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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Presidents and Precedents

(Reprinted from the issue of May 4, 2006)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo for Presidents and PrecedentsNobody, 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 measure.

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 emulate.

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 noticed.

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 Read Joe Sobran's columns the day he writes 
them!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.” — SOBRANS. 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.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission

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