“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.