Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Polls That Try Men's Souls

Well, my soul at least. I refer to the following:


OK, setting aside the insipidity of asking "average citizens" to rank historical figures on a scale defined by something as sketchy as "greatness"--which is a big, big set-aside: I mean, if less than half of the number polled could identify Washington as the leader of the Continental Army during the Revolution, why the hell should we bother asking them their opinion on matters historical? I mean, wouldn't that be like asking someone what 2 + 2 equals, getting the answer "I don't know," and then asking him, "What is your opinion of the quadratic equation?" If you don't know basic facts that ought to go into your evaluation of a historical figure, how can your opinion be of any value? If you didn't know that Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, you might equate him with Napoleon, for heaven's sake. Point being, I find it illuminative that the ignorant, when polled as to the 'greatest American president,' placed Reagan atop virtually--and in one poll, literally--all others. Reagan. Reagan. I just...I mean...What is with the hagiography that has sprung up around this man? (Look it up--the dictionary is on the shelf to your right.) I mean: Secretly funded Nicaraguan death-squads? The mass murder of our Marines in Beirut due to criminal negligence? Trading arms for hostages with terrorists? Arming the holy hell out of folks like the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden? Record deficits? A staggering failure of public policy on the War on Drugs? Robert Bork? Ed Meese? Laying a wreath at a Nazi cemetary? The refusal of economic sanctions of South Africa? The heartless October surprise? A murderous agenda of inactivity on AIDS as it spread throught a portion of the populace that nobody in power minded watching die in appalling numbers? More naps and fewer press conferences than anybody else--at least, until our current empty suit...But hey, he sure did sell that Aw Shucks, God Bless America, Pride in the Country image, huh? And Grenada's nutmeg crop will remain forever available to Christmas egg-noggers for generations to come.

I just...don't...get it.

As far as I can see, the rabid love for this man comes down to two things: Re-establishing Mindless Patriotism and Winning the Cold War. Well, first of all, enough with the Patriotism as being the only appropriate mindset for the nation. I mean, yes, liberal guilt goes overboard and turns too easily into self-loathing--I grant that extremity in jingoism is not much worse than extremity in whatever the hell the antonym of 'jingoism' is. (Can't be bothered to use the dictionary myself.) But shouldn't we occasionally feel a bit bad about ourselves? Not to make the comparison between us and Nazi Germany (although plenty of Native Americans probably wouldn't mind if I did), but wasn't it appropriate for Germans to feel just a wee bit diminished in their "Deustchland Uber Alles-ness" for a little while after the end of the war? I'm not saying that Americans shouldn't feel good about where we're from. We've done some great things, and the standard of living and freedom we afford our citizens still kicks the collective asses of most of the world--and the fact that we remain a superpower despite giving our citizenry the collective opportunity to f*** off and slack is a good thing indeed. We do, in many ways, rock. And if Reagan reminded us of this fact, fine. But it's not a major accomplishment, just telling people what they want to hear. And that's what he did--that's pretty much all he did. He told us we looked good--had we lost weight? And that haircut really flattered us and brought out our eyes! We were damned attractive. Aw, shucks, Ron, go on, really? Gee, we sure do love you for saying that--why, you must be the greatest president of the 20th century--no, wait, in all of American history! God, but we're an emotionally insecure nation when that's all it takes for a man to become an icon of statemanship.

Second, stop calling it "the Cold War." Because it sells the deluded idea of it as "a war"--kind of hard to buy when not a single shot was fired directly between the two parties in the conflict. (As for the "War on Drugs," "the War on Poverty," and "the War on Terror"--just knock it off, will you? It was poetic license the first time somebody did it--now it's just delusional tripe.) Oh, it was a contest--a rivalry--and one with a serious outcome for the entire world, I don't question that. And it's pretty undeniable--since the Russians themselves have admitted as much--that Reagan's policy of "Outspend the Bastards" did, yes indeed, hasten the collapse of their war machine. Agreed. Though doesn't Gorbachev get a little bit of the credit? Don't previous presidents, whose policies shaped and contained the conflict and enabled America's agenda throughout, get just a shred of the kudos? FDR, who pushed for the creation of the bomb, which set us up as a permanent "Don't f*** with us" world power? Truman and his eponymous doctrine? Kennedy, who stood up during the Cuban Missle Crisis and showed that we did indeed have the balls to go toe-to-toe and made them blink? Nixon, who created peaceful relations with China and thus ensured that no Communist Axis could be formed? I mean--isn't saying Reagan "won" this conflict like saying that the last guy on the relay race team "won" the race? It's just...wrong. (And I love--I love--the fact that the "soundbite" that everyone turns to in order to show this quality of Reagan's greatness is his shrill demand in Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!!!" Because, far from being a moment of greatness, it was a spectacular diplomatic blunder, guaranteed to produce the opposite of what he demanded. Because, as the Russians have also admitted, they were, in fact, getting around to the idea that the division of Berlin was a thing of the past, and that the wall had to come down pretty soon. So they were gonna do it. Then Reagan made his little show-boat demand. And the Russians said, "Well, f*** it, then. The last thing we're gonna do now is tear down the wall--we'll look like total wusses who take our marching orders from the goddamned running dogs and their mummified leader!" So Reagan's 'moment of greatness' actually ensured that East Berliners would continue to live in segregated misery until after he was out of office. Nice going, Ron. You idiotic prick. Unless, of course, you and your people knew it would have this effect and didn't care--which they probably did. In which case, you evil prick. Either way: prick.) Look, I know the hawks and neocons look back on the 80s as a golden age--hell, it's replaced the 50s as their era of when Everything Was As It Should Be. Business was unregulated. Environmental Standards were in the hands of people like James Watt and Annie Gorsuch. Jeanne "Go F*** Yourselves" Kirkpatrick was our ambassador to the U.N. Military spending was through the roof, social spending was through the floor. The world cowered before our might--why, the Soviets kept one finger on the button at all times, we had them so spooked. Thousands upon thousands of gays and drug-users died the horrible deaths Jesus righteously inflicted on them. The Moral Majority held sway across the land. Life was good--and the God Emperor Reagan ruled it all with the mild hand of a kindly despot. So, sure, why not? Call him the Greatest of Presidents. After all, in a world where many Italians recall Mussolini with a certain fondness and a healthy number of Russians think that maybe things would be better if Stalin were back in office, why not call Reagan "great"?


Except I have this vision, see? A vision of a Presidential Valhalla--where all American Presidents, greater and lesser, virtuous and wicked, are forever ensconced in a roccoco mead-hall, where they congregate for eternity and swap tales of battle and songs of victory. It is an afterlife for the men who, for better or worse, became the heroic embodiment of a nation, and so have earned a place at the table. Or rather, tables. Imagine that this room has many tables--and that, like a state banquet, the tables are arranged according to power--significance--prestige--greatness. Can anyone really doubt that anyone--anyone--but Washington will sit at the head of that first table? Anyone? The man who created the office--whose military exploits ensured that the office would exist--who turned down a kingship to take the office--who retired from the office rather than seizing it for life? No, I'm sorry, but Washington and only Washington will sit in the big chair--even at the Round Table, Arthur sits at the head. And you know why? Because, if for no other reason, he's the only one that all the others would defer to. Try to put anyone else there, even Lincoln, and there'd be grumbling and bitching and moaning among the presidential ranks. But Washington? He'd win in the first straw poll--unanimously. (Assuming he had the arrogance to vote for himself, which he very well might.) And on Washington's right and left--who else? It's got to be Lincoln and FDR--the two men who faced the direst threats to our nation's survival and overcame them--who transformed us first into a nation rather than a conglomeration of states and then into the most powerful nation in the world, while purging our worst national sin and defeating the greatest threat to world peace in the past few centuries. No, it's pretty much got to be Lincoln and FDR.

And then? Well, you can stick the near-greats together--I can see the intellectuals like Jefferson and Wilson spending centuries discussing academic issues--I can see the feisty curmudgeons like Adams and Truman snapping and chewing over their own grievances and righteous irritations. Teddy Roosevelt (a ruthless good ol' boy poorly disguised as a Brahmin) and Johnson would have a good time together, I imagine. But put these men together--put their intelligence and their learning and their fearless mastery of their times, and then try to imagine Reagan being allowed in the same room--much less at the same table--as these men. No. F***ing. Way. If he tried pulling his simplistic, ignorant, bumptuous attempts at 'charm' and 'gravitas' with these guys, they'd shut him down cold. Jefferson and Wilson and Adams would just give him a collective, icy stare, and maybe FDR would be the nice guy who let him down easy, and explained that he'd have to go join Harding and Buchanan over at that "How The Hell Did These Guys Get The Job" corner. He doesn't even get to sit with presidential failures like Grant--because Grant accomplished great things before his presidency. No, Reagan's mind, his character--what little there was of it--the man was famous for being a cipher, a vacuum of personality--would relegate him to the small timers. Whatever we may think of the era in which he lived, and however much the indifference of the culture may have allowed him to be its primary talking head, he simply doesn't measure up. Not as a thinker, not as a doer, not as a man. Hell, even Nixon would snub him: "I went to China--what the f*** did you ever do, you f***ing actor?!" Sorry, Gipper-lovers, but it's the truth: In the Presidential Valhalla, Ronald Reagan waits tables. The End.


Blogger HonEB said...

I'm waiting for your novel. As much as I enjoy reading your blog, I feel bad that you're not making money off my amusement.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

Well, you're terribly sweet for saying so. Strangely enough, I do have a novel on the back burner, a historical mystery with (surprise, surprise) John Dryden as the 'detective' character...

10:38 AM  

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