Americans have two bad habits when they judge their presidents and when they select the next occupant of the White House. We vilify and savage incumbents and aspirants, or, worse, we canonize and idolize them.
Neither course is healthy for the republic. And regrettably both attitudes may say more about who we are and what we have become as a people than about an incumbent or the presidential hopefuls.
All too often, with venom worthy of a cobra, Americans spit out hateful denunciations of men and women they have never spoken with, never met, and frankly don't know as well as they think they do. The bile one currently hears heaped on Hillary Clinton would place her in the same pantheon as Livia and Messalina, each the powerful, manipulative wife of a Roman emperor. Rough-and-tumble, bruising political campaigns are indigenous to American democracy, and healthy. Hate and poison, however, should be left out.
The politics of vilification, whether the left's venom for President Bush or the right's caustic denunciation of Senator Clinton, pollutes our political system. Savaging an incumbent president or a presidential aspirant is a poor substitute for taking time to study and master complex issues facing voters, which is obligatory in participatory democracy. Today, however, it has become more acceptable to simply trash a candidate than to become reasonably conversant on issues such as immigration, entitlement programs, or political Islam.
Voters willingly forfeit their ability to think analytically and critically. They give their electoral power to those who would tell them, "You don't have to think about complicated issues, I will reduce politics to the simplest denominator, i.e., personality, and I will think for you."
Rather than surrender our electoral franchise to talk-radio personalities, we would do well to recall the warning of Jacob Burckhardt, the great Swiss historian of the Italian Renaissance, who said to beware the "terrible simplifier."
It is more than a little amusing to note how many Democrats who once thought Richard Nixon the worst president in history now quietly confess to missing "the Trickster." The rapprochement that sometimes occurs between ex-presidents speaks to the transitory nature of our animosities: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Politics is nothing if not fickle.
Having grown up in Washington during the Eisenhower years, I have met every American president including and since John F. Kennedy. None was ever as iniquitous as their critics would cast them, nor as devout as their worshipful followers imagined.
Perhaps even more corrosive to the democratic process than bitter insults is the opposite extreme, the iconic adoration of a politician. It is the obverse side of the previously cited intellectual cop-out.
This reverencing of a president or candidate is dangerous because in the past, it has lent itself to the idea, "Anything the president does is legal." Worse, political idolization leads to the fallacious conclusion, "The president knows best because he knows more than we do." Vietnam should have shattered that assumption. Incumbent presidents may have more information, but they do not necessarily process it wisely.
In 1964, my Republican grandfather, assessing the coming conflict in Vietnam, told me: "That war isn't worth the life of one good red-blooded American boy." Who knew best, my grandfather, a small-town banker, or President Johnson?
CNN carried an alarming story recently indicating nearly a majority of US voters will be looking for a "political savior" in the 2008 elections. This trend is more disturbingly high among evangelical voters. A Pew Research poll indicated that 55 percent of white, Republican, evangelical voters will consider voting for a third-party conservative if the general election is between Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani.
If their recent rash of fallen politicians has not convinced Evangelicals that there are no political saviors, they would do well to recall the fate of the biblical Israelites when the Hebrews sought a king and savior in Saul. His personal failings cost him his life and nearly destroyed Israel.
That there are no political saviors should be a starting point for voters in the coming year. Once in office, a president who acts wisely may, ipso facto, save the republic. But the more telling example that leaps to mind is Abraham Lincoln. In 1860, his election, rather than being seen as an act of salvation, resulted in the near dissolution of the republic. The near-deification of Lincoln was posthumous.