February 26, 2009
Recently conducted polls among a number of unidentified historians concerning their views about our best and worst presidents reveal certain long-term trends. Not surprisingly Lincoln was at the top of the lists while our Lancaster County native son, James Buchanan, was at the very bottom. Only a few notches above the man nicknamed “Old Buck” was the clueless W, whom the unidentified historians consider one of our worst presidents ever. FDR placed second and Wilson was sixth or eighth and Truman seventh or eighth, depending on whether one looked at the “liberal” or “conservative” (that is, neoconservative) polls. Clearly being a Democrat and a skirt-chaser helped one’s presidential ranking since JFK and Clinton, neither of whom did very much else in the White House, both ranked high among the “scholars” and the populace in different polls.
If there is another pattern here, it is that being a liberal internationalist in foreign policy, an administrative centralizer, and an advocate of massive income redistribution all contribute to high grades for former presidents among establishment historians. The exception, Bush II, was a warlike liberal internationalist and a government centralizer but nonetheless couldn”t quite cut it with leftist academics. The reason may have been that Bush kept the more leftist Democrats Gore and Kerry out of the Oval Office. The effect of Bush II was therefore to have prevented the country from moving to the left even more swiftly than it has.
The reverence for Lincoln among liberal and neocon Leftists is driven every day and every way by the racial question. It is hard for me to imagine that NR, The New Republic, or Commentary would have any sympathy for Lincoln’s views on protectionism or give a tinker’s damn about his association with an American Protestant nation-state. (That, by the way, is how Lincoln’s party identified itself and its founder for decades after the Civil War.) Absent the attempt to depict Lincoln as the initiator of the civil rights movement and as the precursor of our current multicultural president, I couldn”t imagine that anyone but protectionist nationalists would have any reason to remember our “greatest president.”
This, mind you, is not an attempt to run down Lincoln. As a public speaker rather than as someone who steered this country into the bloodbath of the Civil War, out of what might have been a miscalculation about the costs of suppressing the Southern secession, Lincoln is a figure of Shakespearean proportions. I admire Lincoln as a speaker and as a tragic historic figure, but I doubt my affinity for to him is related to his present glorification. Whatever his opinions about slavery (which are mine), Lincoln was not really the political precursor of MLK, Obama or (God knows!) FOX News Republicans. I doubt that, any more than his Southern opponents in the War, he would have admired our “post-racist” multicultural society. And in all probability Lincoln would have viewed Wilson’s crusade for democracy with the same disgust as Bill Kauffman. Lincoln was a nationalist, and not a liberal internationalist or a half-recovered Trotskyist from Brooklyn.
On the basis of recent polls that rank presidents (an aggregate of which is available at Wikipedia), it seems those polls conducted by “liberals” and “conservatives” are virtually indistinguishable in most of their key rankings. Both of them show deep reverence for Lincoln, FDR, Wilson and other activist presidents. But they also take note of Washington as the first president and place him in second or third spot.
The public, by contrast, has far less respect for the American founder. It pays to look at its sovereign choice after one has digested one’s meal. JFK usually finishes in third place, just trailing Lincoln and FDR, and in some polls, Washington doesn”t even make it as far as the top ten. In Gallup, Quinnipiac, and Washington Post polls, moreover, it seems that the public has no idea who the U.S. presidents were before the 1980s, although they claim to adore Lincoln, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, which may be a product of their public school lessons in selective history. (Bush, Sr. consistently places in the top ten in popular polls.)
For anyone trying to figure out why our latest presidential race featured the major party candidates we were given and resulted in the electoral victory that came about, I would urge that person to study the latest polls on ranking the presidents. These poll results confirm my view that the late Christopher Lasch got it all wrong when he asserted that unlike the rich and famous, the “ordinary people” still embody Christian bourgeois virtues. By now it has become anachronistic even to speak of “the people.” Our multiculturally educated consumer population doesn”t even have those homespun truths that Mencken once mocked the simple folk for embracing with excessive zeal. Indeed those who consume in our global democracy no longer even have founding fathers to look back to. They now have the media recreation of Camelot to celebrate, and of course gay porno films in which Sean Penn, playing a homosexual public official, gives open-mouth kisses to his lover. Why read up on Washington when one could enjoy these other activities?