Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s recent announcement that she was withdrawing from House leadership and the accolades she has deservedly received since her announcement caused me – this is the kind of thing that retirees have time to ponder 😉 – to reflect upon which Americans since World War II I thought had the most impact on our lives who were never president of the United States. What follows is the list I came up with. [Note: this is not a “feel good list.” You will see that I do not consider the impacts of all of the listed Americans to have been positive.] One places more value on what one knows, and this list necessarily betrays my relatively greater interest in public policy, policy and commerce. The explanations tend to be longer for those selections not as familiar to those with shorter memories. With the exception of the first and last names below, my list is in alphabetical order.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s crusade to bring the nation’s racial injustice to Americans’ attention via nonviolent means places him above and apart as not only the most consequential American non-President since World War II, but the most consequential non-President of the Twentieth century.
- Muhammad Ali. Mr. Ali’s still-unequaled heavyweight boxing ability combined with his articulate social commentary, his grit, and his fearlessness not only in the ring but in adopting Islam and standing up to American administrations’ pursuit of an egregiously misguided war effort made him a worldwide icon who lifted the spirits and aspirations of African Americans and earned the esteem of all but the most racially-biased of his fellow citizens.
- Jeff Bezos. The amazing variety and convenience of Mr. Bezos’ Amazon has revolutionized the way we shop. This stunning conceptual, technological and logistical achievement must arguably be balanced against its detrimental impact on local retailers, its diminution of the employment prospects of some of our less-skilled citizens, and its reduction of Americans’ traditional physical shopping interactions.
- Warren Buffett. Mr. Buffett’s renown as an investor and his endearing homespun manner are well known; I myself follow some of his investing maxims. That said, I believe that his was the first prominent voice to assert that corporations’ overriding responsibility was to act in the good of the company’s shareholders and that senior management’s compensation should be tied to the corporation’s fortunes. I would submit that these precepts have led to a general disregard for other corporate constituencies, such as employees, communities, sometimes even customers, and has resulted in excessive corporate focus on cost-cutting, outsourcing and short-term results in lieu of long term and broader societal benefits.
- Hillary Clinton. Whether or not one finds her particularly likeable, Ms. Clinton’s extraordinary career, her undoubted ability, and her bone toughness have made clear that a woman can be, should be, and will be President of the United States.
- Newt Gingrich. The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives in the late 1990s. An observation about Mr. Gingrich during PBS’ American Experience: Clinton Part I: “You’ve heard of von Clausewitz’ definition of war as ‘politics by other means.’ Newt considered politics to be ‘war by other means.’” Unquestionably bright and knowledgeable, Mr. Gingrich made Washington politics blood sport – the other party wasn’t an adversary, as believed by former President Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, but rather, the enemy – an attitude now common on both sides of the aisle. The American experiment has been tarnished as a result.
- Barry Goldwater. The longtime Republican Arizona Senator was the first modern proponent of honorable conservative thought: that states’ rights had been unconstitutionally usurped by the federal government, that Americans were too handicapped by taxes and regulation, that too much welfare was debilitating rather than enabling, that government is best done at the local level, etc. Acknowledged by Dr. King not to be a racist, Mr. Goldwater had a strong libertarian streak, at the end of his life criticizing the religious right, supporting gay rights, and defending abortion. One can agree with his principles or not, but he had principles. He laid the path for Mr. Reagan. I cringe whenever I read or hear news media refer to MAGAs as “conservatives”; I once heard it said that Mr. Goldwater – undeniably crusty — declared, when referring to isolationist and arguably racist elements in his era claiming to be “Conservatives”: “They’re not conservatives. They’re just assholes.”
- Steve Jobs. The iPhone. The icons we use in all of our applications to communicate. ‘Nuff said. As you watch many Americans scrolling their phones while ignoring their companions, you can ask yourself whether Mr. Jobs’ contributions were good or bad, but we are where we are.
- Robert Kahn/Vinton Cerf. Although the concept of the World Wide Web had many contributors dating back to Nikola Tesla in the early 1900s, Messrs. Kahn and Cerf developed the protocols that made the internet a reality for the general public. I consider the internet primarily a positive force, but it has certainly been abused in ways I’m sure that Messrs. Kahn and Cerf never envisioned.
- George Marshall. The overall architect of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Administration’s plan to rebuild a Europe destroyed by World War II. Given his previous role as Army Chief of Staff in the war effort, he was viewed as nonpolitical, and his credibility paved the way for a plan that rebuilt Europe and kept it out of Communist control – setting up a diplomatic and territorial firewall that protects America to this day.
- Nancy Pelosi. The first woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the most powerful woman constitutional officer in our history, she led her caucus successfully during what has been our most poisonously partisan and tumultuous political period since the Civil War. Ms. Pelosi has endured endless vituperation magnified, in my view, simply because she is a woman. She’s bright, tough, and cool under pressure. She held the Congress together during the January 6th attack. She considers the Affordable Care Act her greatest achievement as Speaker; I would suggest that the number of bills she got passed during the last Congress with a caucus as factionalized as the Republicans was an equally notable achievement.
- Eleanor Roosevelt. I would submit that Mrs. (as she was known) Roosevelt was the leading postwar figure in two movements: progressivism and women’s rights. She deployed her prominence in outspoken advocacy of liberal causes and reformist movements considered then (and, for some, perhaps now) “socialist,” for which a direct line exists between her thinking and that of U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders. In 1948, President Harry Truman appointed her to the United Nations, and she became the first chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She supported the founding of a UN Agency on nutrition. Gallup found her the “most admired living woman” among Americans every year save one between 1948 (when the poll began) to 1961, but she was regularly vilified. Although Mrs. Roosevelt opposed the Equal Rights Amendment – she didn’t consider it necessary – I am confident that Mses. Clinton and Pelosi would both agree that their rises and careers were enabled by the trailblazing of Mrs. Roosevelt.
- George Wallace. The true prophet of today’s MAGAism who most potently stimulated the nerve in the American political fabric ultimately exploited by former President Donald Trump is neither AK Gov. and 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin nor Republican Patrick Buchanan; it is former AL Gov. George Wallace. Mr. Wallace, who famously “stood in the schoolhouse door” in 1963 to attempt to stop the enrollment of African American students at the University of Alabama, later sublimated – slightly – his racist message and in his 1968, 1972, and 1976 presidential campaigns, instead turned his attacks on the elites and the “pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington.” A Democrat (before it was politically acceptable to be a Republican in the South), Mr. Wallace had Mr. Trump’s raw charisma and ability to rouse crowds. David Halberstam reported in The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, “In late July, 1968 [after the assassination of Mr. Kennedy], Wallace turned to a reporter and said, ‘You reporters are for [anti-Vietnam war candidate and then-U.S. MN Sen. Eugene] McCarthy, aren’t you; and your editors are for [moderate and then U.S. Vice President Hubert] Humphrey; but your pressmen are for me.’ [Italics Mr. Halberstam’s].” In 1968, Mr. Wallace won five states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, — all but Georgia MAGA bastions today.
- Mark Zuckerberg. Mr. Zuckerberg certainly isn’t the only one responsible for the virulent spread and destructive impact of social media upon our society, but Facebook, given its breadth, is arguably the vehicle through which Americans’ most toxic impulses were most able to metastasize.
- John F. Kennedy. I know; I appear to be cheating. However, I don’t add former President John Kennedy to this list due to his presidential accomplishments — which, aside from his ultimately brilliant management of the Cuban Missile Crisis, were middling – but because he first understood and leveraged, for the long term good or ill, the marriage between politics and media. Where before his time Americans were governed by frequently portly and/or balding men, he himself acknowledged that he could never have won the presidency but for TV. He looked good. He spoke well. He mastered the soundbite before we even had a term for it. The debate tactics he employed against Richard Nixon in 1960 are still the hallmarks of political debating. I suspect that every politician of the two following generations affirmatively studied him, and I am confident politicians still do today, although they may not recognize the progenitor of the on-camera techniques they employ. Since Mr. Kennedy’s election, we have had no bald presidents, no obviously overweight presidents [Mr. Trump has a great tailor 😉 ], and only two – Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush – who wore glasses on-camera. I would venture that at least Mr. Reagan, former President Barack Obama, and Mr. Trump could not have won the presidency but for the path forged by Mr. Kennedy. Make of that what you will.
Who did I miss?