sense of a possible limit to the depths to which they would descend in pursuit of their goals. Or so it seems to me. Whatever that limitation was or might have been, it ended in November 2016.
Thomas and Crawford end their book with a sober but hopeful summary entitled “Listen Up, Voters — It’s Up to You.” Their verdict: We are who we elect. To which many readers will surely reply, “God save us all!”