Thursday, February 23, 2023

Analysis of U.S. presidents rekindles memories of my old newspaper pal, Paul Finebaum, who has become "King of All Media" for sports in the South and beyond

Paul Finebaum

One of the distinctions of my journalism career is that I used to work with a fellow sportswriter at the Birmingham Post-Herald (now defunct) who went on to become famous. In fact, you might say this guy now is one of the best-known sports-media figures in the country, especially for those who follow college football and the Southeastern Conference.

I had been working at the Post-Herald for about two years when a fresh face arrived in the newsroom one day, from a brief stint at the newspaper in Shreveport, Louisiana. His name was Paul Finebaum, and I learned right off the bat he had a quick mind and a biting wit. In fact, being around Paul was a bit like watching a Don Rickles appearance on The Tonight Show. He also was opinionated, with a touch of Howard Cosell in his manner.

I think of Paul often because, in this age of talk radio and cable TV, he has become part of life's soundtrack. In fact, I can recall walking down the aisle of a Missouri library, and in a "hey, I know that guy" kind of moment, seeing one of Paul's books on the shelf. At times, I will hear Paul's voice -- perhaps interviewing Nick Saban on ESPN or bantering with Tim Tebow on the SEC Network -- and it brings back fond memories of our early days together in the newspaper business.

Finebaum particularly came to mind this week as our nation celebrated President's Day. (more on that in a moment.)

Paul and I covered a number of stories together, and I always valued him as a confidante, with reportorial instincts that were usually on the mark. Probably our best-known joint work was a series of investigative stories about the recruitment of Birmingham basketball star Buck Johnson, who wound up at the University of Alabama (and later, the NBA) after a bitter recruiting battle with UAB. I think Paul and I won a few awards for that one.

Having grown up in Memphis, Paul probably viewed me, not incorrectly, as a rube from the Missouri Ozarks. That, plus the fact our desks were side by side in the newsroom, made me a convenient target for Paul's zingers, which could come at a furious pace. Looking back, I'm not sure how we managed to turn out any stories amid the laughter that Paul tended to generate. His humor, even when I was the butt of the joke, was a welcome relief from the drabness of our newsroom, which featured hospital-green walls, a dull brown (or was it gray?) floor, the rat-a-tat-tat of wire-service machines, and the regular haze of cigarette smoke; yes, people could smoke in offices back then.

Paul was an odd bird, but we quickly struck up a friendship. That might have been, in part, because he was different from any sportswriter (or journalist) I had ever come across. Many sportswriters are what you might call "stat junkies"; they are adept at reeling off statistics and long-forgotten names from yesteryear. But that wasn't Paul; in fact, he seemed only mildly interested in sports and had little use for the games' minutiae.

Instead, Paul focused on the personalities of sports, and he knew how to push an audience's buttons -- a skill that would later serve him well.  (On a personal note, Paul has had a profound impact on my life, helping to introduce me to Mrs. Schnauzer. Carol and I have been married for 33 years -- despite having loads of bizarre obstacles thrown in our path -- so Finebaum's skills as a matchmaker must be pretty good. Carol and I like to think they are, anyway.)

Paul had his own way of doing things. Most journalists that I knew liked to jot down a few questions in a notebook before starting an interview, almost like having an abbreviated script. (It's important, of course, not to stick too closely to a script. Follow-up questions are essential to any interview, and you have to listen closely for the right moments to get those in; Finebaum long has been an expert at that.) Paul did not tend to jot down questions, and at times, it seemed like he didn't do any research at all. He just winged it. (And I suspect that also served him well down the road.)

I can remember listening to Paul at the neighboring desk conducting a phone interview with an offensive lineman on Auburn's football team. I quickly realized that Paul had no idea who the guy was. He scrambled to find an Auburn media guide, sifted through some pages to find the guy's bio and said, "Oh, I see you play right tackle." Best I could tell, Paul actually made the interview work and probably wound up with a pretty decent story.

George W. Bush
While Paul did not have an encyclopedic mind about sports, he had a lot going on between his ears. One major interest was politics, appropriate since he had a degree in political science from the University of Tennessee. During breaks in the action at the Post-Herald, Paul and I used to have discussions about U.S. presidents, ranking the good, the bad, and the ugly. I learned that Paul was not an amateur at this; he really knew his stuff. In fact, I'm surprised he didn't become an analyst or a policy wonk in the political world.

That's how I came to think of Paul this week upon reading a President's Day column by MSNBC's Michael A. Cohen. The title -- "George W. Bush was worse than you remember" -- gives away some of Cohen's insights. But the whole piece is a worthwhile read, and it kind of made me wish Finebaum would tackle this subject someday. From the Cohen article:

The American presidency is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

 Politicians aspire to it. The media focuses obsessively on the person who holds it and those who want to win it. Millions of books and articles have been written about it. And yet, most of the people who've held the job haven't been that good.

There are a few truly great presidents, some pretty good ones and a handful of complete disasters. But most can be summed up, as The Simpsons famously once did, as the "adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable, caretakers of the U.S.A."

In fairness, the presidency radically changed in the 20th century, especially as the United States became a global power, so it's a bit hard to compare the earlier commanders in chief to the modern ones. And despite the many mediocrities, ranking the presidents is a popular pastime, one I've dabbled in myself. So let's ask a slightly different question: Who are the most overrated and underrated holders of the most thankless job in American politics?

Cohen now gets down to names:

Historians generally rank Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington as the three best presidents, and it's hard to say that any of them are overrated -- though Roosevelt's and Lincoln's accomplishments (the former steered the country through economic calamity and world war and the latter saved the Union) were arguably more significant than Washington's (whose  greatest presidential act perhaps was relinquishing the job after two terms).

But I'll make the case for Dwight D. Eisenhower as slightly underrated. On domestic policy, we're still living in the shadow of his accomplishments: the national highway system, increased federal support for higher education and national investments in technology, research, and development. He also presided over a period of extraordinary national prosperity and growth.

On foreign policy, Eisenhower ended the Korean War, skillfully managed superpower relations, largely kept the U.S. out of foreign entanglements. And he slew the isolationist wing of the Republican Party and helped bring an end to McCarthyism. Critics will take issue with his civil rights record (somewhat deservedly) and his support for coups in Guatemala and Iran that installed pro-American dictators, but all in all, his tenure is remarkably solid-- and I'd put him right behind the top three.

John F. Kennedy is another president who often shows up in the top 10 of historical rankings, but even though he served only a little more than two and a half years before his assassination, it's still possible he doesn't fully get his due. An essential part of the presidency is crisis management, and few presidents faced a more serious crisis than the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962. Even though all of his top aides (including his brother Robert) argued for the use of American military force in Cuba, Kennedy demurred, instead reaching a diplomatic solution with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev that defused the superpower showdown. His high ranking by historians is, I believe, a tribute to how inspirational a figure he was to millions of Americans. But any president who skillfully manages a situation as potentially catastrophic as the Cuban Missile Crisis deserves high marks.

Ronald Reagan moves in and out of most top 10s, but I think he probably deserves to rank higher. His overall record on foreign policy is not great (including his support for the Contras in Nicaragua and death squads in El Salvador). But he helped to end the Cold War by giving Mikhail Gorbachev the political space to push reforms that ultimately led to its collapse (and, like Kennedy, overruled his close aides). I'm not a fan of Reagan's, domestic record of cutting taxes and weakening the regulatory state, but if we judge presidential effectiveness by the ability to enact one's policy agenda, his record is strong. And he helped a Republican successor win re-election -- a further indication of his political success.

What about those who aren't quite so highly touted?

I'll put in  good word for George H.W. Bush. He lost his race for re-election, his handling of the economy was not great and he was a nasty and divisive campaigner. But on foreign policy he did a fantastic job of handling the breakup of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany. His leadership of the Gulf War was masterful and arguably, his efforts on Arab-Israeli peace helped lead to the Oslo accords in 1983. He also signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act. Compared with most American presidents, that's a pretty good track record.

Has history treated some presidents too kindly? Yes, says Cohen:

Others may disagree, but Harry Truman probably gets more credit than he deserves. Yes, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the U.N. system are huge deals. But his mishandling of the Korean War -- and particularly his failure to rein in Gen. Douglas MacArthur as he sent U.S. troops farther north, baiting Communist China into invading and prolonging the war -- is oddly swept under the rug. The Truman Doctrine, issued in 1947, turned the Cold War from a geopolitical contest into an ideological conflict and laid the foundation for America to define its national interests in near-limitless terms, which contributed to a host of foreign entanglements, including Vietnam. Perhaps that's a bit unfair to Truman, but as the sign on his desk famously read: "The buck stops here."

Also, Truman barely won re-election in 1948 and did so by running a vicious and nasty campaign that contributed to the adoption of McCarthyite tactics by Republicans. Four years later, he was so unpopular he couldn't run for a second full term and arguably helped cost the Democrats the White House after they had held it for 20 years. Also, midterm elections in 1946 and 1950 were bloodbaths for Democrats. Politics is essential to the presidency, and Truman wasn't all that great at it. Truman should rank high, but his presidency is more of a mixed bag than people realize.

What about a president who was even worse than we remember? Cohen has that covered, too:

Here's one more overrated resident to consider: George W. Bush. Yes, generally speaking, Bush is considered an awful president. My argument is that he was worse than we remember. There's the Iraq War and all its accompanying disasters (torture, undermining civil liberties, mishandling Afghanistan). Not only did he not confront climate change, his policies arguably made it worse. His job creation record is one of the worst in modern history, and that's almost separate from the fact he sat by idly as the global economy fell apart in 2088. He's so unpopular that even his own party acts as though he was never actually president.

After four years of Donald Trump's dumpster fire of a presidency, Bush might have seemed "not that bad." Nope, he was terrible, and next to Trump and Andrew Johnson, who took over for Lincoln and completely screwed up Reconstruction, the worst president in American history.

There you have Michael A. Cohen's take on U.S. presidents --and it's a good one. I hope Paul Finebaum will tackle that subject someday. He could do it justice.

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