Tag Archives: President of the United States

This Day in History 2/22: Happy Birthday, George Washington!

A big birthday salute to our first President (under our current Constitution) George Washington, born on February 22, 1732 (according to the current Gregorian calendar) in Virginia.

Needless to say, almost every school boy and girl can recite Georgie’s accomplishments ad nauseum–well, at least my kids can:  Planter (and slaveowner), surveyer, inadvertantly began the first real “world war” in the French and Indian War, delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses, commander of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, and of course the first President under the document that came out of said convention.

Attached is a scene from the 1999 A&E film The Crossing, which deals with Washington’s Christmas victory at Trenton in 1776.  General Horatio Gates, a former British soldier, outlies his reservations about Washington’s plan–and Washington himself.  In his response, played by Jeff Daniels, you can note Washington’s stature, resolve, reckless nature and his fiery temper: something often forgotten about him.

It’s a great scene to use in the classroom to compare with the idealized Washington of paintings, prints, books and film.  Hope you enjoy the rest of Washington’s birthday.

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What’s your Favorite Book for Presidents’ Week?

Seal of the President of the United States

Image via Wikipedia

Like so many parts of American life, our holidays lend themselves to self-gratifying aggrandizement.

Presidents’ Week nee Presidents’ Day nee Washington‘s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday have taken a strange path through American education.  At first, the days were merely milestones to remember two of our most important Presidents.  Then, in some odd spirit of inclusiveness, the holidays were combined to form Presidents’ Day, thus including all Presidents–even James Buchanan, and that’s a stretch.

Today, the mere day just won’t do: retailers and car dealerships require a WEEK to find an excuse to dress two schmucks as Washington and Lincoln so they can hawk their crap while the kids are home on their winter break.

For teachers, the days leading up to Presidents’ Week inevitably involve books concerning our chief executives.  As a nifty way to share resources, The Neighborhood is now asking its readers to submit their favorite book for the holiday.  They can range from the tried and true childrens’ biographies of the past (Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire‘s incredible 1939 classic Abraham Lincoln comes to mind) to the modern tomes that deal more realistically with the office (Such as Judith St. George‘s So You Want to be President?).

Please leave your suggestions in the comment box.  I’d love to see the different resources our readers use and share them with fellow teachers.

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This Day in History 8/9: Nixon Resigns the Presidency

It was a day my parents, and probably many of you in the Neighborhood, remember all too well.

On August 9, 1974, after two years of investigation, scandal, cover-up and tumult, President Richard Nixon became the first chief executive in the United States to resign from office.  He did so after the failed cover-up of the Watergate affair, in which members of the Nixon campaign broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC in 1972.

To many people, most I gather, the resignation of President Nixon was a cause of relief, exasperation and even joy. 

I however, take no joy in this event.

I report it and teach it because it was necessary for Nixon to resign to save what was left of the integrity of the office of President.  He was a man of many personal demons, most of which manifested itself in the Oval Office through a culture of surveillance, deception and paranoia.  It is very clear to me, as it was to even his fellow Republicans in Congress, that Nixon brought this on himself and had to go.

Yet what pains me most is what could have been. 

To many moderate conservatives like myself, we saw in Nixon a pragmatic internationalist that we could model ourselves.  His belief in a limited government, yet one that protected basic rights and ensured an opportunity for all, is one we can all get behind–he even supported a health care bill that was even more far-reaching than Obama’s!

On the international stage–where he shined–Nixon saw the clear need for rational, open discussion with leaders on the opposite side of the Cold War, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao tse-tung.  Even though he did stumble–as the escalation of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia suggests–he did keep a blueprint for our withdrawal that culminated in finally leaving Vietnam in 1973.  The Republicanism of his generation was a far cry from the free-spending cowboy antics of Dubya, and a more nuanced version of Reaganism.

I’m a Republican because of Richard Nixon, not because of Ronald Reagan.  I still believe in those ideals–even though the man behind them was so flawed as to self-destruct and almost take the executive branch with him.

This is why I take no joy, no cheer in his downfall.

Attached is the excerpt from his August 8, 1974 speech, thanks to the Miller Centerof Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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Movies for the Classroom: Decisions that Shook the World

“My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” ~ George Washington

As many here in the Neighborhood are aware, I am not a huge fan of the policies of President Obama. 

However, I do appreciate the difficulties he faces in making decisions that carry far-reaching consequences.  As the above quote suggests, George Washington, our first President, understood this far too well.

In fact, nearly every President since Washington has reached that point: the place where you cannot delegate any more authority, you cannot “pass the buck” any further to a lower-ranking peon.  The President, and only the President, has to make the decision–and people will be unhappy one way or another.

There’s no certainty that the decision he made was the right one.  It may be many years before that decision is vindicated or villified.  Few people can make such leaps in the dark without some sort of mental or emotional breakdown, yet we expect nothing less from our Chief Executives.

I thought about this as I stumbled upon this StarzFilms documentary made in 2004.  Decisions that Shook the World discusses three Presidents who reached a moment of action.  First, Lyndon Johnson, an accidental President thanks to a tragic assassination in 1963, makes a decision to support a Civil Rights bill, even though it meant alienating most of his white Southern base of support. 

Second, Ronald Reagan steadfastly supported a “Star Wars”-like missile defensive program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), even when a Democratic Congress howled at the expense and pundits rolled their eyes at the folly of such a “fantastic” program.

Lastly, Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of an economic depression in his own country, decides to provide Great Britain with arms and materials before our entry into World War II.  This was at a time when many Americans thought the United States should maintain its neutrality from what seemed to be a mostly European affair.

In each instance, the consequences were felt long after the decision was made.  Johnson, as it turned out, made the right decision on civil rights–albeit the wrong one when it came to Vietnam.  Reagan’s solid approach to anti-Communism helped ensure that the Cold War would end.  However, “Star Wars” opened up the floodgates for massive spending from the Pentagon that we still cannot control.  Roosevelt’s actions kept Britain going until we did enter the war.  Yet the war we initially entered was in the Pacific, with the European war, in the beginning, as an afterthought.

The documentary works well as an episodic series to use piecemeal in classrooms.  It works well with creating “case study” scenarios where students can make executive decisions using the same information available at the White House at the time. 

Finally, I hope the film will get students to appreciate the extraordinarily difficult position that the President has.  He has the toughest job in the world, and it gets harder with every passing administration.

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Videos for the Classroom: Adlai Stevenson’s finest moment – The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

This is really commemorated about a month later than now, but it leads to a great teachable moment I had with my kids.

We’re studying the powers of the President, and I thought it would be fun if the students worked on a case study of an event that involved Presidential action.  I picked the Cuban missile crisis, and I laid out a dossier of the facts of the case: missiles were discovered in Cuba by an American spy plane.  The United States is under pressure from the Soviet Union to withdraw missiles from Turkey.  The Russians are not saying for certain that there are missiles.  The United States is prepared to escalate with possible military action. 

I had the class divide into groups, take the facts and create a course of action.  Amazingly, their plans mirrored the plans created by Kennedy’s cabinet and Pentagon officials in 1962.  One group favored a military option, a direct strike on the Cuban missiles.  Another group favored a covert operation to disable the missiles.  Still another favored a unilateral pullout from Turkey as a sign of goodwill.

What was most astonishing was my last group.  They actually said, “Maybe we should get other countries on our side by showing them what we have.”  By doing so, they figured, it would make the Soviets look like the bad guy, the aggressor.  I was floored.  These were barely teenagers and they tackled delicate foreign policy like a pro.

The videos today illustrate what happened, which is what my last group of students drew out in their own way.  The first video is actual footage of the Oct 25, 1962 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, where US ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronts Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin about the missiles in Cuba.  A two-time presidential loser, Stevenson won me over with this, his finest hour.  In a clear, lucid voice, he tells Zorin he is willing to wait “until Hell freezes over” for an answer to his questions about the missiles. 

And then came the photos.  Zorin didn’t have a chance.

I also included the fictionalized version from the film Thirteen Days.  It isn’t that fictionalized, as the dialogue in the UN is almost verbatim from the real thing.  These are both gems to use with your students.  They illustrate how delicate and complex foreign policy can be–yet incredibly direct when we’re in the right.

At the very least, it shows a time when both Republicans and Democrats can conduct foreign policy with a pair of brass ones.

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A Long-Winded History of Presidential Addresses to Congress

ObamaSpeechThe Presidential address to Congress is the “After School Special” of American politics.

In the course of over two centuries of representative government, the President sometimes summons both houses of Congress to deliver an address that contains a “very special message.”  It usually involves a “national crisis” or an “urgent threat” which “imperils our national character.”  At the same time, the President asks to “stop bipartisan bickering” in order to “find a solution” so that “America can be strong again.”

In the end, we all learned an important lesson (cue the Full House moral music).  Both sides decide to settle their differences.  More often, they wait until the President stops spouting and continue business as usual.  Besides, everyone hated that “Just Say No” episode of Punky Brewster, anyway.

I was thinking about these addresses as I was reading about the hubbub from President Obama’s recent address to Congress concerning health care reform.  You would think that such an address would be effective, considering the exalted office and the rare instance of both houses sitting together.

History has proven otherwise.

Giving speeches to Congress is one of the few tasks of a President that is spelled out specifically in the Constitution.

“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;” – United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 3, Clause 1.

The “State of the Union” is the only speech the President has to do by law, and he doesn’t even have to show up.  Notice that the Constitution doesn’t say “give a speech”, but rather “give to the Congress Information…”  Thomas Jefferson thought giving a speech from the “Throne” was too much like the British monarch opening Parliament, so starting in 1801, he wrote his address to be read by clerks.  This practice continued until Woodrow Wilson reverted to speechmaking in 1913.   

Presidential addresses to Congress apart from the “State of the Union” were extremely rare.   According to the clerk’s office of the U.S. House of Representatives, the President has only addressed both houses 61 times in American history.  60 of these speeches were given after 1913.   

The first joint-session address was John Adams’ address of May 16, 1797.  He addressed the legislature about the worsening relations between the United States and Revolutionary France.  Since many of the legislators were pro-French, the address fell on deaf ears.  This would not be the first time.  Between 1797 and 1913 not a single speech was made by a sitting president to a joint session of Congress.  Not even Abraham Lincoln—although the guy was painfully shy, so he gets a pass.

The real maelstrom of hot air begins in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson.  The guy had it all: bookish snobbery, rabid racism, and a dipstick diplomacy that opened up for a second world war.  Oh how he shared his book learning with the world: his 18 speeches before Congress is still a record, and it doesn’t even include his State of the Union addresses.  He touched on everything: tariffs, currency reform, Mexican relations (before WWI, the Mexican Revolution was a big problem.  The 1914 message was probably about Pancho Villa alone.), railroad disputes, and of course, that little problem out there called World War I.

Chief executives have been comparatively mum since old Woody left us in 1921.  The following are some important Presidential speeches since 1913.  You can judge how effective they are.

April 2, 1917 – Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war against Germany.  On December 4th, just for good measure, he sneaks a war declaration against Austria-Hungary into his State of the Union address.  You know, in case Germany felt lonely.

January 8, 1918 – Wilson again, this time at his dipstick best.  Here he outlined his plan for peace in postwar Europe: his famous “Fourteen Points.”  When the final treaty came up a couple years later, the Republican Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, rejected it.  This was probably the last time a Massachusetts senator voted against a Democratic President.

February 7, 1923 – Warren Harding addresses Great Britain’s mounting indebtedness to the United States.  This is unremarkable, except to remind Americans when our money was actually worth something.

December 8, 1941 – Franklin D. Roosevelt asks Congress to declare war on Japan following Pearl Harbor.  This time, Germany decides to jump the gun and declare war on us.  You know, in case Japan felt lonely.

March 1, 1945 – Roosevelt delivers the results of the Yalta Conference, where FDR feebly called Stalin “Uncle Joe,” while Uncle Joe molested his nephews by keeping Eastern Europe for himself.

November 17, 1947 – Harry Truman outlines US aid to postwar Europe.  Postwar Europe responds by purchasing tight-fitting sweaters, smoking filterless cigarettes and developing an anti-American attitude that would make Uncle Joe proud.

March 17, 1948 – In his address about European security, Truman told a packed House chamber: “Uncle Joe took WHAT??!!”

January 5, 1957 – Dwight Eisenhower delivers speech on the state of the Middle East.  He says two words: “Fucked up.”  He then corrects himself, “Sorry.  Fucked up royally.”  Ike makes his tee time at Congressional with time to spare.

May 25, 1961 – in his only non-State of the Union speech, John F. Kennedy addresses a host of “urgent national needs,” such as foreign aid, national defense, civil rights and the space race.  He urges speedy resolution, as he senses he’s “on the clock.”  In fact, he’s just being fellated by a stewardess under the podium.

March 25, 1965 – Lyndon Johnson addresses Congress on the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Southern legislators put fingers in their ears, pretending not to hear.  An hour with Huey Newton and a ball-peen hammer makes them whistle a different tune—and it ain’t “Dixie.”

June 1, 1972 – Richard Nixon reports on his trip to Europe: “Yep, they still hate us.”  Continues covering up Watergate.

October 8, 1974 – Gerald Ford speaks on the economy, learning the hard way that oil-rich Arab sultans do not accept mood rings as collateral.

April 20, 1977 – Jimmy Carter pleads with America to conserve on energy.  Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda are the only ones who listen.

February 18, 1981 – Ronald Reagan wants to talk about economic recovery, but can’t remember.

April 28, 1981 – Reagan remembers what he wanted to talk about in February, inflation.  His solution involves inflating Moscow with radioactive waste.  Tip O’Neill chuckles politely.

September 11, 1990 – George H. W. Bush addresses Congress and the nation about the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.  Bush can’t stand letting that precious crude go to waste.  September 11 passes insignificantly for another 11 years.

March  6, 1991 – Bush comes back to announce that the war is over: he got his crude back.  Good boy, Schwartzkopf. 

September 22, 1993 – Before both houses of Congress and with the economy in the shitter, Bill Clinton takes a stab at health care reform.  America goes ballistic and elects its first Republican Congress since the Truman years.  Bill sticks to riding the coattails of a surging tech bubble.  He also keeps his stabbing to young interns from now on.

September 20, 2001 – George W. Bush addresses a shocked nation reeling from the horrors of 9/11.  He announces the creation of a “Director of Homeland Security.”  At first, he wasn’t sure what this meant.  After reading up on Heinrich Himmler and the Gestapo, Dick Cheney got the hint.  He then filled in the boss with the details.

September 9, 2009 – Barack Obama takes another stab at health care reform, with an economy in the toilet and Americans disgruntled at his policies.  Sounds a lot like 1993, doesn’t it?

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Play Ball! Baseball in the History Classroom

It’s spring, and there’s nothing like baseball to get a listless young man to actually do some work in May and June.

Getting a boisterous lad engaged in the classroom is a bit like landing a marlin.  You have to hook on, sit in the fighting chair, be prepared for long periods of exhausting tugs and maneuvering until your prize finally tires out and succumbs to the inevitable. 

Boys are notoriously difficult to focus when delivering instruction.  Heck, I was a boy myself, and I had a million things on my mind–the new episode of Thundercats, how to finally get enough hearts to pass that level in Zelda, whether to smile at the girl in front of me or pull her hair, and imagining the ample bosoms of the young teacher across the hall, just to name a few.  Boys often require a little extra effort in engaging discussion, and this is where America’s pastime comes in.

In the Bronx, my boys are rabid baseball fans.  Most are Yankee fans, some quietly root for the Mets, while a few lost souls root for the Red Sox (well, we can’t all be perfect).  Baseball happens to be a great way to connect with America’s past, at least within the last century and a half.  It is a dynamo of archival information: few sports are so heavily accounted, ranked, analyzed and recorded as baseball, which also can give you infinite amounts of mathematics instruction. 

Furthermore, baseball has often intertwined with the seminal events in American history.  The Civil War involved armies that regularly played the game to pass the time.  The game was definitely a showcase for many Americans who were on the lower rungs of society, especially blacks, European immigrants and Hispanics.  The national game was a propaganda tool in two world wars.  It served as the nonviolent battleground for American issues of race, poverty, labor relations and our consumer culture.

One very tangible connection between baseball and history is the Presidency.  According to Baseball Almanac, almost every U.S. President has had some contact with the game, either as a player, a fan or even simply through their presidential duties.  What follows are some interesting facts found on Baseball Almanac about the Presidents and the old ball game.

– Thomas Jefferson stated that “Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” Unlike diddling with enslaved girls, which builds lots of character–little brown characters to be exact.

– Abraham Lincoln had an actual baseball field called the ‘White Lot’ constructed behind the White House for games. It was well known that he often played ball with his boys on the lawn.

– Chester Arthur was the first President to invite a professional baseball team to the White House when he invited the Cleveland Forest Cities of the now-defunct National Association on April 13, 1883. Too bad this didn’t get him a second term.

– Benjamin Harrison was the first U.S. President to attend a Major League baseball game and the first to see an extra inning game as the contest remains undecided until the eleventh inning. How could you leave to beat the traffic if the President’s still there?

– In 1907, the National League presented Theodore Roosevelt with a lifetime pass to any game, made of 14 carat gold. The funny thing is he hated baseball, calling it a “mollycoddle” game.

– In 1910, William Howard Taft becomes the first President to throw out the first pitch at a ballgame, throwing to Washington Senators legend Walter Johnson. Not sure if the bullpen teased that Taft threw “like a girl.”

– Woodrow Wilson, our President during World War I, never used his Presidential Pass. He paid for every game he attended, including the first time a President attended a World Series game.

– During World War II, many Americans thought baseball should be cancelled. Franklin Roosevelt said “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” So baseball was played, although Major League players were not exempt from the draft. Some of the worst baseball was played between 1942 and 1945.

– In Dwight Eisenhower’s early years, he played semi-professional baseball for money under a false name. According to Mel Ott, that name was “Wilson.”

– Lyndon Johnson had to miss the home opener of the 1968 season, due to the recent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Vietnam War left LBJ with little time to attend games, though he did dedicate the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.

– Richard Nixon is considered the most rabid Presidential baseball fan. Even after the Watergate scandal, Major League Baseball offered him the job of commissioner of baseball. Too bad he declined: Barry Bonds and mark McGwire could’ve used his cover-up expertise.

– Ronald Reagan was the only President to portray a Hall of Fame ballplayer on the silver screen. He played Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 film The Winning Team.

George W. Bush was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994.  His presidency proved to be just as successful.

Please feel free to post your own baseball tidbits, or any other baseball-related classroom content.

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