Monday, May 11, 2009

Popularity and Politics

I recently saw a news item about how an author named Larry Tagg would be in town to sign copies of his book "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln". Based on a brief review of that book, I was intrigued, so I visited the related page to get more information.

Having read a number of other Lincoln biographies, I was already aware of many of the facts cited by Tagg in his book, although I suspect that he covers the subject in greater depth than many Lincoln biographers.

The editorial review of the book states, "Lincoln's humanity has been unintentionally trivialized by some historians and writers who have hidden away the real man in a patina of bronze. Once readers learn the truth of how others viewed him, they will better understand the man he was, and how history is better viewed through a long-distance lens than contemporaneously."

The wide disparity between Lincoln's short-term unpopularity and his legendary long-term legacy is a matter which ought to concern us, since many people have mistakenly based their evaluations of particular president's job performances on their short-term poll-based "approval ratings," as in the case of George W. Bush.

Great leaders are often people who are "ahead of their time," which by definition means that they have more insight than they are credited with having by their contemporaries. Conversely, a good way to guarantee high approval ratings in the polls is to spinelessly cater to the whims of the populace at any given moment, rather than acting according to principle.

Whether or not George W. Bush was a great leader on the scale of Lincoln is doubtful. Certainly, Bush made some serious errors in judgment, due in part to his unwillingness to change course (or at least modify course) when new facts emerged which would have indicated to more prudent minds that such corrective actions were necessary.

However, it should be pointed out that some of the things for which Bush is often blamed were really acts committed by others over whom he had minimal direct control (as in the case of the abuses which occurred at Abu Ghraib). As far as I am aware, Bush was responsible only in the sense that those abuses (which admittedly were pretty awful) happened "under his watch".

If the mere fact that something occurs during a president's term in office means that he's to blame for that incident, then logically, it makes equal sense to blame President Clinton for the atrocity which occurred, during his term in office, at Columbine, and also for the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. That, of course, would be ridiculous. Presidents are indeed powerful people, but they are not omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent. Expecting godlike performance from our political leaders is ridiculously unfair to them, and to the American public as well, since the public is bound to be continually disappointed if people are encouraged to see their leaders in such terms.

Furthermore, I think that Bush was a much more principled man than Barack Obama when dealing with issues such as stem cell research. He understood the social ramifications of a practice which could lead us to see certain human lives as potential "body part farms" for the purpose of attaining admittedly noble objectives which, in most cases, could be better addressed in other ways without compromising the principle that all human lives have intrinsic value. From the standpoint of issues pertaining to the sanctity of human life, Barack Obama's presidency has already been a disaster, no matter what the polls say about the man. No matter how much Obama tries to link his own legacy to the legacy of Lincoln, the chasm between Lincoln's job performance and Obama's job performance cannot be intelligently ignored.

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