Some conservative commentators spent their Presidents’ Day holiday ruminating over Barack Obama’s evil intentions, or denouncing the chief executive as an alien interloper and fanatical ideologue perversely determined to damage the Republic. Instead, they might have focused on the history of the John Adams’ White House prayer to develop a more effective context for their criticism.
On November 2, 1800, a day after he became the first president to occupy the newly constructed executive mansion, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” More than a century later, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the inscription of these words on a mantel piece in the State Dining Room, inviting serious consideration over the extent to which Divine Providence responded to the earnest entreaty by the second president. In terms of wisdom, some of Adams’ successors who “ruled” under the White House roof most certainly fell short. James Buchanan comes to mind--or Jimmy Carter.
When it comes to honesty, skeptics might also cite Heaven’s mixed blessings, reviewing a long history of presidential prevarication. Within memory, Richard Nixon almost certainly lied about Watergate, as did Bill Clinton about his amorous adventures. More significantly, millions of Americans still believe (against all evidence) that George W. Bush knowingly distorted the truth about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
But in the deeper sense that Adams longed for “honest men” to occupy the home on Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House and the nation fared much better: all those who rose to the highest office worked hard at the job, took its responsibilities seriously, and sincerely pursued the nation’s good in order, if nothing else, to secure a positive verdict on their own place in history.
Even the most corruption-tarred presidents, U.S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, agonized over the demands of the office and drew scant personal benefit from the squalid scandals (involving unworthy associates) that unfolded around them. They both retained the profound affection of the populace while they lived and drew massive outpourings of grief at their lavish funerals. And both presidents (especially Grant) have begun a recent rise in the estimation of historians.
John Kennedy may have suffered from sex addiction (and a host of other secret maladies) while Franklin Pierce drank heavily in the White House (in part in mourning for his eleven year-old son who died before his eyes in a train accident just two months before the inauguration), but neither man shirked his duties or disregarded the nation’s welfare. Both New Englanders had demonstrated their love of country with distinguished military service under enemy fire. (Pierce rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Mexican War).
In short, the White House record of more than 200 years shows plenty of bad decisions but no bad men. For all their foibles, every president made an unmistakable attempt to rise to the challenges of leadership and (in contrast to the disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr) never gave the slightest hint of disloyalty or treasonous intent. This history makes some of the current charges about Barack Obama’s alleged malevolence especially distasteful and reprehensible—and even more destructive to the conservative cause.One typical column appeared on February 5th at the well-regarded American Thinker website, under the heading: “Obama Well Knows What Chaos He Has Unleashed.” Victor Sharpe solemnly declares: “My fear is that Obama is not naïve at all, but he instead knows only too well what he is doing, for he is eagerly promoting Islamic power in the world while diminishing the West…” At Lucianne.com, a related post from “Maypole” expressed similar sentiments: “So many think our POTUS is inept and stupid. I believe he knows exactly what he is doing and is planning to bring our country down like Rome fell.”
These attitudes thrive well beyond the blogosphere and the right wing fringe. On January 7th, Sarah Palin spoke briefly on Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated radio show, announcing that “what I believe that Obama is doing right now- he is hell-bent on weakening America.” While acknowledging that “it’s gonna get some people all wee-weed up again,” she repeated, and amplified her charge that “what Obama is doing” is “purposefully weakening America-because he understood that debt weakened America, domestically and internationally, and yet now he supports increasing debt.”
The assumption that the president actually intends to harm or destroy the nation that elected him has become so widespread that the chief advertising pitch for Dinesh D’Souza’s bestselling book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” promises to “reveal Obama for who he really is: a man driven by the anti-colonial ideology of his father and the first American president to actually seek to reduce America’s strength, influence and standard of living.”
Of course, none of the attacks on Obama’s intentions offers an even vaguely plausible explanation of how the evil genius, once he has ruined our “strength, influence and standard of living,” hopes to get himself re-elected. In a sense, Obama’s most paranoid critics pay him a perverse compliment in maintaining that his idealism burns with such a pure and all-consuming heat that he remains blissfully unconcerned with minor matters like his electoral future. In short, they label Obama as the political equivalent of a suicide bomber: so consumed with hatred (or “rage”) that he’s perfectly willing to blow himself up in order to inflict casualties on a society he loathes.
Regardless of the questionable status of this analysis as a matter of pop psychology, as a political strategy it qualifies as almost perfectly imbecilic. Republicans already face a formidable challenge in convincing a closely-divided electorate that the president pursues wrong-headed policies; they will never succeed in arguing that those initiatives have been cunningly and purposefully designed to wound the Republic.
It’s always easier to persuade people that someone is wrong than to convince them that he’s evil; for one thing, we’ve all experienced error and incompetence far more frequently than sheer malevolence. In Obama’s case, it’s particularly foolish to emphasize his alleged bad intentions when every survey shows that the public looks far more favorably on his personality than his policies.
Moreover, the current insistence in seeing every misstep or setback by the Obama administration as part of a diabolical master plan for national destruction disregards the powerful, persistent reverence for the White House that’s been part of national character for two centuries, and that we renew and celebrate on Presidents’ Day. Even in times of panic and distress, we hope the Almighty has answered John Adams’ prayer—installing fundamentally decent, if often deeply flawed, individuals in the nation’s highest office. Americans may not see a given president as their advocate, but they’re hardly disposed to view him as their enemy—and a deadly, determined enemy at that.
For 2012, Republicans face a daunting challenge in running against the president. That challenge becomes altogether impossible if they’re also perceived as running against the presidency.