Boomers Watched Presidents Make Their “Big Ask”

When President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress last week, it may have seemed like deja vu all over again for boomers. The reason for this is very simple; every president during the boomer era has addressed Congress with an ambitious agenda that amounted to a “big ask.” Indeed, suggesting legislation is a main part of the job and a good part of why we elect presidents. See if you remember this portion of our shared history, now that decades have passed and we have had the benefit of hindsight to evaluate their effect on our lives.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower — National Interstate Highways
For many people, Eisenhower’s signature legislation was the building of the interstate highway system. President Eisenhower officially introduced his proposal to Congress on February 22, 1955. A year later Congress allocated $26 billion for the construction of the 40,000 mile system of interconnected highways. Construction began in 1956, but wasn’t completed until 1992, so the budget had ultimately ballooned to more than $115 billion.

President John F. Kennedy — Man on the Moon
The Space Race began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. The U.S. soon matched Soviet orbiting satellites and established a manned space program. In 1961, Kennedy upped the ante by stating the goal of sending men to the moon and back by the end of the decade. He addressed Congress on May 25, 1961. Project Mercury was already two years old, and only two weeks earlier on May 5, Alan Shepard took the first U.S. manned sub-orbital flight. In February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. With these initial steps, the President asked Congress for $7-9 billion to be added to the Space Program over five years. On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon.

President Lyndon B. Johnson — Medicare
Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had tried to pass a form of healthcare legislation specifically for senior Americans, but failed in committees. President Kennedy was working toward being the third president to introduce legislation, but was assassinated before he could do so. President Lyndon Johnson picked up the task and in his State of the Union address on January 4, 1965, revealed his plan for Medicare. Congress dedicated $2.2 billion dollars to establish the program, and Medicare became part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965. Johnson recognized Truman as the “real daddy of Medicare,” so on July 30, 1965, he signed the bill at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. On hand were former President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess. President Johnson personally issued the first and second Medicare cards to them.

President Richard M. Nixon — The Environmental Protection Agency
Most people point to the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as the alarm that raised public awareness for environmental concerns. It had become evident that pollution of our air, water and land had become a major problem. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin accompanied then President John Kennedy on an 11-day trip in September of 1963 to raise awareness on pollution and environmental issues. (Nelson later was the founder of Earth Day.) Congress acted on the growing public sentiment for clean air, water and land management with the Clean Air Act of 1964. They passed additional bills over the next four years addressing national pollution problems.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon didn’t pay much attention to environmental issues. Then eight days after he was sworn in as President in January of 1969, there was a rupture on a Union Oil platform off the coast of California at Santa Barbara that spilled 100,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. A 60-mile oil slick covered beaches, devasted the local fishing industry and destroyed habitat for marine animals. The American people were horrified.

Congress reacted with the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Nixon was not on board at first, but voters were all for some environmental protections, so two months after the Union Oil disaster, he signed the bill. Prior to 1960, the Republican Party was seen as a big supporter of environmental issues, especially relating to farm land management and wildlife conservation. Now, with an increasing number of bills concerning the environment, more than 40 agencies were tasked with enforcing the new laws. After much consultation with his colleagues and aides, Nixon signed an executive order in June of 1969 establishing the Environmental Quality Council to oversee environmental issues.

Now with public sentiment behind him, and having been convinced that the environment would be a big issue in the upcoming election, on July 9, 1970, Nixon asked Congress to set up an agency that would consolidate and control all environmental issues with his Reorganization Plan No. 3. Nixon requested additional money for combating current pollution, including money to upgrade the country’s water treatment plants. His total ask was just over $10 billion. Congress passed the bill and on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations.

The moral of the story for boomers is, we’ve been here before. The presidents during the boomer decades of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s all requested large-scale legislation from Congress. As time has passed, most historians agree that the positives for the American people acquired through these boomer-era programs have outweighed the negatives.

Do you remember these historical events, boomers?

See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet, Again?

This past week President Obama repeated an imperative he has stated several times in his young presidency: It’s time to fix our nation’s infrastructure. That got Mister Boomer thinking about the time when the first national infrastructure program was initiated. It was a time most boomers remember well. Before delving into boomer memories, it is proper that we explore the history of the infrastructure program that was so much a part of our youth, and how it has shaped the country to this day.

The story actually starts at the end of World War I. After the experiences of trying to move troops and vehicles along impossible terrain and roadways never designed for military vehicles in Europe, the Army set up a military convoy to travel from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco to test the feasibility of troop transport in the event of a defense emergency in the continental U.S. It was called the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy, and departed Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1919 — a little less than one year after the end of World War I. Among the nearly 300 officers, enlisted men and War Department observers who participated was a young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Thirty years later, Eisenhower was the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces during World War II, having taken part in the liberation of North Africa and Europe. Less than a decade after the War — in the prime boomer-time of 1950 — he was elected President of the United States. Throughout his ascent to the highest office in the land, Eisenhower recalled in his memoirs the lessons he had learned about the difficulties of moving troops from one place to another.

On February 22, 1955, Eisenhower said, in an address to Congress: “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south. Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear — United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

There was a national infrastructure program in place since 1944, building many two-lane highways across the country, but funding was inadequate to make the kind of impact Eisenhower wanted on a national scale. He proposed an interstate highway system that was unprecedented in its time, and remains so to this day. On June 29, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which guaranteed dedicated funding for the program. Construction on the National Highway Defense System (NHDS), as it was called, began simultaneously across the land.

For boomers, the building of these highways represented many things. For some, it meant employment for boomer fathers. For others, it cut apart whole neighborhoods as Eisenhower’s “broad ribbons” sliced their way through cities and country-side alike. Other boomer families seized the opportunities brought by the new highways to open restaurants, motels and businesses that catered to the new batch of mobile travelers. For many boomer families, the 1950s mantra of the Chevy commercials, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” was now within the realm of possibility.

For Mister Boomer, and many fellow boomers to whom he has spoken, the NHDS first and foremost was an irresistible playground. Young boomer boys recall the mix of heavy machinery and deep gashes in the landscape as the ideal place to carry out war games and fantasy scenarios. In Mister B’s case, the interstate was coming through an area just three blocks away from Mister B’s house. Previously, the area had been fields and forests, inhabited by pheasants, rabbits, snakes and birds … the ideal habitat for a growing boomer explorer. Now his favorite region — the edge of a forest — was bulldozed into oblivion as a deep trench was dug for the new freeway. Every tree that rimmed the field had contained a hand-made treehouse composed of discarded wood scraps. Mister B and the neighborhood boomers would borrow hammers and nails from their fathers’ toolboxes to first nail horizontal slats up the side of the tree to establish a ladder system, then through a series of ropes, haul up lumber to an adequate place in the tree to build a platform. Sometimes they would stop at that, while in others, complete walls were constructed, suspended between branches 15 to 30 feet in the air.

Though the trees were sorely missed, the new “big hole,” as it was called, had its own draw. After school and on weekends, the machinery lay dormant, and workers were nowhere in sight, leaving the entire unfenced area as a smorgasbord of young boomer rock-throwing, hill-rolling, dirt-dragging, machinery-climbing fun. Once the hole began taking in water, for some neighborhood boomers, it produced a siren call that resulted in ill-thought actions as makeshift rafts were piloted to traverse the “lake.” Mister Boomer knew better than to attempt such foolishness, as certainly no one in the neighborhood knew how to swim.

The on-site headquarters for the contractors was not a mobile trailer, as it is today, but rather a couple of large panel trucks. As was the custom of the time, the trucks remained unlocked and thus, an invitation for exploring. The trucks were hot in the summer sun, and devoid of practically everything inside as plans and blueprints were most likely taken home each night. Boomer boys could sit in the seats and look out through the windshields, wondering what it was going to be like to drive this yet-to-be completed section, but that was about it. Inevitably, however, the trucks always contained a calendar with a pin-up calendar girl. A fully-clothed, buxom young woman was an interesting curio for the young boomers, but these images would hardly rate a PG in today’s marketplace.

Eventually, this section of interstate freeway and subsequent overpasses was completed. Not soon after that, Mister Boomer’s family did indeed use the system to travel across the country, taking in places far removed from the Midwestern milieu. Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore became destinations for boomer families everywhere. In a typical scenario, boomer parents loaded up the family in the station wagon and hit the open road, being sure to get a sticker to place along a side window to show the many places they had driven.

Now, as this infrastructure is in need of attention, there is a renewed call to preserve and strengthen the system. How about it, boomers? What great memories did the NHDS bring in your life?