Thursday, February 05, 2015

Haters love to hate

Barack Obama has been the target of a tremendous amount of bile and rancor, much of it racing around the Internet, posted by disaffected citizens either disturbed by his politics or his color. Or both. Even Kim Jong Un, the portly dictator of North Korea hit below the belt. To insult the President he said Obama “has the shape of a monkey.” This from a fat guy with a bad haircut. But no one has heaped scorn upon Obama like his own countrymen. In the past six years they have left no insult unsaid, no indignity unexpressed.

I wondered how Obama, or any President, handles all of this negative energy, this continual vibe of the malcontents, filling their blogs and newspaper columns and radio programs with invective and malice. Questioning the President's decision making, his programs, or his ability to lead, leaving out any tone of civility or good manners with the continual Obama-bashing.

I discovered something while contemplating. Historians know it, but its truth just took a while to whack me on the noggin. A President knows he will be hated by many of his fellow Americans. What President Obama knows, also, is that everyone who had the job before him had the same problem. The technology is different than it was a few years ago. It is a more high-tech character assassination than it has been in the past. The Internet, 24-hour news programming and Fox News have raised the bar on angry stupidity. But it will be no different for anyone who follows him, no matter what party they represent.

During his time in office a President is too close to the situation not to create degrees of discontent and partisanship. He is supposed to set the agenda for the country, which causes dissension and controversy. Where he has the advantage is that history will be the ultimate judge of how well he pulled off his agenda. Surviving former Presidents, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are banking on history to save their reputations.

Bill Clinton showed that just finishing up his second term, which was historically one of the worst for a modern President, immediately took him out of the line of fire. As an ex-President he became an “elder statesman.” This is a value of an ex-President, being able to get things done in a diplomatic way. Clinton even went to North Korea to help free some prisoners. It was a huge deal for the North Koreans, who had a man who was once the most powerful man in the world on their doorstep asking for a favor.

The fact that every President goes through this crucible is well documented. Even men who are rated as the most important Presidents in American history have been, during their time in office, hated. The book, The Hater's Handbook by Joseph Rosner, published in 1965, gives some high points of President-hating from George Washington through Lyndon Johnson. The author quotes Harry S. Truman, who was dragged through hot coals many times during his time in office as saying, “A public official, particularly the President, is always abused; if he isn’t, he’s doing nothing, and is of no value as the Chief Executive.”

 “Give 'em hell, Harry,” got his share of hell from his political enemies.

George Washington, who has universal acclaim today for both his skills as a General and President, was the subject of a 60-page letter from Thomas Paine, who accused him in part of “. . . your treachery in private friendship . . . and [you are] a hypocrite in public life, this world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you had any.”

The grandson of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin A. Bache, published The Aurora, a newspaper in Philadelphia. He said of Washington, “If ever a nation has been debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by George Washington.”

George Washington: treachery and debauchery? With over 200 years of good press since his presidency it would be hard for Americans now to believe the worst in him.

Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, although highly regarded as the author of the Declaration of Independence and President of the United States, had his own secrets, which over the years have become public. Having a slave as a mistress and fathering children by her is not something smiled upon by people of either the 18th or 21st centuries (or the centuries in between). Whether Thomas Hamilton, who wrote this in 1826, knew of Jefferson’s personal matters is unknown (it was not mentioned in The Hater’s Handbook), but he seems to give a clue in what he said: “The moral character of Thomas Jefferson was repulsive. Continually puling and whining about liberty, equality, and the degrading curse of slavery, he brought his own children to the hammer, and made money of his debaucheries.”

“Puling and whining” sounds like people who point fingers and complain about today’s President.

Two other men who have gone down in history as amongst the greatest Presidents were Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But that is history’s verdict. In their times they were both excoriated. Lincoln was found in disfavor by both Northern and Southern newspapers (where he was, like Obama, compared to a simian). No one had kind words for Honest Abe until he was killed by John Wilkes Booth. Booth hated Lincoln enough to murder him. He was surprised to read in newspapers, before he was killed by captors, that he wasn’t a hero for assassinating the President. He believed that he would be revered, and Lincoln despised.

Being assassinated is a good way to end attacks by political enemies.

Business leaders were so threatened by Franklin D. Roosevelt that they tried to arrange a coup (known now as the Business Plot), with retired Marine General Smedley Butler at the head of an army of veterans. They were ready to march in and take over the office. Butler, who remained a patriot, strung the plotters along and gave them up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The whole affair was widely disregarded because some newspapers pooh-poohed the idea of such a plot. The Presidency was kept intact, but for a time, as told by Butler, the businessmen wanted Italian-style fascism. They wanted someone else to be President, and Roosevelt to be like a do-nothing co-President. That would take a major change of the Constitution, which was unlikely. Apparently this gang of Capitalists thought their plan would work.

Attacks on Roosevelt also got down and dirty on a personal level, with his political enemies calling him “half a man,” because of the polio that had rendered his legs useless. What they did not reckon was his legs may have dangled, but his mind was as sharp as ever. Roosevelt’s legacy is safe because history decided he was one of the great Presidents.
 Born rich and privileged, the only thing he had to fear during the early years of his Presidency were his fellow rich and privileged.

Harry Truman, again, has the most succinct comment of all about the Presidency: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The most dynamic Presidents, the most do-something Presidents, have the heat on them continually. The great Presidents — the ones who take the greatest heat — are remembered; the others are just names on a list.

(The portraits shown in this post are from the Topps 1956 U.S. Presidents bubblegum card set. I found them online. I do not own these cards.)

No comments: