TIME George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush Turns 90

The 41st president of the United States celebrates his ninth decade of life on Wednesday. George Herbert Walker Bush served as commander-in-chief from 1989-1993, a one-term president sandwiched between two-termers — Ronald Reagan, under whom he served as vice president during most of the 1980s, and Bill Clinton, who beat the New England native handily in 1992 but later became, by many accounts, a fast friend.

“Bush Senior,” whose son, George W. Bush or “Dubya,” became the 43rd president just eight years after that hard-fought 1992 election, was born in Massachusetts in 1924, but later moved to Texas to make a fortune in oil. Entering young adulthood during the thick of World War II, he flew 58 combat missions for the United States Navy. He has been married to his wife, Barbara, since 1945, was famously lampooned on Saturday Night Live by comedian Dana Carvey.

TIME White House

Reagan: A Legacy of Optimism and Common Sense

Michael Evans/Zuma Press

Ten years after the president's death, an appreciation of all he did for his country

There is a wonderful scene in the popular 1980s movie Back to the Future. The film’s plotline sends a teenager raised in the heart of the Reagan era back to the ’50s. There, Michael J. Fox’s character meets the younger version of the mad scientist, Dr. Emmett Brown, who built the time machine that transported him. To check Fox’s bona fides, the scientist tests him.

“Then tell me, future boy, who’s president of the United States in 1985?”

“Ronald Reagan,” Fox answers.

“Ronald Reagan? The actor?” Christopher Lloyd’s character laughs incredulously. “Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?”

All these years later, the joke continues to be on Ronald Reagan’s skeptics and doubters. The man whose political skills were mocked by California’s legendary governor Pat Brown and then by all the smart guys in the Carter White House made believers of those political rivals by rolling up historic electoral landslides in California and then the nation. Twenty-five years after he flew west on Air Force One for the last time, it is safe to say that millions of Americans would still love to go back to the future and have President Reagan in the Oval Office once again.

It is now 10 years after his passing, which is the occasion of this book. Looking back from this vantage point, Reagan’s legacy remains vivid and potent. How else to explain how a conservative movement and political party continue to obsess over the question “Who is the next Reagan?” And as his Republican Party is slowly learning, it is a frustrating question and may, in fact, have no answer, because Ronald Wilson Reagan was unique.

It makes no more sense than for Democrats to search for the next Franklin D. Roosevelt or military leaders to seek out the next Dwight Eisenhower. These men possessed certain skills for their times that allowed them to bend history for all time. There is no guidebook for such greatness.

In law school we learned the Latin phrase sui generis, which means “of its own kind” or “unique in characteristic.” Reagan was of his own kind. Reagan was unique. He believed in God, the American people and himself—and knew how to communicate those values in a way that no conservative has before or since.

Yet Reagan the conservative was a man as focused on America’s glorious future as he was on preserving the values of the past. He was no reactionary. He was, instead, the iconic American who believed in what was yet to come. This had been the hallmark of American exceptionalism since Thomas Paine told his fellow citizens they could remake the world.

Those men who gathered in Philadelphia set a course for America that has always pointed toward the future. Along the way, our ship of state was violently tossed by slavery, a historically bloody civil war, a staggering depression and two world wars. But America was sustained by its people’s inner strength and determined optimism. Men like Reagan continued to believe that the United States was headed toward a brighter future—until they hit the turbulence of the ’60s and ’70s, when the national identity felt tremors of doubt.

For a time, America stopped listening to her heart and her head. The wind was no longer in her sails.

In the span of 11 years, America lost a war and two presidents, one from an assassin’s bullet and the other by his own failings. A third was driven from office, chased by the chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

The social and moral polarity of the American universe was upended. The antihero had become the hero, and American soldiers, returning home from the lost cause of Vietnam, were spat upon. An oil embargo, 21.5% interest rates and a hostage crisis fostered a malaise that spread across the nation. I still remember my fifth-grade teacher telling my class that, as had befallen the seemingly invulnerable Roman Empire, America’s days as a world power were quickly coming to an end.

Like my teacher, many believed Henry Luce’s American Century was over, 20 years ahead of schedule.

Ronald Reagan was born for a time such as this.

He was a figure derided by the elites of both political parties, Wall Street, academia and the national media. They said he was too simple, too unqualified and too inexperienced to lead the free world. His ideas were antiquated, and they predicted that his foreign policy would push America into a third world war.

Yet the millions of Americans who carried Reagan to huge victories in 1980 and 1984 felt that this was a man who was uniquely qualified to lead the country back to greatness. Reagan, after all, had been a conservative star, a successful labor leader, a two-term governor running the seventh-largest economy in the world and, yes, a Hollywood actor. It would take all of the Gipper’s on-screen skills to make his countrymen believe that the economy could be turned around, that the Soviet Union could be defeated, and that America’s greatest days truly did lie ahead.

John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, in pushing for the creation of a Constitution for the young country, argued that the most important considerations for a president were experience and character. The boy from northwestern Illinois had bushels of both.

He also had Nancy Reagan at his side, and she, as anyone who saw them together will attest, was his greatest treasure.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan won the White House by asking men and women from all corners of the country, including Democrats and independents, to join his “community of shared values.” Unlike many in today’s Republican Party, Reagan made an open appeal to Democrats on the campaign trail and at the GOP convention.

Reagan Democrats and independents answered his call for change. And then President Reagan changed the world.

My friend Craig Shirley, one of Reagan’s leading biographers, told me, “Reagan bends light and thus changes the future. He changes American conservatism, he changes the Republican and Democratic parties, he changes America and he changes the world.”

For Reagan, common sense was intellectualism. He also believed American conservatism was about challenging the status quo. Frederick Douglass, the great Republican abolitionist—whether addressing suffragettes in Washington, D.C., or a church congregation in Dundee, Scotland—summoned his lifelong rallying cry: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

Reagan and Reaganism were about agitating against the conventional wisdom of political parties and entrenched powers. The man who spent most of his life being mocked by Washington ended up changing it forever because, to paraphrase another Hollywood star, he frankly didn’t give a damn what his elite critics thought of him.

Reagan is ubiquitous now in American politics, cited often by members of both parties, who all too often don’t truly understand his brand of conservatism or the man himself. That makes the study of his life and times so vitally important.

Were his eight years in Washington defined by Hollywood glitz and glib politics? Certainly not. On occasion, did he compromise on such conservative touchstone issues as taxes, entitlement programs and immigration reform? Yes, but always with the longer view in mind. In the end, did he succeed? Consider this: America’s victory in the Cold War freed tens of millions imprisoned by communism across the world. Twenty million new jobs were created at home. Double-digit inflation and interest rates were wiped away. Unemployment fell to around 5.3% by the time he left office, and, more important, America’s national morale was restored.

Ronald Reagan had inherited a badly divided Republican Party and an even more fractured country, but as he flew west on the day of his retirement from national politics, he flew over a country more confident in its future than at any time since the 1950s.

John O’Sullivan of the National Review observed that “the fact” of America would always exist, but it was “the idea” of America that the 40th president restored. Shirley points out that well over 1,000 books have been written about Reagan, but for historians, “the realm of Reagan scholarship is just opening up. There is enough of Ronald Reagan for all of us to breathe.”

Some may be discouraged that there is no new Reagan on the horizon. But many, like myself, thank God that America got the leader it needed at precisely the right time and place.

Having him back might even be worth a Vice President Jerry Lewis.

This essay originally appeared in Reagan: His Political Life and Lasting Legacy.

TIME Tea Party

Why the Tea Party Forgives Reagan’s Sins

Michael Evans/Zuma Press

On the 10th anniversary of his death, a look at the president whose name has become synonymous with 'conservative'

When David Knittle decided to form a local Tea Party group in 2009, he knew exactly what to call it. Like many conservatives, he describes himself as a Reagan Republican. “Ronald Reagan represents to me all that is great about America,” he says. To Knittle, a Los Angeles–area health-care worker in his mid-50s, the Tea Party embodied the same set of values that Reagan espoused: sound economic policy, lower taxes, smaller government and more individual freedom. And so he dubbed the group Reagan’s Regiments—a title coined by Reagan himself, who bequeathed it to his army of supporters in his 1989 farewell address.

The homage was hardly surprising. Ten years after his death, Ronald Reagan remains the closest thing the Republican Party has to a secular saint. As the GOP struggles to chart a course back to the White House, Reagan is its lodestar, one of the few leaders on whose greatness the party’s fractious factions can agree. That view is shared in the Tea Party movement, a constellation of grassroots organizations that tend to regard most elected Republicans as only marginally better than Democrats. When the movement began brewing in 2009, Reagan’s name, image and famous adages about the evils of big government became as ubiquitous at Tea Party rallies as tricorn hats and Gadsden flags.

“He was the Tea Party of his time,” Michael Reagan, one of the president’s sons, declared in 2010. “He would have been at the forefront of the Tea Party movement, urging it on and devoting every last ounce of his energy to its progress in restoring America.”

Perhaps, but if Reagan were to take the measure of the Tea Party in 2014, he might conceivably turn and flee. Conversely, the Tea Party’s continuing idolatry of Reagan is somewhat curious. At one time or another, the 40th president smashed nearly every commandment the conservative movement regards as sacred. A closer look at Reagan’s time in office would suggest that he is a less-than-ideal fit for a sometimes rigid political movement that is willing to allow the government to shut down when its demands aren’t met.

Consider Reagan’s record on what the Tea Party holds most dear. He proposed the largest tax hike by any governor in the history of the United States. As president, he raised taxes 11 times, never submitted a balanced-budget request, hiked the debt ceiling 18 times and bemoaned the congressional brinkmanship that “consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility.” Plus, the federal deficit nearly tripled.

The apostasies aren’t just fiscal. Reagan was a onetime union leader who extolled the virtues of collective bargaining. As governor of California, he championed environmental legislation and signed a bill making it easier to get an abortion. The only U.S. president to divorce, he incensed the Christian right by nominating a socially moderate judge, the future swing vote Sandra Day O’Connor, to serve on the Supreme Court. He cut sweeping deals with liberal legislators like Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House. He signed a major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system that ultimately granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented immigrants.

All these moves are anathema to the Tea Party movement. “There’s a kind of delusional quality in the Tea Party’s affinity for Reagan,” says Matthew Dallek, author of the 2000 book The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics. “Certainly Reagan governed in a way that the Tea Party, to the extent they’re true to their beliefs, would probably find abhorrent.”

Even some Tea Party members who came of age under Reagan and consider him a great president are puzzled by the way he’s worshipped. “There’s an irony in the idolization of Reagan,” admits Ned Ryun, a conservative strategist and the president of American Majority, a group that trains Tea Party activists how to run for local office. “He would be considered today a very, very soft conservative—if not a moderate.”

That’s a far cry from Reagan’s reputation during his rise to power, when he was regarded by many as an archconservative ideologue. But the party has lurched rightward during Barack Obama’s presidency. Today, in a modern Republican nominating contest dominated by activists who prize purity and punish compromise, Reagan’s record might work against him. One marker of the GOP’s evolution came during a Republican presidential debate in 2011, when the eight candidates arrayed onstage were asked whether they would accept a deal of $10 in spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases. Each vowed to turn it down. The crowd erupted in applause.

So why does the Tea Party venerate Reagan, who violated so many of its values? Part of it, say Tea Party activists, was his matchless ability to market conservatism to the masses. He was an unabashed believer in the tenets of American exceptionalism, individual initiative and the free market—and enumerated their merits with the fervor of the converted. Nor, supporters say, would he back away from his beliefs. After Barry Goldwater’s drubbing in 1964, most political observers pronounced conservatism dead. Reagan built a coalition out of its ashes.

“That’s the kind of stuff that makes Reagan such an icon for the Tea Party movement,” says Jeff Reynolds, a Republican political consultant and chairman of the Portland-based Oregon Tea Party. “He talked passionately and eloquently about conservatism and the values that make America great. If you’re looking for somebody who espouses the conservative ideal and articulates why more government is a bad thing, there’s virtually nobody better.”

Reagan is admired for many qualities, one of which is simply that the public loves a winner, and he piled up plenty of impressive, and even historic, victories. In 1980 and 1984, he authored two electoral blowouts. He is also credited with winning the Cold War, the epic struggle of the second half of the 20th century, without firing a shot. At a moment of dwindling national morale, he toppled a seemingly ascendant communist threat.

“President Reagan understood that weakness is an invitation to war,” says Republican senator Ted Cruz. The Texan, part of a new generation of Tea Party icons, might find fault with some of Reagan’s domestic accomplishments, but he says he patterns his own foreign policy after the 40th president’s “peace through strength” credo. “The surest way to avoid war is to be strong enough to defend yourself,” Cruz says. “And by rebuilding our defense and speaking the truth, Reagan accomplished, in concert with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, the most extraordinary victory for peace in centuries.”

During the early phases of his career, the Republican establishment derided Reagan as a dangerous extremist. A former actor from outside the party’s clubby confines, he was widely viewed as inexperienced. In 1976 he had the temerity to challenge a sitting president from his own party, running to the right of incumbent Gerald Ford. He lost, but in the process proved that the country had a taste for his flavor of conservatism. And there is no question that the Tea Party sees in Reagan’s career a narrative arc it would like to repeat. “Members of the Tea Party would love to see themselves as rebels who are reviled by the mainstream,” says Dallek, the historian, “but who herald the American future.”

Tea Partyers who take a textured view of Reagan’s shortcomings are willing to give him a pass. They note that his deficit spending came during the military buildup of the Cold War, and at a time when the national debt was smaller; that his tax hikes were offset by cuts; that compromise is a necessary part of divided government. “You don’t get everything you want as a president,” says Knittle, the founder of Reagan’s Regiments.

“His record is not as conservative as it could have been, and there are certainly issues on which we disagree,” says Reynolds. “But you always want to look at the big picture instead of nitpicking over issues. Reagan wasn’t afraid to be conservative on the stump. He didn’t moderate his views. He didn’t sell out his ideals. He found a way to express conservative principles in a way that won people over.”

And that includes members of the Tea Party, who have demonstrated that they hold those who refuse to sell out in the highest regard and will likely remain loyal to Reagan’s memory—at least until a more strident conservative ascends to the White House.

This essay originally appeared in Reagan: His Political Life and Lasting Legacy.

TIME Education

Salaries of Public-University Presidents Rocket Despite Spiraling Student Debt

The Ohio State University
The Ohio State University Denis Jr. Tangney—Getty Images

A new report by the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies finds that salaries for the top 25 highest-paid public-research university presidents have swelled in recent years despite the growth of student debt and various faculty disenfranchisement issues

While salaries for the top 25 highest-paid public-research-university presidents have swelled in recent years, student debt and faculty-disenfranchisement problems have grown, says a new study.

A report released on Sunday by the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) looked at how that inflated pay correlated to dwindling funds allocated to student scholarships, and a trend toward more part-time adjunct-professor positions, which do not require benefits and other forms of compensation.

From 2009 to 2012, executive compensation at public research universities increased 14% to an average of $544,554, while compensation for presidents at the highest-paying universities increased by a third, to $974,006.

“Administrative spending outstripped scholarship spending by more than 2 to 1 at state schools with the highest-paid presidents,” the report says.

Marjorie Wood, one of the study’s co-authors, told the New York Times that “high executive pay obviously isn’t the direct cause of higher student debt, or cuts in labor spending. But if you think about it in terms of the allocation of resources, it does seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg, with universities that have top-heavy executive spending also having more adjuncts, more tuition increases and more administrative spending.”

The five top-paying schools listed by the IPS were Ohio State University, Penn State, the University of Minnesota, University of Michigan and University of Washington, crunching data from Chronicle of Higher Education, American Federation of Teachers and Institute for College Access and Success.

The Chronicle’s recently released stats showed that presidents’ base pay, already in the six-figure range, was often only a small part of their “total compensation” for the year.

“From FY 2006 to FY 2012, spending on nonacademic administration rose 65%, much faster than spending on scholarships in the top 25,” says the report.

In 2012, student debt across the country hit $1.2 trillion. But student debt at the colleges with highest-earning presidents grew at a 13% faster rate than the national average, partly because higher executive pay translates into less funding available for scholarships, the study says.

Lack of benefits, shaky job security and inadequate pay for adjunct professors have also become an issue of growing concern, illustrated starkly in separate papers by Service Employees International Union, The Coalition on the Academic Workforce and U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, cited in the IPS report.

The study was particularly critical of university boards of trustees, which determine how to pay the president.

TIME History

Thieves Break Into President James Garfield’s Tomb And Steal His Spoons

James Garfield
This file photo shows a marble statue of America's 20th President, James A. Garfield, in the center of the James A. Garfield Monument at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. Amy Sancetta / AP

Burglars broke into the former president's final resting place in a Cleveland suburb, stole commemorative spoons and left behind as evidence cigarette butts, a t-shirt and an empty Fireball whiskey bottle. Perhaps they thought it might be a fair exchange?

Apparently, someone’s idea of a great time is heading to the suburbs of Cleveland, breaking into President James A. Garfield’s tomb and swiping a set of commemorative spoons.

The burglars shattered a window to get inside the monument, which is housed at Lakeview Cemetery, Northeast Ohio Media Group reports. A cemetery worker later discovered that around two dozen commemorative demitasse and teaspoons had been stolen.

We were like, ‘Really? They took spoons?'” Katherine Goss, president and chief executive of the cemetery, told the Washington Post. They would be hard to sell at an auction house, she explained, “because everyone would wonder where they came from.”

When police arrived on the scene, they found a t-shirt, cigarette butts and an empty bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey outside the building. Goss said they even left some cash in a donation box — perhaps in an attempt to pay for the swiped spoons?

But let’s definitely talk about these spoons a bit more. Goss said they’re “flimsy little things” with practically no monetary value, though they do have his face engraved on the handles, so maybe some die-hard Garfield fans just wanted to add them to a shrine or something.

Investigators are searching for DNA on the items that the thieves left behind to try to identify them. If not die-hard Garfield fans, who could be the culprit here? Antique spoon collectors? Bored teenagers? Or, most likely, this was the ghost of James A. Garfield himself just looking to stir up some trouble and get himself back into the news cycle.

TIME Arts

George W. Bush’s Paintings of World Leaders Appear to Be Based On Good Ol’ Google Searches

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, painted by former U.S. President George W. Bush, is displayed at "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy" exhibit in Dallas
A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, painted by former U.S. President George W. Bush, is displayed at "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy" exhibit at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, April 4, 2014. Brandon Wade—Reuters

Art critics point out that 30 of the former president's portraits appear to come from casual online searches

Last week, former President George W. Bush unveiled a new collection of paintings, featuring a series of portraits of world leaders, from Vladimir Putin to the Dalai Lama. The inspiration for many of these paintings appears to come from some very casual Google searches.

Art critic Greg Allen pointed out this trend in a blog post, emphasizing the fact that Bush didn’t take advantage of the many resources available to him:

He apparently did not tap the enormous archive of photos, taken by the professionals who followed him every day for eight years, which are contained in his giant library. Instead, it seems, he Googled the world leaders he made such impactful relationships with himself, and took the first straight-on headshot he saw.

The portrait of Vladimir Putin seen above, for example, seems to be based on the very first image that pops up when you Google the Russian leader’s name. Similarly, Bush’s portrait of Israeli politician Ehud Olmert appears to be based on one of the top Google search results for his name:

A portrait of Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel, painted by former president George W. Bush
A portrait of Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel, painted by former president George W. Bush. Stewart F. House—Getty Images

The takeaway here? Even George W. Bush relies on Google and Wikipedia to get his work done. Former presidents: they’re just like us!

(h/t The Guardian)

TIME Presidents

How To Become President In Two Not-So-Easy Steps

The presidency is a position thousands aspire to, though only a few ever achieve it.

Fortunately, White House hopefuls can significantly increase their odds by following two steps.

Step 1: Go to Law School

Note, this graph accounts for the most formative profession of each president

Every teenager who fantasizes about residing in the White House would do well to order an LSAT book and stir up some healthy debate in class. More than half of all U.S. presidents have a background in law, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The second most common presidential career choice is the military, where chief executives like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and of course, George Washington, got their start before assuming the Oval Office. Business came in third, with 6 total presidents, including George H.W. Bush, who formed the Bush-Overbey Oil Co. in 1951.

Step 2: Secure the Vice Presidency

Although presidents have launched their careers in a wide range of fields, every one of them eventually set their sights on government and public office.

The most common position within the government prior to the presidency is (surprise!) vice president. A total of 14 presidents started out in the nation’s second highest office.

Two presidents who followed the trajectory to the Oval Office to a tee are Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. Lawyers by trade, these men are some of the nation’s most successful VPOTUS-turned-POTUS.

The second most common position is Governor, where presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Woodrow Wilson all won over their states before winning over the nation. Senator came in third, with 6 total commanders in chief, including current president, Barack Obama. Obama started his senate career in the Illinois legislature in 1997, was elected to U.S. Senate in 2004, and resigned his seat to assume the presidency in 2008.

So who will be the 45th president of the United States? If history was always predictive, Joe Biden might have the best shot to be sworn in, a former lawyer AND vice president. But a sneaky bet might be republican Bobby Jindal, who was a businessman at top consulting firm, Mckinsey and Company, before governing Louisiana. Each of those career choices are among the top 3 for a future commander in chief.

This article was written for TIME by Kiran Dhillon of FindTheBest.

TIME Presidents

Clinton Library Releases Trove of Documents

Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton speaks about health care at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 4, 2013. Danny Johnston—AP

Will be closely watched for impact on Hillary Clinton's potential 2016 candidacy

Thousands of pages of documents from former President Bill Clinton’s time in office that had been previously withheld from the public were released Friday afternoon.

The documents are part of a larger trove of 33,000 pages that have remained unavailable to the public despite the fact that the legally permissible period to withhold them—12 years from the end of the Clinton presidency—expired last January. It remains to be seen what the documents released Friday will add to the body of knowledge about Clinton’s presidency. But they will be closely watched for any impact they could have on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s possible presidential run in 2016.

The larger trove of documents contains information relating to the Whitewater investigation and Clinton’s attempts at health care reform, Politico reports. Some of the records come from the office of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. In all, 25,000 of the 33,000 pages have been cleared by attorneys for release, with no decision yet made on the remaining 8,000. It remains unclear why the documents remain unavailable to the public 13 months after the 12-year period came to an end.

TIME Presidents

The Presidents on the Presidents: How They Judge One Another

Barack Obama, George W. Bush
President Barack Obama points to former President George W. Bush during a ceremony to unveil his official portrait, Thursday, May 31, 2012, in the East Room at the White House in Washington. Charles Dharapa—AP

History is full of examples of presidents thinking and talking about their predecessors, writes TIME's Jon Meacham in a President's Day analysis of how the leaders of the free world compare their administrations to those of years past

The two men could hardly have been more different. One the fatherless son of a single mother, the other a scion of the most important American political family since the Adamses; one a cool, intellectual analyst, the other an instinctive gut player who never looked back once a decision was made. Yet there they were, together in the East Room of the White House on a June day in 2012, inexorably linked by history: Barack Hussein Obama and George Walker Bush.

The occasion was the unveiling of George and Laura Bush’s White House portraits. “It’s been said,” Obama told the audience, “that no one can ever truly understand what it’s like being President until they sit behind that desk and feel the weight and responsibility for the first time. And that is true. After three and a half years in office—and much more gray hair—I have a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the Presidents who came before me, including my immediate predecessor, President Bush. In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy. No choice you make is without costs. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to make everybody happy. I think that’s something President Bush and I both learned pretty quickly.”

With an ironic twinkle, Bush marked the moment with a bit of self-deprecation, or at least self-awareness: “I am … pleased, Mr. President,” Bush said to Obama, “that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘What would George do?’”

History is full of examples of presidents thinking and talking about their predecessors, seeking inspiration or warning from the successes and the failures of those who came before. All presidents are all members of what the historians and TIME editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have called “The Presidents Club.” The enormity of that shared experience—of the feeling of holding ultimate power, and ultimate responsibility—can create strange connections and alliances once the heat of battle has faded.

A look back suggests that the presidents appreciate what voters appreciate: leaders who at once think big and act smartly, worrying more about the service of ends than the specifics of means. For the presidents, history is always provisional, always conditional, and the greatest of leaders are the ones who—like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Reagan—are willing to depart from dogma to make the country stronger and more secure.

So how do presidents judge other presidents? Two themes emerge. First, they often evoke their predecessors in search of sanction for present policies: they enlist—or rather conscript—the long-dead in the political wars of the moment. The second common theme, I think, is that presidents tend to see as they would be seen, and one clue to understanding how presidents think of themselves is to note how they think of their predecessors.

Two Founders

WashingtonJefferson

Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were tall, rich, revolutionary Virginians—and there the similarities began to fade as the years of the early republic went on. As the first president of the infant nation, Washington asked Jefferson, then the American minister to France, to serve as secretary of state.

Arriving in New York, then the national capital, in 1790, Jefferson found himself in a city and a political culture that struck him as overly sympathetic to British and too prone to monarchial forms and habits of mind. Fresh from the intoxicating atmosphere of the early revolutionary days in France—the Terror was still in the future—Jefferson was out of phase with the prevailing ethos in the Washington administration, an ethos created and sustained in large measure by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

As Hamilton’s adversary in the Cabinet, Jefferson became the voice—not the only one, but the central one at the highest levels—that competed most ferociously for Washington’s ear. As Jefferson said, he and Hamilton were pitted against one another daily, “like two cocks in the pit.” Washington asked them to end the “internal dissensions that are harrowing and tearing our vitals.”

Jefferson and Washington fell out and it was only years later, in 1814, that Jefferson offered a correspondent this reading of Washington: “Perhaps the strongest feature in [Washington’s] character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. … He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath….” There is much here, and perhaps the most revealing insight was about Washington’s temperament. Long celebrated for his capacity to project calm at even the most desperate of hours, Washington was, according to Jefferson’s close observation, also a man who could lose his composure, if only in private, thus showing Washington to be a very human hero.

Jefferson’s Washington is a real man who accomplished real things. More interesting than a figure of myth and legend, for figures of myth and legend are unapproachable, Jefferson’s Washington is a human being who overcame his own flaws to do great things. Which is how Jefferson himself wished to be seen.

Abe and Andy

LincolnJackson

Getty Images

Several decades later, Abraham Lincoln—not even a Jeffersonian Republican, but first a Whig and then the candidate of a new and different Republican Party—turned to Jefferson as an unlikely ally.

In April 1859, from Springfield, Ill., Lincoln wrote to a group in Boston declining its invitation to speak to a Jefferson birthday celebration. The moment gave Lincoln the chance to link Jefferson to the cause of freedom in an hour of danger for the Union.

“All honor to Jefferson,” said Lincoln, “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” In judging Jefferson in this light, Lincoln was using a predecessor was his own political purposes, conscripting a dead slave-owner in the cause of the union.

And Lincoln, master politician that he was, also enlisted Andrew Jackson, another dead slave-owner. In an upper room over his brother-in-law’s store near the corner of Sixth and Adams in Springfield—it was called Yates and Smith—Lincoln was at work on his First Inaugural address in early 1861. The only documents Lincoln requested to have at hand as he wrote were the Constitution, Daniel Webster’s second reply to William Hayne (on the importance of union), Henry Clay’s speech on the Compromise of 1850—and Andrew Jackson’s 1832 Proclamation to the People of South Carolina attacking nullification and secession.

In a way, then, Lincoln sent for Andrew Jackson. Jackson—states’-rights man, slaveowner, scourge of the Second Bank of the United States—believed in the Union more than anything else. Part of the reason was personal: he had lost his mother and brothers in the Revolution (his father had died before he was born), had himself been a teenaged prisoner of war in the hands of the British, and he saw America, as he put it, as “one great family.” His own family’s blood had consecrated the Union, and he would not allow anything or anyone—he thought in just these apocalyptic terms—to threaten the thing he held dearest.

The example Jackson left to posterity—and now Lincoln was that posterity—was one of effective leadership in a sensitive moment in which the overall goal was achieved sometimes slowly and indirectly, but was nonetheless achieved. “The right of a state to secede is not an open or debatable question,” Lincoln had said at the end of 1860. “It was fully discussed in Jackson’s time, and denied … by him … It is the duty of a President to execute the laws and maintain the existing government. He cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution or dismemberment.”

Jackson had taken extraordinary steps in his public career to ensure the ultimate success of the American experiment, imposing martial law on New Orleans a general during the War of 1812—an example, along with the love of union, on which Lincoln drew as the 16th president struggled to lead amid the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt later remarked that Lincoln “was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once. And nobody can.” FDR was largely right, but Lincoln understood the tragedy and reality of history. He knew he and his nation lived in twilight, and that nothing was perfect nor perfectible.

Two Democrats

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When FDR was a small child, he was taken to the White House by his father, James Roosevelt, who was a Grover Cleveland Democrat. President Cleveland had had a long day, and at one point put his hand on young Franklin’s head and said he had a prayer for the boy—that he might never be fated to become president of the United States.

As far as we know, few presidential prayers have ever gone as unanswered as that casual one. Franklin Roosevelt was also a great student of history. He loved the idea of himself as a player in the drama of his times (“That was the Garbo in me,” he once joked after watching himself in a newsreel), and in many ways he thought of the White House as a family property not unlike Hyde Park. It was natural, then, for him to think much about those who had come before.

Like other presidents, Roosevelt liked in others what he hoped the world would see in him. Roosevelt believed his own struggles through the Depression and later World War II were of a piece with the struggles of Jefferson and Jackson for liberty abroad and equality at home. The interest in Jackson was most evident in the 1930s; that in Jefferson most evident in the early 1940s.

In 1934 Roosevelt traveled to the Hermitage, and he insisted on walking—or “stumping,” as he put it in private, darker moments—through a tour of the house. In March 1937, he had the inaugural stand in Washington designed to as a replica of the Hermitage, a tangible sign that he believed his fights were Jackson’s fights. Of Jackson, FDR said: “We look back on his amazing personality, we review his battles because the struggles he went through, the enemies he encountered, the defeats he suffered and the victories he won are part and parcel of the struggles, the enmities, the defeats and the victories of those who have lived in all the generations that have followed.”

Jefferson, too, provided Roosevelt with an inspiring example as the world grew dark in the war years. FDR encouraged the building of the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin and, the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth, on April 13, 1943, the president traveled the short distance from the White House to dedicate it. He was not shy about drawing comparisons between Jefferson’s age and his own; and, by implication, between Jefferson and himself, or at least between the tasks which confronted the two men. “Jefferson was no dreamer—for half a century he led his State and his Nation in fact and in deed. I like to think that this was so because he thought in terms of the morrow as well as the day—and this was why he was hated or feared by those who thought in terms of the day and the yesterday.”

Harry and Dick

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Harry Truman was that rarest of creatures: a candid politician. In interviews and private notes after he left the White House, Truman left an unusually rich collection of often-tart judgments about his predecessors—judgments informed, to be sure, by his own experience of human nature and of high office. Of Jackson—another man of the people—Truman said: “He wanted sincerely to look after the little fellow who had no pull, and that’s what a president is supposed to do.”

In private Truman could be—well, he could be Trumanesque. He lauded Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Polk, Wilson, and FDR. And he hugely admired FDR, but did say that Roosevelt’s “ego, which probably wasn’t too miniscule to start with,” had led him to overreach on the court-packing scheme after the 1936 landslide.

Yet he once called Richard Nixon “a shifty-eyed, goddamn liar, and people know it. I can’t figure out how he came so close to getting elected President in 1960. They say young Kennedy deserves a lot of credit for licking him, but I just can’t see it. I can’t see how the son of a bitch even carried one state.” Of Eisenhower, recalling a visit during the 1952-53 transition, Truman said: “He came to see me. I invited him in not long after the election, and he didn’t want to come; I think he didn’t want to interrupt his golf game down in Florida or Georgia or wherever it was, but he finally did come. And he looked around a little, but I could see that nothing that was said was getting through to him. He got there mad, and he stayed mad. One of his troubles … he wasn’t used to being criticized, and he never did get it through his head that that’s what politics is all about. He was used to getting his ass kissed.”

An Unlikely Bond

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One of the more remarkable scenes in recent presidential history came in the spring of 1994, at the funeral of Richard Nixon, the only man other than Franklin Roosevelt to have been a part of five major-party national tickets in the 20th century. Bill Clinton, a son of the generation that came of political age in reaction to the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974, spoke on behalf of the former presidents in attendance—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.

As tends to happen in such moments, Clinton found Nixon to be an example of the things Clinton himself wanted for the country. “When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past,” Clinton said. “In foreign policy, he came to the Presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say we had had enough of the world. Instead, he knew we had to reach out to old friends and old enemies alike. He would not allow America to quit the world.”

The incumbent president made a subtle call for something that all presidents—indeed all people—hope for: that they be seen with a sense of proportion and in a spirit of forbearance. “Oh yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die….Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say, may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”

We don’t often think of the two in the same frame, but Ronald Reagan’s view of JFK is fascinating not least because, as Reagan himself said, he was “for the other fellow” in 1960—Richard Nixon. In Kennedy, Reagan knew a great showman when he saw one. “Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable,” he said in June 1985, at an endowment fundraiser for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. “Four administrations have passed since John Kennedy’s death, five presidents have occupied the Oval Office, and I feel sure that each of them thought of John Kennedy now and then, and his thousand days in the White House.”

Then Reagan let his imagination—that vivid, wonderful imagination—take flight. He went on: “And sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school, and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book: Nothing is ever lost in that great house; some music plays on. I have been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, “And another thing, Eleanor!” Turn down a hall and you can hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, “Bully! Absolutely ripping!” Walk softly now and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter. I don’t know if this is true…but it’s a story I’ve been told. And it’s not a bad one, because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. A life given in service to one’s country is a living thing that never dies.”

The certitudes and constructs of campaigns crumble under the relentless force of the complicated reality of the actual job. As Obama remarked at the unveiling of the George W. Bush portrait in June 2012—after thanking the 43rd president for leaving him an excellent TV sports package—“We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. We all love this country. We all want America to succeed.” On that, at least, let’s hope they—and we—can all agree.

Meacham, a TIME Contributing Editor-at-Large, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. This essay is adapted from a Presidents’ Day lecture Meacham is to deliver at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, on Monday, Feb. 17.

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