As a journalist, I have had very different relationships with the presidents I have covered. Dwight Eisenhower was our last president who was not "press-centric." I covered Lyndon Johnson's presidency twice. As closely as I followed the Watergate affair, I was shocked that President Nixon was running a crime syndicate from the Oval office. Reagan's people were suspicious of me, but eventually I was granted an interview with the new president.
I have always held President Eisenhower in high regard. He brought an end the Korean War, made Social Security more accessible, and built the Interstate Highway System. He also offered one of the most meaningful observations in his January, 1961 farewell address, in which he warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower never saw television as much more than radio with pictures, but his successor John Kennedy used it masterfully. Handsome and a good speaker, he was our first TV president. Using television to sway public opinion, he was good at making his decisions popular. Friends in the media were rewarded with inside scoops and greater access to the president. Of course, I was there in Dallas when an assassin's bullet took his life.
I covered Lyndon Johnson's presidency twice: once in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination, and a second time after I returned from Vietnam. He was smart—smart enough to capitalize on the goodwill he inherited in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Admirably, he used that goodwill to push through a lot of civil rights legislation that came to be known as the Great Society.
From the outset, the Nixon administration refused to believe that I was impartial. H. R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon's chief of staff, welcomed me to the Nixon Administration with the comment: "We know who you are. You're a Texas liberal Democrat and we'll be watching your ass!" As closely as I followed the Watergate affair, I was shocked that more than 40 members of the Nixon administration would be convicted of felonies. Richard Nixon was running a crime syndicate from the Oval office, and his actions and the cover-up that followed precipitated a constitutional crisis of the highest order.
Gerald Ford was Everyman as president. He was aware that the Watergate scandal had hurt the country in general and the presidency in particular. He was also very aware that the way he came to the Oval Office meant that he would be a caretaker president. Ford was a genial fellow and got along well with journalists—one of the benefits of not being Richard Nixon. What hurt him, however, was his pardon of Nixon.
But for the pardon, Ford might have been elected in his own right in 1976. Instead, he was succeeded by Jimmy Carter. President Carter made a point of saying that his administration would be different. It was, but not in the way he might have liked. Carter walled off the DC establishment, and they responded in kind. Although he is as bright as Clinton and Obama, he would have benefited from someone with LBJ's knowledge of the levers of power.
Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in his bid for a second term in 1980. He was inaugurated just two months before I inherited the anchor chair from Walter Cronkite. Reagan's people, like Nixon's were suspicious of me, but eventually I was granted an interview with the new president. Reagan apparently did not feel any particular "chemistry” with me, but he was more than cordial, and I liked him. Needless to say, he was a superb speaker and used his speech writers well to make his points.
Having been Reagan's Vice President for eight years, the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush was in many ways the third term of Ronald Reagan. He'd also been a congressman, ambassador to the U.N., and director of the CIA. As fellow Texans, we got along well until I interviewed him in January 1988. When I asked a question about the Iran-Contra affair, instead of answering, he threw out a red herring about several dead air on CBS after a tennis match went long and interfered with coverage of the arrival of Pope John Paul II in Miami. Our relationship was never the same after that.
Bill Clinton had some good years as governor of Arkansas, but when he was elected president, he immediately proposed health care reforms and ran into a blockade in Congress. Although reelected, the Monica Lewinsky affair dominated his second term. Nevertheless, Clinton has gone on to become one of the best and most influential retired presidents in history.
My issues with George W. Bush are well known. The last time I saw him was at a State of the Union luncheon in 2005, when he wished me well in my retirement. I'm still here.
It looks as though Barack Obama will be challenged by Mitt Romney in the fall. In his bid for a second term, Obama was wounded by the slow implementation of health care reforms, by the deficit, and by his appearance of indecision, but helped by the killing of bin Laden and the resurgence of the economy, especially of the auto industry. That said, but the election landscape is fast moving and rife with speculation as to who Romney's running mate might be. The one thing I know is the folly of making predictions on who will be sitting in the Oval Office in January of 2013.