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...

Friday, May 06, 2005

Still Tired, But In A Different Way

So I was watching Warm Springs, the HBO-produced biopic on FDR, covering the Sunrise at Campabello months/years following his contraction of polio. And it really is a lovely film, focusing quite squarely on the personal/emotional aspects of Roosevelt's life during a period of absolute horror, rather than on the political issues that so dominate one's consideration of his character otherwise. And pairing this film--at which, I confess, I wept quite pathetically and cathartically--with the four-hour documentary The History Channel just did on his life, I'm continually awed by this man. FDR was my first "favorite president," and I think, push coming to shove, he still is. Though I'm much more a Wilsonian personality myself, I have to think about what Roosevelt accomplished--and what he overcame in order to accomplish those things--and I just think about how we as a nation--no, make that, we as a world dodged a major f***ing bullet when this man was confronted with the prospect of World War II.

Was he flawless? Hell no, but the most interesting and admirable men/women never are--read Plutarch's biographies of Julius Caesar, Alcibiades, Cicero, and Cato the Younger for proof. He cheated on a loving wife--bad form, though his behavior towards her afterwards, and the marriage of profound, loving (though never again romantic) friendship they were able to forge speaks to redeeming qualities on his part. (Not to mention hers, God knows.) He refused to spend his political capital on cracking down on the institutionalized bigotry of the South; a failure of humanity? Perhaps--but then, his time at Warm Springs (deep in the heart of Georgia) no doubt taught him just how monstrously ingrained the bigotry of that part of the country was, and as the brilliant politician he was--master of the realm defined by 'the art of the possible'--he knew, probably with bitter regret, that he would spending his much-needed political capital on a hopeless cause. Johnson, after all, another master politician, had to wait until the 60s--until King and Parks and Evers and their ilk had given their blood to the cause and the TV cameras had shown the country the firehoses and the police dogs and the time had finally come, when Brown v. Board of Education had finally undone the damage of Plessy v. Ferguson--before he could force through the Civil Rights Act. FDR failed the Southern blacks of his time, but perhaps it could be argued that History failed them first, and there's no fighting History when it's really determined to win. Then there's the whole 'packing the Supreme Court' thing--ugly act of executive tyranny that it was, and thank God he got his one major political beat-down for it. (Can you imagine if he'd succeeded, what subsequent presidents--Nixon, Bush-under-Rove would have done with it? One shudders.) And the internment camps for Japanese-American citizens were definitely not cool--a brutally callous act of paranoid racism. (Though, not to exonerate, if I had to choose between this form of internment, and doing time as a political undesirable under the Nazis--or under Stalin--or being a prisoner of war under the Japanese military--oh, I'd be on the first bus to Tule Lake lickety-split.) So there are marks in the 'minus' column, as there always must be. He wasn't a saint.

But when you stop and think about Pearl Harbor, and how utterly and completely f***ed we could have been. When you think about how Roosevelt warily and (given how he would have lost a bit for re-election if the isolationist public had known his true intentions about getting involved) wisely kept us out of the war for as long as he could--but carefully and often secretly sustained the European Allies as a bulwark against Hitler's evil--when you think about the fact that as Commander in Chief he waged a two-front-war, and won--when you think about the New Deal and the WPA and Social Security and the citizen-oriented government he created that Bush is trying so hard to uncreate. A country that emerged from the war as "the good guys"--we were the heroes of the war--we beat the Nazis and stood between a world of freedom and the forces of communist totalitarianism. And when you think that he did all this despite a physical condition that could easily have shunted him into the dim rooms of a mansion, hidden from the world, brooding on suicide. When you think of all this. And there are still people who think that Reagan was the greatest 20th century American President. Dear God. Dear, dear God. Go watch Warm Springs, and you realize that all other 20th century presidents are complete and total p**sies in comparison. Reagan--that pretty boy actor--would have broken like a china-doll under the emotional burden that FDR had to carry.

We were unbe-f***ing-lievably lucky. Imagine someone else in those shoes--someone lesser. Imagine a country in which Lincoln wasn't there for the outbreak of civil war--and think about how the reconciliation of the nation all went to s**t when Lincoln was assassinated and that loser Johnson took over. And you can see, can't you, how history is so often a question of whether the great man is in the right place to save the world. And now think about 9/11. And where 9/11 has lead us--into a stupid and irrelevant war on an unrelated country (ruled by a nasty dictator, yes, but one who had nothing to do with the attack--it's as if we decided to go to war with South Africa after the Japanese attacked. "But apartheid is evil! What are you, racist???" Well, no, just--I don't know--I have this desire for decisions for 'defensive' war to be based on the identity of the initial attackers. Call me wacky.) We continue to coddle and kow-tow to the vicious rulers of, oh, I don't know, Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers were from, and of Pakistan, where Osama's most likely hiding out. We continue to sell our debt to places like China--possibly the top contender for the world-wide contest of "the most wonderful people ruled by the most evil government"--though I'm starting, without too much hyperbole, to wonder if we might be in the running for that title. You see Bush holding hands--literally--with a man who sanctions the stoning of women and you just have to think...how did it come to this? How did we go from FDR to...this wretch who embraces villainy because there's a buck in it and a sop for his contributors?

Yeah, yeah, FDR overlooked Stalin's evil--especially since Stalin's evil tended to take the form of rendering the Soviet Union a much weaker foe in the post-war years--killing all the smart people and the good generals and the heroic soldiers is not the way to win the clash of the super-powers, Joseph--but he did it to defeat a greater threat, and he made damn sure we got the bomb first, just so dear old 'Uncle Joe' would be in no position to push his ideology where it wasn't wanted (though the concessions at Yalta might have been a bit much--Roosevelt's deathly illness compromised his genius there, I think.) But Bush has always been in bed with the Saudis--with all of the Middle Eastern tyrants--because they're the ones who keep him in oil money. It's never been about beating terrorism, it's never been about 'what's good for America'--not for him, not for Cheney, not for any of them. It's been about 'what's profitable for me, and the guys I hang out with at the Billionaire Boys Club. Money talks, and bulls*** walks, and I can buy all the votes I need, so why shouldn't I look out for Number One?'

FDR led us to great things--to a country that stood as history's most powerful democracy. Kennedy led us into space and to the moon--a first great step towards our inevitable future in the universe. Johnson stood against the forces of poverty and racism and stared them down. Where are the great achievements proposed by the leaders of today? Bush had a huge budget surplus, and after 9/11, a world ready to befriend and aid our nation. Did he stand up and say, "We will no longer submit ourselves to the tyranny of foreign oil. The terrorists hide behind oil money--we will, as a nation, pledge ourselves to be free of our self-destructive dependency on that flimsy shield in 10 years. Period. General Motors, get cracking--if you need government money to build a really efficient electrical car, we'll pony up." "Enough with people dying of cancer. We're the most technologically advanced nation, with friends in the innovative nations of Japan, France, etc.--We're going to spend and spend and work and work until we find a cure. The end." "Hundreds of thousands of children die every year from cheaply treatable illnesses--most of them due to dehydration. We can cure them for pennies a life. We will. And if it costs a bit, f*** it--we're the good guys." "Sex slavery ends now." "The drug policy of this government has ruined our inner cities and enriched evil men abroad. No more." He could have. He had the chance. We could have gone forth into the world and reclaimed our--dare I say it?--glory. But that would have demanded a great man. And Bush?--oh please. I don't think he's decent--I don't think he's prudent--I don't think he has a scrap of compassion (hell, neither did FDR until polio knocked him off his perch and into the real world of suffering and struggle. But it did--and one look at Bush's thoughtless grin tells you that he doesn't know the meaning of the word 'suffer'--and probably can't spell it on the first try. OK, that was cheap and ad hominem, but dammit, I'm pissed.) And maybe you don't need any of those qualities to be a 'great leader'--hell, look at Henry VIII, or Hannibal (the Carthaginian, not the cannibal-psychiatrist.) But those are the qualities his defenders proffer as his virtues--that he's a good, down-home Christian country boy who wants a clean-living America on which Jesus smiles and where we can all buy the SUVs we really want and pay no taxes for anything because we're Americans so shouldn't it all be free?

At 9/11, we had a moment--like Pearl Harbor--like the Kennedy assassination--when we were shocked out of our smug complacency and were ready to be lead to great things. And instead, Bush has simply told us that that smug complacency is the great thing, and that we need a lot more of it. And, since that's so much easier to buy into than the idea that we ought to do something with our lives, we buy it. Oh, and alienate the rest of the world in the process--so much for being the good guys.

My wife asked me, as we watched Warm Springs, whether I thought that we could ever elect a man with a severe disability like that today. I said no, but that it wasn't the disability that would have kept FDR out of office. It was his greatness. We don't want heroes anymore. Heroes challenge us, force us to get off the couch and into the world. Heroes put us through the effort it takes to achieve greatness. We don't want greatness. We want George W. Bush. And that means that we're the ones with the disability. And that thought...makes me very, very tired indeed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

See the recent article on Slate about how Bush misrepresented FDR's accomplishment and the limits of what he could have done at Yalta. The short version seems to be that we were so overextended, not to mention exhausted, that partitioning Europe wasn't so much a concession to Stalin as it was an unavoidable practical necessity.

6:38 PM  

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