“Some people see things as they are and say ‘why?. I dream things that never were and say ‘why not?’”
The line from George Bernard Shaw is remembered, if remembered today at all, because it became the mantra of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, a particularly haunting mantra in the wake of his assassination. The implication, of course, was that Kennedy was unafraid to have a vision of both America and the world that others of the day (think RFK presidential rivals Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon) were simply incapable of possessing. Vision required both courage and imagination, and Kennedy spoke repeatedly of America’s need for both.
It is no small irony then that this new political season finds the line applicable not to Kennedy’s Democratic Party successors but rather to George W. Bush. So in the spirit of the just passed holiday season that calls us all to reflect on our individual and collective blessings, a word should be said for perhaps one of the most controversial war-time presidents to sit in the White House since Abraham Lincoln as he prepares to redirect his Iraq policy.
There is no intention here to recall either the circumstances of his family or his election. Not a psychiatrist, I will leave the musings on alleged foreign policy struggles between the second set of presidential fathers and sons in American history to others. No Florida, Florida, Florida in this space, either. The present and the future deserve attention.
Countless pages and endless air time has been devoted over the decades to the importance of having a President of the United States with precisely the qualities that RFK spoke of so frequently when he quoted Shaw. It is no accident that Presidents who fill the bill are consistently engulfed in controversy, inspiring not simply adversaries but mortal enemies, engendering not just dislike or distaste but summoning up the deepest biles of sheer hatred.
Recognizing this it is time to finally put to rest a Bush theme that, however well-intentioned, is flatly contradicted by the tenets of greatness in presidential leadership. “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” said the candidate of 2000 as he sought to attract voters with an upbeat personality and presentation. In the event, of course, he has proved to be exactly not that at all, as his many derisive critics are so quick to point out.
To which it should be said: Hooray! Uniters who were not dividers have graced the presidential office periodically, and the record they leave behind does not recommend. America just loved Warren Harding, generally found at the rock bottom on the list of all presidents and their contributions to history.
In point of fact, history bestows the wreaths of honor and presidential greatness on those who followed exactly the spirit of Bobby Kennedy’s borrowed quote from Shaw. Looking back from Reagan to Truman, the Roosevelts, Wilson, Lincoln, and Jackson, the formula for historical success is clear. And to say the least, a president who “dreams things that never were” and says “why not?” — then spends a presidency midwifing that vision into reality — is destined to spend his time in the White House as a lightning rod of division.
The premiere example of this, of course, is Lincoln. Seeing disunion and slavery as what it was, he not only said “why not?” to their opposites, but grimly went about the task of making those imagined opposites reality. As with the Bush-haters of today, those who despised Lincoln for actually daring to make his dream of union and freedom for blacks a reality were relentless in their attacks. With the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq hovering north of 3,000, it is worth recalling the absolute furor whirling around the sixteenth president as he devoted himself to making his vision a reality of American life, a vision that finally cost over 600,000 dead in four years.
The recent trials and tribulations of the suddenly-famous Miss USA, Tara Conner, remind that centuries of bad human experience with alcohol and the fast life cannot save an individual human in modern times from making the same mistakes with alcohol and the fast life all over again. There is a similar version of Ms. Conner’s experience in the world of politics and government, with smart people who are supposed to have some understanding of history nonetheless falling into precisely the same traps that history warns those smart people repeatedly against. Presidents daring to ask “why not?” are besieged by those who will insist that the President in question has mismanaged the vision — blundered, listened to fools and otherwise shown himself to be one of the worst presidents in history.
And the critics are always right, to a point. Being human, it is simply impossible for any president to implement a war policy (or any other policy) without mismanaging, blundering, or listening to fools somewhere along the line. Flyspeck the historical records of the great presidents and these moments are glaringly obvious.
But so is something else. That something else is the utterly dependable voice of critics who simply do not have the will to carry through with the hard work of making a vision reality, critics who will abandon constructive thought altogether and head for the figurative sidelines to carp, moan, whine, and quiver. The recent interview with complaining neoconservatives in the January issue of the virulently Bush-hating Vanity Fair magazine, now combined with the defeatism of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is perhaps best answered not by one of Bush’s aides but Lincoln’s.
“I am utterly amazed to find so little real faith and courage under difficulties among public leaders and men of intelligence. The average public mind is becoming alarmingly sensational,” wrote Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, as torrents of bitter criticism rained down on his boss. Bad news of any kind “is enough to throw them all into the horrors of despair. I am getting thoroughly disgusted with average human nature.” And John Nicolay never met Nancy Pelosi!
One of the ironies of the success of a presidential vision is that later generations — and sometimes even the same generation — can simply not imagine that there was any other outcome possible. This is not only never true, the now-accepted view of a presidentially created reality usually hung in the balance as it was being birthed.
The new book Copperheads by University of Kansas history professor Jennifer Weber is a wonderful case in point. The book brims with the details of the virulent anti-war opposition to Lincoln from Northern critics. They were dubbed “Copperheads” because, like the copperhead snake, they were said to strike without warning. The war to save the Union and eventually the struggle to emancipate the slaves were dubbed “wicked,” and Lincoln was bitterly castigated as a purveyor of “fanaticism and hypocrisy.” Moral relativism? There were Northerners aplenty who fervently believed the Union side of the conflict represented nothing more than “barbarism and sin.”
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