The more things change…

I nicked this H.L. Mencken quote from William Gibsons’ blog from yesterday

“…the larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, the first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide…the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre… The presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people… On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a moron.”

I need to keep a copy of this in my wallet to whip out the next time I’m trying to explain to someone that having a halfwit in the White House is really not a very new thing at all.

Americans tend to do one of two things to the collective memory of past Presidents – we either deify them or demonize them. And you don’t really even have to go that far back to see this in action. Nixon = incarnation of ultimate evil, while Kennedy = personification of the American ideal. Nevermind that Nixon was the last President to have a sensible policy regarding drug abuse, and that it was he who negotiated the first arms reductions treaty with the USSR and was the first US President to normalize relations with communist China. Nevermind that Kennedy was a womanizer, that his election to the Presidency was orchestrated in large part by the mob, that he was the man who decided to destabilize South Vietnam by refusing to protect President Diem from assassination and launched the US into the most self-destructive war in it’s history (so far), and that he was red baiting commie hater who Joe McCarthy would have been proud of.

Lyndon Johnson is excoriated by history for escalating the Vietnam war, even though the course he followed was laid out pretty well before assassination put him in office. Most people in this country do not realize the singular contribution Johnson made to the expansion of civil rights in this country, and his war on poverty is almost completely forgotten. Harry Truman is held up as an icon of no-nonsense politics, who ran a tight ship and steered the US to the prosperity of the 1950’s and who oversaw the rebuilding of post-war Europe. The fact that he gave the order for the only use, to date, of atomic weapons in war on Japan is excused by weak arguments that his decision was the only reasonable course of action because the Japanese would have fought to the last man to repel any invasion, leading to enormous casualties among the Allied forces and horrible depredations for the Japanese themselves. Americans either do not know or conveniently forget that Japan was aggressively suing for peace for weeks prior to the dropping of the first bomb on Hiroshima, let alone that the Japanese were still trying to figure out what had happened in Hiroshima when Truman ordered the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The collective American memory either ignores or is ignorant that the A-bombs dropped on Japan had far more to do with threatening the USSR than they did with securing a Japanese surrender.

I could go on and on like this. I agree strongly with James Loewen’s thesis that American school kids have so little interest in history as an academic subject primarily because the way that American schools teach it leans far into the realm of propaganda and hero worship. We’re not taught that Abraham Lincoln struggled with severe depression throughout his life, or that Franklin Roosevelt was a cavorting womanizer, or that Teddy Roosevelt grew up a weak and sickly child who was obsessed later in life with proving over and over how fit and vigorous he was. We’re not taught to see our historical figures as real people with both gifts and failings. We’re not told honestly that portions of our history unfolded as they did because of base motivations like greed, avarice or narcissism. With all the humanity sucked out of our history all the drama and normal human interest goes out of it and the kids lose interest. And because they aren’t interested in or compelled by history as kids we’re a nation of adults who view our contemporary political figures with enormous disappointment.

If you think Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, FDR and John Kennedy were infallible, inspiring supermen you cannot help but take a look at George W. Bush (or Bill Clinton for that matter), do a quick comparison and decide that the current occupant of the White House isn’t fit to shine his historic predecessors’ shoes. I do happen to think that Dubya is a particularly poor President, just for the record, but I also think that Mencken was right. The job attracts the mediocre and it really always has.

I’ll go back to Abe Lincoln to make my point. Historians tend to be in near universal agreement that Abraham Lincoln was the finest President this country has ever had. But if you look closely at what Lincoln said and wrote during his time in office it’s very clear that he was as much of a politician, in the usual contemporarily derogatory sense of the word, as anyone who has held the office in the past fifty years. The great issue of Lincoln’s day was slavery. Lincoln found slavery personally revolting and morally wrong. That much is clear, but he said himself that if he could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do that. If he could preserve the Union by freeing some of the slaves and leaving others in bondage, he would do that. And if he could preserve the Union by freeing none of the slaves, he would also do that. Compared to Horace Greely or Frederick Douglas, or even John Brown, Lincoln was hardly a committed abolitionist. Lincoln was a politician, first and foremost. He gets the pat on the back from history because he rose to the occasion as President, not because he was the most exceptional man of his era.

We need to learn to accept that our leaders are human beings. Even more so, we need to accept that anyone who wants that piss poor job that comes with the garish colonial mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC is not likely to be someone any of us would choose for a personal hero.

It would be nice if the guy could spell though.

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