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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Herman Talmadge, July 29 and August 1, 1975. Interview A-0331-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

United States Senator describes and compares five presidents

Talmadge offers his perception of the United States presidents he had served under while he was a senator. In 1975, at the time of the interview, Talmadge had just begun to serve his fourth term in the Senate. Because of his long tenure he is able to provide a comparative assessment of the leadership and accomplishments of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Herman Talmadge, July 29 and August 1, 1975. Interview A-0331-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK NELSON:
When I was talking to you before, Senator, we were talking about President Truman and you said that you felt that history would record President Truman as one of the great presidents. What about some of the other presidents, particularly since your own time in politics?
SENATOR HERMAN TALMADGE:
Since I have been in the Senate, I have served under President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, President Johnson, President Nixon and President Gerald Ford. Dwight Eisenhower was a very attractive individual personally. He was a great military hero. He didn't know much about government. He meant well and I think that his subordinates made most of his decisions, called the shots and he would ratify them. Then of course, we had President Kennedy. He was a very charming, attractive, witty and personable fellow, but he had almost a complete failure in getting Congress to adopt his programs. Then after he was assassinated, of course President Johnson took over. He and I had been very close when he was majority leader of the Senate and when I first came to the Senate, he went out of his way to be as cordial and pleasant to me as he possibly could. I was made chairman of the Calendar Committee my freshman year in the Senate. It is the responsibility of that committee to look over the bills on the calendar call and to object to those that may be controversial and should not pass on a consent calendar. That was about the most choice assignment that a freshman Senator could have. He put me on the Agricultural Committee the first year that I came to the Senate. He put me on the Finance Committee the third year I was in the Senate, which is a much sought after post. He did everything for me that he possibly could. Johnson was the most able majority leader, probably, in the history of the country. He knew the legislative process very well. He knew the personalities in the Senate, and more about them than any member of that body. He knew their hopes and dreams and pet peeves and prejudices. He knew which ones could be driven like an ox. He knew which ones could be led with a carrot. He knew which ones could be motivated by certain special interests in their own state. He was a very artful majority leader. When he got to be President, he over committed himself on social programs and the programs and policies that were started during his administration, I feel certain, are piling up these huge deficits that are the cause of most of the monetary problems that we have and the fiscal problems that we have in this country at the present time. And of course, he was succeeded by President Nixon. Nixon was Vice-President of the United States when I came to the Senate. My personal relationship with him was very, very cordial. I always gave President Nixon extremely high marks for being a total Machiavellian type politician who could read the mood of the country very well and react thereto. But his actions in this Watergate thing are a mystery to me today because a ten year old child should have known better. When that thing first came into public domain, if he had gone on nationwide television and made a speech and said substantially that in politics, "loyalty is the name of the game, I have been in politics virtually all my adult life. My friends have been exceedingly loyal to me. I have been exceedingly loyal to them and in this instance, too loyal. I am discharging everyone responsible for it today. I apologize to the American people and pledge that it won't happen again," well, it would have been forgotten. Then, too, as soon as Butterfield blurted out before the Watergate Committee about those tapes, it is still a mystery to me why he didn't destroy them within fifteen minutes.
JACK NELSON:
He could almost have held a bonfire on the White House lawn and done it in the name of national security, couldn't he?
SENATOR HERMAN TALMADGE:
Of course he could. It was his property, he could have done anything with them that he wanted to. Instead of that, he had this wild conceived notion about executive privilege and that was the only corrobating evidence of John Dean's there was. If he had first pled what we lawyers call "confession and avoidance" in a statement and then secondly, if he had burned his tapes, he would be President today. Now, of course, Gerry Ford succeeded him and . . .
JACK NELSON:
Let me ask you this. It is hard to see Nixon outside of Watergate, but outside of that, how do you think Nixon did?
SENATOR HERMAN TALMADGE:
I think that many of his policies were good for the country. He tried to discourage enormous spending, with limited success, I may say. Only history will determine how this policy of detente is going to work, but the Soviet Union and the Red Chinese and the United States all live in the same world. All three of them are nuclear powers. It is in the interest of all three of those nations to avoid any confrontations, particularly a nuclear confrontation that could destroy civilization as we know it today.
JACK NELSON:
And you were going to say about Ford.
SENATOR HERMAN TALMADGE:
I've known Gerry Ford since I came to the Senate. I didn't know him extremely well until he became Vice-President of the United States. You can't be around Gerry Ford without liking him. He is a patriotic, loyal, God-fearing American. I think that his candor and his openness have impressed the American people. It comes through on television and that is a particularly desirable trait in the aftermath of Watergate and the Nixon years. Now, this country has so many problems today that I don't think any President of the United States could make a good president. I think that Gerry Ford is doing the best that he knows how. No one can predict what will happen in 1976, but if our economy recovers rather rapidly, I think that he may well be difficult to defeat.