Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Our Three Greatest and our Three Worst Presidents

                   Our Three Greatest and Three Worst Presidents.

      Before one can make an evaluative judgment, one must specify the standards or criterion that one is using to make this assessment.  In my case, I would say that a president is “great” to the extent that they made a lasting contribution to the idea of a republic, believed in republican or democratic values, and represented the entire population.

     By these standards it is clear that George Washington was our greatest president.  Without Washington, this country would never have become a republic.  He was the one founding father who was capable of uniting a collection of squabbling states and getting them to accept the constitution.  He was the only one with sufficient integrity to inspire trust and confidence in a people who had just fought a war for their liberty and were extremely wary of giving up their hard fought gains to another central government.
     Washington showed that their trust was well deserved.  He reached out to minorities and immigrants and assured them that as long as they remained law abiding citizens they would always be welcome and would receive the protection of the laws of the United States.  At the time, this was quite a revolutionary concept.  The idea that people of different nationalities and religions should live together as equals before the law was almost completely unheard of, until it was put into practice by the U.S.
     Washington’s greatest contribution was retiring from office after his second term. This was probably the first time in history that anyone willing gave up power.  Previous to this power was obtained by waiting for the person who had it to die, or helping the process along.  This made for the first orderly transition of power from a living head of state, to his successor.  (Probably the main reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was their inability to transfer power without violence.  Khrushchev may well have prolonged the life of the Soviet Union by decades when he retired instead of assassinating his successors.)
     Washington’s other great contribution lies in the unspoken message of his withdrawal from office.  In effect he was saying that the institutions and offices of the republic were more important than the people filling them.  There will be good presidents and bad presidents.  Good judges and bad judges.  Good congressmen and senators and bad congressman and senators.  But the institutions were so strong that we would always be able to muddle through the bad office holders and make necessary reforms when the good office holders were in power.  The great premise being that no single individual would be greater or more important than the office he held.
     Obviously, our second greatest president is Abraham Lincoln.  Without Lincoln, this would no longer be a unified nation.  Washington gave us a republic.  Lincoln believed it was worth preserving at all costs.  Unfortunately, some of those costs would lead to the end of the Republic he fought so hard to preserve.  The civil war gave us many new concepts.  Things like trading with the enemy during wartime, war profiteering, and the emergence of the corporate economy.  Ironically the very constitutional amendments that were designed to assist the newly freed slaves were written by a corporation lawyer using language designed to apply to and protect corporations.
     In third place we have Lyndon Johnson.  Let me state quite clearly and emphatically that Lyndon Johnson was the greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century.  It’s odd that no-one thinks of Johnson in that manner.  If one were to ask the average person to name a revolutionary, they would probably say, Lenin, Chairman Mao, Trotsky, Hitler, Mussolini, Castro, Che, etc. etc.  One thing all these people have in common is that they used extreme amounts of violence to impose alien ideas on a native populace.  Another thing they all have in common is that none of their revolutions had any kind of lasting impact except as cautionary tales about the futility of violent revolution.
     Johnson did not use violence to impose his will and to get the American public to accept ideas alien to their nature.  Instead he used the political process to change the way people think.  Johnson swore that after the civil rights act and the voting rights act, no-one would ever get elected to office by race baiting.  And he succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.  Imagine someone in Mississippi or Alabama running for office on a platform of “let’s take the vote away from black people” or let’s bring back segregation,
They would literally be laughed out of town, if not subjected to more dire means of disapproval.  Anyone old enough to remember the south in the fifties knows that more than one southerner believed in the old adage, “save your confederate money, the south will rise again”.  It was the passage of the civil rights act and the voting rights act that literally ended the civil war.  Johnson once said that he would finish what Lincoln started and he did it.
     Johnson was undoubtedly the greatest politician of our age.  He had an instinct for knowing how to get what he wanted and for getting people to accept it.  As a senator he actually voted for senate rules changes that would make it harder to pass a civil rights act.
He then cajoled and wheedled the senate into passing the first civil rights act since reconstruction.  Despite widespread criticism about the weakness of the act, Johnson understood that just getting such a law through the senate was a major milestone on the way to stronger and stronger legislation.
     As president, Johnson was able to use his political genius to get his “Great Society” legislation through congress.  I think the most telling remark with regard to the civil rights legislation came from Senator Richard Russell.  He is quoted as telling Johnson,”Since the civil rights act is legislation passes by congress and not judge made law, the people will accept it, and abide by it.”
     In conclusion, I think I can safely say that Lyndon Johnson was one of the very few presidents who actually gave a damn about the people who live in this country and not just the rich and the powerful.
     Afterthought.  It is interesting to note that almost all the “Great Society” legislation was first proposed by President Truman in 1948.  At that time it was considered so radical as to be way beyond the pale of what would be acceptable to the American public.  Thanks to the political genius of Lyndon Johnson, a mere sixteen years later this legislation didn’t seem quite so radical anymore.  In fact, it had become so mainstream that the vast majority of the American populace supported it when it was passed.  Johnson understood that you can’t take new ideas and pass new laws and then try to shove them down people’s throats.  It is only by exercising moral leadership
and convincing people that it is the right thing to do, that one can effect radical change in the social structure. (It’s too bad that many of our high-handed judges who constantly try to usurp the legislative function don’t seem to understand these concepts.)

                                        Our three worst Presidents.

1. John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  I consider him our worst president because by getting himself killed, he lost the republic forever.  There may be many reasons for his assassination but I think the most cogent one is this: He was a total incompetent who was in way over his head and he had not the slightest idea of how to govern.  In the Federalist Papers, Madison pointed out that the art of governing involves playing off different competing interests and power centers against one another.  Kennedy managed the rather unique feat of alienating all the power centers at the same time.  Trying to figure out exactly who killed him is like watching, “Murder on the Orient Express”.  The answer is , “they all did.”
     The one book that has told me the most about why Kennedy was assassinated is Caro’s  book, Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate.  I think Kennedy is mentioned on one or two pages.  The book describes the jockeying for power among the political heavyweights and Kennedy is nowhere to be found.
     When Kennedy ran for office he had exactly three qualifications for the presidency. He had a rich father who wanted him to be president.  He looked good on television, and he had a sexy Boston accent.  (For those interested in the reality behind the image, watch some old episodes of “The Simpsons”.  Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby is a dead-on parody of JFK.)
     Once in office, he immediately went about double-crossing the people who put him there.  (Incidentally, he did not win the election.  Mayor Daley’s Chicago machine (Vote early and vote often) gave him Illinois, and Johnson’s machine in South Texas gave him Texas.)  Intellectually, he may have been “witty”, but it was superficial and for show.  He was not the kind of deep thinker who could readily see the consequences of his actions. As a result, he managed to antagonize big business, the FBI, the pentagon, the CIA, and everybody else he dealt with (except for his relatives, although Jackie was an exception) all at the same time.
     That the Kennedy assassination was a message to the American people, there can be no doubt.  Since members of the secret service and assorted intelligence agencies were involved in his death, simply killing him was not the object. (Remember Pope John Paul I? There the goal was to get rid of him as quietly as possible, so they simply poisoned him and announced he died of natural causes.) Kennedy had Addison’s disease (or Potts disease-take your pick) and it would have been a simple matter to give him an injection, put him in the hospital and announce his death from his illness.  Instead they chose to gun him down at high noon in front of God and the American people.  Then they handed out this cock-and-bull story about how this was done by  some marginal person with a war surplus Italian rifle.
     The message was loud and clear.  “We have the power to kill anyone who gets in our way and there is nothing you can do about it”.  What Madison couldn’t foresee is that one competing interest (the oil companies ) would become so powerful that they could overwhelm every other interest all at the same time. When you have a group that is so powerful they are no longer accountable to anyone, you no longer have a republic.
     Incidentally, the question remains, “who did kill Kennedy?”  Probably the best answer we’re going to get comes from one of the many books I’ve read on the subject.  The author says he interviewed one of Johnson’s mistresses.  She told him that one night in bed she asked him point blank, “Just who really killed Kennedy?”  She said that Johnson looked at her and said rather flatly, “It was the CIA and the oil companies.” I doubt if we’ll ever get any closer to the truth than that.
     In second place for all-time worst president is Franklyn Delano Roosevelt.  He was probably our first true media president.  A man wholly without principles, coherent philosophy or ideals he pursued power strictly for its own sake.  Ruthless, unscrupulous and amoral he possessed a sociopath’s  charm and was able to use the radio to convince people that until the second coming, he was the closest thing to J.C. on earth that they were ever going to experience.
     The actions that make him number two on our list are his attempt to stack the supreme court by enlarging its membership to include people he considered politically reliable, and his decision to run for a third term of office.  Both these actions show FDR’s utter contempt for the offices and institutions of a republic.  The opposite of Washington, he considered himself to be more important than the office he held.  Had he been around in Washington’s time, there is no doubt that he would have accepted the title, “President for Life” which Washington had the decency and good sense to refuse.  (The result of accepting such a title probably would have been transference of power by violence and civil war as opposed to relatively peaceful elections.)
     It is interesting to note that all historical reports universally indicate that FDR and Stalin hit it off quite well and were on very friendly terms.  Equally ruthless and unscrupulous they both used very similar methods to obtain and hold power.  They systematically eliminated political rivals with independent constituencies and replaced them with non-entities without independent political support.  This explains how someone like Eisenhower got to be Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-American war effort while such prestigious figures as Generals McArthur and Marshall were relegated to the side-lines.  (My guess is that Eisenhower was picked because he could be trusted to carry out Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s non-intervention policy with regard to the slaughter of Jewish civilians.  ((The British made no bones about the fact that as far as they were concerned, every Jew killed by Hitler meant one less refugee trying to get into Palestine when the war ended.))  It is hard to know what McArthur would have done in Eisenhower’s place.  Given his rather vainglorious attitudes and sense of “noblesse oblige”, it is quite possible he might have chosen to intervene.  What does seem to be the case, is that had he decided to intervene, Roosevelt and Churchill would not have been able to stop him.)

Third place on our list goes to Lyndon Johnson.  One of the most corrupt and venal characters ever to reach the presidency, there is no doubt that he used his elected offices to enrich himself to the tune of millions of dollars.  However, if that were all he did, he would not be all that different from all the other corrupt politicians.
     Johnson makes our list because of the way in which he handled the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.  Although he has been accused of being the force behind the assassination, that credits him with having far more power than he actually had.  What is true is that he knew the truth about who was behind it, and instead of making any effort to expose them, he made a deal with them.  Johnson always said that he traded his Great Society for the war in Viet Nam. 
     It is true that had Johnson told the truth about who really assassinated JFK, he might have plunged the country into chaos resulting in martial law.  If that had happened, at least people would have had to face the truth and recognize the fact they were no longer living in a republic and that all democratic ideals were a thing of the past.  By protecting the assassins, he enabled them to consolidate their power over the country and to disenfranchise the general population.  Had he fought and lost, the end result would probably have left us with a situation not too different than what we have now.  Instead, he enabled the ruling class to maintain the façade of a republic while killing its substance.
(The historically inclined may recall that this is exactly what happened in Rome after Augustus took power.)
     To me, the great mystery of Lyndon Johnson is, “how can so much good and so much evil reside within one individual?”  I think Caro may give us the answer in an indirect fashion.  He describes Johnson’s father as being an absolute bastion of integrity in a
thoroughly  corrupt political environment (the turn of the century Texas legislature).  Unfortunately, his great integrity and honesty did not accomplish much in the way to assist his constituents, the poor farmers of his district.  Although he gained their love and respect, Johnson’s father wasn’t really able to overcome the corruption of the other legislators and produce much in the way of tangible results.  My experiences in life tell me that children tend to be exactly like their parents in some ways, and the exact opposite in other ways.  I don’t think LBJ ever forgot his father’s ideals and was deeply committed to helping the “poor and the downtrodden”.  He seems to have incorporated populist ideals into the very fabric of his being.  On the other hand, he saw that all his father’s honesty, integrity, and incorruptibility got him was a memorable funeral. I believe he looked at his father and said to himself that all that honesty and integrity got him nowhere in life.  At some point he decided he was going to go places where he could help people and he didn’t care how he got there.  He was going to do whatever it took.  He made deals, he took “contributions”, he rigged elections, and he made himself a wealthy man.  But somehow, he never forgot the poor and the outsiders, and when he reached a point where he could do some good, he did it.  It’s possible that “deal-making” was so ingrained a part of his nature that he didn’t really understand the consequences of making a deal with Kennedy’s assassins, but I truly doubt it.

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