Presidents and Precedents

     Nobody, I hope, will mistake me for an admirer of 
either President Bush, especially the incumbent. Even so, 
I'm astounded by the intensity of sheer hatred George W. 
Bush inspires. This is something opinion polls don't 

     Why is Bush hated more bitterly than Richard Nixon, 
Lyndon Johnson, and, I believe, Harry Truman? Politics 
thrives on animosity, but usually it takes the form of 
disgust rather than the consuming loathing we are seeing 
today. In many people, not necessarily Democrats, it 
lacks any sense of proportion.

     One of the more rational Bush-haters is the 
historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, who 
argues that Bush may be the worst president in American 
history. I'm leery of that sort of historical ranking, 
given the record of, say, Franklin Roosevelt, whom 
Wilentz considers one of the greatest: a man who violated 
the Constitution, lied us into war, befriended Joseph 
Stalin, and fathered the atomic bomb, to name but a few 
of the dubious achievements Bush can hardly hope to 

     But Roosevelt was a master propagandist whose crimes 
and lies still enjoy the benison of liberalism. Bush, you 
might say, is guilty of bad historical timing; his faults 
have unfortunately coincided with an entirely different 
national mood. Ever since the murder of John Kennedy, 
there has been a remarkable diminution of reverence for 
the American presidency. "Respect for the office" hardly 
even gets lip service anymore; the personal frailties of 
the officeholder have become the focus of attention.

     The new irreverence is reflected in news reporting, 
pop music, late-night comedy, and just about every other 
form of popular culture. After Bill Clinton's antics, 
restoring dignity to the Oval Office was a feat for 
Hercules. But even Hercules didn't have to cope with 
today's omnipresent media, including the Internet.

     This is not to exculpate Bush, only to point out 
that presidents can no longer get away with things they 
used to get away with all the time. Several presidents 
have been caught out in misdeeds because they mistakenly 
assumed they could commit with impunity such crimes, or 
just personal sins, as their predecessors had before the 
rules had changed. Johnson and Nixon knew that the press 
had covered up for Roosevelt and Kennedy; Clinton knew 
more specifically that it had covered up for Kennedy's 
adulteries in the White House itself.

     Now Bush is learning the same lesson: A president 
can no longer take for granted that he is justified, or 
protected, by the precedents of previous presidents. It 
may be unfair that the rules have been so radically 
revised without notice, but there it is.

     Double standards? Of course. These are the only 
constant in politics. Bush and his neoconservative 
propaganda corps have thought it was safe to emulate 
Roosevelt's conduct of World War II. Guess again, 
fellows. The liberals shamelessly damn Bush for the same 
acts for which they bless Roosevelt's memory. And even 
Roosevelt would have had to behave differently if he'd 
faced today's skeptical American public.

     With the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bush thought he 
had his Pearl Harbor, carte blanche for war. And for a 
long time it seemed so. But this time even the "embedded" 
press didn't support "the war effort" as of old. 
Impugning the patriotism of war critics didn't work the 
way it used to. Free speech, free press, and civil 
liberties now have real force during wartime.

     It's impossible to imagine a show like SATURDAY 
NIGHT LIVE spoofing Roosevelt during World War II. 
American humor has changed as deeply as everything else 
since then. In the old days, making fun of the president 
was akin to blasphemy. Today Jay Leno makes jokes Lenny 
Bruce would have been arrested for, and it's hardly 

     Can Bush still come back at this point? I suppose it 
can't entirely be ruled out, considering the Democratic 
alternative, but I doubt it. He has reached a low plateau 
of popularity at which he is blamed for everything that 
goes wrong, his faults are magnified, and even his 
virtues look bad. People blame him for a disastrous war, 
high gasoline prices, hurricanes, uncontrolled 
immigration, stupendous federal deficits, Republican 
corruption, and every other discontent.

     Only the neocons continue to insist that Bush is a 
"great" president. But then, they think Roosevelt is 
still a name to conjure with.

Proof Text

     I was speaking in my home state of Michigan the 
other day, to a friendly and intelligent audience of 
conservative to libertarian Christians, when someone 
asked one of those questions -- the kind I'm never quite 
ready for. He generally agreed with me that government 
does far more harm than good, but he demurred on one 
small point. We do need government now, he maintained 
fiercely, because the Muslims want to kill us -- every 
last one of us.

     For a moment I could only stare at him to make sure 
he wasn't Sean Hannity. Then I asked him how he could 
make such a remarkable statement.

     Unlike me, he was prepared. He had with him a book 
by the apocalyptic Protestant Hal Lindsey, which cited a 
verse from the Koran urging Muslims to kill unbelievers 
"wherever you find them." Well, there you go!

     I answered lamely that I'd met many Muslims, and 
none of them had ever done or threatened violence to me; 
and that the Talmud also has some pretty hair-raising 
assertions about Gentiles, but I don't think the Jews are 
determined to wipe us out.

     My interlocutor wouldn't budge. Oh dear. I got that 
weird feeling you have when you know you and the other 
fellow are in the same room, but you're not so sure the 
two of you are in the same universe.

     More seriously, the verse may be understandable, 
given Muhammad's perilous situation at the time when he 
wrote. But this only shows how human he was -- and how 
far from divinity. The early Christians were beleaguered 
too, but there is no similarly bloody commandment, nor 
even the faintest hint of one, in the entire New 
Testament. We know that our heavenly Father would never 
inspire such a saying.

Just Thought I'd Mention It

     Benedict XVI has been the Holy Father for more than 
a year now, and he must be a severe disappointment to all 
those progressive Catholics who portrayed him as John 
Paul II's "attack dog" and predicted that his papacy 
would be a nightmare.

     Why are they so strangely quiet now? Would it be too 
much to ask them to admit that their harsh judgments may 
have been a bit ... well, premature? (I guess it would.)

     In fact I think that even most of us who found him 
wholly admirable as Cardinal Ratzinger would say he has 
surpassed our high expectations.

     Let's invite our progressive brethren to join us in 
rejoicing, if they can bear to.

                 +          +          +                  

     "It has proved much more difficult to repeal Social 
Security than to repeal inconvenient parts of the U.S. 
Constitution." -- SOBRAN'S. If you have not seen my 
monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 
800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, 
subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get 
two gifts with their subscription. More details can be 
found at the Subscription page of my website,

     Already a subscriber? Consider a gift subscription 
for a priest, friend, or relative.
                                        --- Joseph Sobran


Read this column on-line at 

This column copyright (c) 2006 by THE WANDERER, the
National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867, Reprinted with permission.

This column may not be published in print or Internet 
publications without express permission of THE WANDERER. 
You may forward it to interested individuals if you use 
this entire page, including the following disclaimer:

"THE WANDERER is available by subscription. Write for information.
Subscription price: $50 per year; $30 for six months.
Checks can be sent to The WANDERER, 201 Ohio Street, 
Dept. JS, St. Paul, MN 55107.

"SOBRAN'S and Joe Sobran's syndicated columns are 
available by e-mail subscription. For details and 
samples, see, write, or call 800-513-5053."

This page copyright (c) 2006 by THE VERE COMPANY.