As a junior studying abroad at the University of Wales, I was so glad to find an interesting politics class to take amongst all my required chemistry courses. The class in question was a political science class about post-WWII American Presidents. Wow, I figured, a class about something I've actually experienced! Should be an easy A, right?
Unlike American colleges, the British university system prefers to inundate its students in intensive lectures with one final exam at the end of term, as opposed to grading homework, quizzes, and multiple tests during the semester. So as the end of the semester approached, I received the topic of our final exam essay-who was the greatest post-WWII American President, and why?
In a small class with about 15 Brits, I figured this essay was working to my advantage. After all, I and 2 other American exchange students in the class had actually lived this history. To the Americans in the class, there was no research necessary; the answer to the question was obvious.
Because of the small size of the class, it was customary for the professor to pass out the essays and have each student defend their work. The professor, a pleasant British scholar with a love of all things John F. Kennedy, asked for a volunteer to present their argument. Again, feeling confident that the subject matter was in my wheelhouse, I volunteered to go first.
I presented my argument on the greatest U.S. President in modern times- Ronald Reagan. I spoke convincingly about all things I remembered and experienced- the release of the Iranian hostages, the resurgence of American patriotism, the strength of the U.S. dollar, the strong economy, military superiority, and the winning of the Cold War. After all, it was 1991, so the fall of the Berlin Wall was fresh in everyone's minds. The other two Americans in the class, a young lady from Illinois and another from California, wrote similar papers and were in agreement with every one of my points. To all three of us, this question was a no-brainer, and we all thought we slam-dunked it. A's all around.
The British professor pointed to a classmate from Wales, a British poly sci major who fancied himself an American scholar. He asked that student to present his paper and contrast it with mine.
My Welsh classmate proceeded to give his take on the greatest U.S. President of the 20th century- Jimmy Carter.
I and the other two Americans nearly laughed out loud! Oh, this poor, misguided Brit! How could he have possibly confused the worst President of all time for the best? We considered his position foolish, if not totally indefensible.
Imagine our surprise as the professor systematically nodded and supported each statement made by his star pupil! This couldn't be! We Americans were stunned. I personally remembered the heartache and pain of the Carter years. I was only 9, but I vividly recall the daily recital of the evening news as Walter Cronkite started each broadcast with "Day number __ of the Iranian hostage crisis". I remember long lines at the gas station and $2 a gallon gasoline at a time when gas was normally under a dollar. I remember my parents' feelings of hopelessness and despair.
How could those years be considered examples of strong presidential leadership?
According to my political science professor, we Americans were seeing it all wrong. From a European perspective, President Carter stayed out of their affairs. Although unsuccessful, he worked for peace and stayed out of wars. I guess the fact that many Americans were jobless, suffering, and financially challenged mattered little to British lecturers in their ivory towers in Cambridge and Oxford. On the other hand, every British student argued that Reagan was a "nut" who brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Our lecturer called him "reckless" and mentioned how alot of British citizens did not want to take part in his brinksmanship with the Russians. In their eyes, Reagan endangered the entire world by staring down the Russians. Apparently, they had grown up with a popular British TV show, Spitting Image, that depicted Reagan as a senile old puppet controlled by the military industrial complex(you can see the Reagan puppet from that show in the Genesis video "Land of Confusion").
In the end, all the Brits who said "Carter" got high marks, and we three Americans who supported Reagan were lucky to get out of there with good grades. Now, be honest, how many of you would have answered the title of this article with "Jimmy Carter"?
Yeah, I thought so!