As we observe Presidents Day this year, it is well to consider the critical role our presidents play in shaping the attitudes and ambitions of America’s young people. Being the most conspicuous public figures of their time, presidents can have a tremendous influence on the future lives of contemporaneous youngsters. It can be for better or for worse.
Presidents should be positive role models, inspiring our children to be good people who make this country a better place for all of us. When I was growing up, my parents held George Washington up as an example - a truthful man who brought Americans together to build a nation. Outside of the deep south, Abraham Lincoln was praised for abolishing slavery and extending basic human rights to everyone in this blessed land.
I personally experienced the power of presidential inspiration - it transformed my life. In my first year of college at Idaho State, I was studying to be a civil engineer. That is, until John Kennedy gave his inaugural address in January 1961. When he said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” those words shot through me like a bolt of lightning.
Although Kennedy was of a different political party, I embraced his challenge and made plans to be a war veteran, a lawyer and a U.S. Senator, all of which he had been. That brought me to the University of Oregon where I got a political science degree and a commission in the Army. Several of my friends there also responded to Kennedy’s call--one couple chose the Foreign Service, a girlfriend opted for the Peace Corps.
After law school, I volunteered for service in Vietnam as an artillery officer. During R&R in Bangkok, I met up with Larry Crumrine who had been a year ahead of me at Valley High School (Eden-Hazelton). Larry had heeded Kennedy’s call and served in the Peace Corps in Africa, then joined the Air Force. He was flying bombing missions over North Vietnam and Laos. Here were two Jerome County guys fighting international Communism halfway around the world from home. We saw it as our duty to the country.
In the six decades since Kennedy made his speech, I have met many more people of both political parties who were inspired by Kennedy’s words. Other Presidents have used their high office to inspire and bring out the best in all of us. Ronald Reagan memorably described America as “the shining city upon a hill...teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” What better way to inspire our children to be good and do good?
Unfortunately, presidential misconduct can have a powerful negative influence on our children. If a president has little regard for the truth, it sends a signal to our youngsters that they need not be truthful.
When a president glorifies those who commit war crimes, while vilifying service personnel who honorably serve, it hurts the effort to attract our best and brightest to serve in the military.
A president who relies on a staff member with white nationalist sympathies to fashion the country’s immigration policy gives a wink and a nod to both young and old that it may be okay to say and do hurtful things to others.
When our president questions and demeans the faith of a Senator who obviously cherishes his religion, it sets a poor example for people of all faiths and ages.
If a president bullies a 15-year-old climate activist who is concerned about the world in which she and her generation will live, it shows our youngsters that bullying must be acceptable conduct.
Candidates running for the high office of president should set a positive example for the nation’s young people. We should judge candidates, first and foremost, on whether the behavior they display is the way we want our children to behave.
Jim Jones has written of his 25 years of public service in his book, “Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind.”