Our Love-Hate Relationships with Presidents

… We, on both sides of the fight, are a sorry mess right now. Rachel Maddow orrams butting heads Rush Limbaugh feed our emotions and the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal provide the talking points. For the sake of civil discourse and a truly rounded perspective of issues – minus the animus associated with a particular ideology or a personality it would be a good idea for us, the smart ones in the crowd – the populace, to take a deep breath and then do more reading and research and less shouting and partisan debasing.

Does American culture have the capacity to ever again like or even respect the person occupying the White House; not just those that put him or her there but the other half as well? Have we turned into such a partisan population that any win for one side is a total loss for the other? I can’t answer the future but I can review the past and how we got here.

Back in the days when American Airlines was a successful behemoth the employees had a love-hate relationship with their CEO, Bob Crandall. With ample wryness, the employees took to saying “He’s an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B.” Not ironically, even this saying had its roots in political history going back to FDR. But even that sentiment would present a refreshing change to the relationship we currently have with our presidents. At least it would signal some sense of an American team.

If you want a safe, political dinner question, try entertaining a dialogue about when people think this acrimony began. The usual suspects, Nixon and Bush 43 are the standard icebreakers, or maybe even Jefferson and Adams.

I submit the seeds of bitterness in the modern era didn’t germinate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but rather down the street at the Capitol in the summer of ‘87 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Senator Edward Kennedy lit the fuse when he excoriated the nominee with his Robert Bork’s America diatribe. Republicans were furious at Kennedy’s ‘audacity’. Democrats were ecstatic with his ‘courage’. Regrettably, nothing of what Kennedy said was true, but the strategy worked and the defeat of the Bork nomination embarrassed the Reagan White House. It marked a new threshold for public tolerance of personal destruction for political gain. Civil discourse has never been the same. Politics has great difficulty forgiving grudges.

Three years later Clarence Thomas found himself in a repeat performance of this partisan scorched earth strategy with clear implications for the George H. W.  Bush’s administration. One might easily forget that a key player in both of these congressional assaults was Senator Joe Biden.

The Democrats taught the Republicans well however and the 90’s were Bill and Hillary Clinton’s decade to receive payback. The Republicans coopted the strategy to create political rancor via personal attack and they took it directly to the presidential level. Not so graciously, the Clinton co-administration provided all the ammunition from HillaryCare and cattle futures to Oval Office behavior to grand jury testimony. Americans took sides and the way we thought and spoke out about the President of the United States would never be the same.

Enter George W. Bush and the 2000 election debacle that never offered an opportunity for partisans to actually see what he was all about. There was no presidential honeymoon, just animosity and front page virulence from day one about an electorally stolen election followed a few months later by his post 9/11 reaction. Not ironically Senator Kennedy again fired a critical salvo when he announced on the Senate floor that Bush was in essence, a liar. People on the street responded on cue with, “Bush lied, People died”.

Civility, restraint and any sort of respect or sanctity for the Oval Office had officially been removed from our culture. Regrettably it was our elected leaders that planted these seeds and the willingness of the media to add their journalistic fertilizer simply put a stamp of approval for the public at large to join the fray. Unfortunately, our inner desire to pile on has somehow attached itself to First Amendment free speech rights … and we haven’t disappointed.

And then came Barack Obama …

We, on both sides of the fight, are a sorry mess right now. Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh feed our emotions and the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal provide the talking points. For the sake of civil discourse and a truly rounded  perspective of issues – minus the animus associated with a particular ideology or a personality it would be a good idea for us, the smart ones in the crowd – the populace, to take a deep breath and then do more reading and research and less shouting and partisan debasing.

38 years ago, an unelected President Gerald Ford had similar issues that face us today; reviving a depressed economy, staving off inflation, solving chronic energy shortages, and trying to ensure world peace. The political landscape looked equally grim as his biggest task was to do all of it while mending a deeply divided and damaged country following Viet Nam and Watergate. We did it once, I hope we still have the will and memory to be able to do it again.

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One Response

  1. I think Basicman is on to something.

    Prostitution and politicians both tell a person things pleasing to the ear while taking money for promises of future satisfaction. At least prostitutes respect each other. Unfortunately politicians lack that same respect.

    Sadly our founding fathers didn’t make it a requirement of politicians too.

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