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It’s OK to criticize the presidency; after all, it’s not a royal dictatorship

Responses to Randy West’s editorial critique of Bush’s policies would make a person believe that Bush, like royalty, symbolically embodies the country and that questioning his policies is hateful and treasonous. More seriously and ridiculous yet, some of the responses claim that Bush gets his policies from listening to God.
Lord have mercy, folks, that’s simply not our tradition. Criticizing the President is as American as the Fourth of July. Ask Clinton about the unrelieved personal criticism he received from Republicans bankrolled often by millionaires on the far right. And, traditionally, American presidents have kept their religious beliefs pretty much to themselves, understanding, as most of us do, that listeners hear God telling them all kinds of different and contradictory things. The 9/11 terrorists claimed that they were doing what God told them.
The American tradition is that presidents and their policies are fair game. If you doubt it, check out the 1800 campaign between Adams and Jefferson, or most of them since, for that matter. If our presidents had to go into the same room and answer face-to-face charges of the opposing party the way Prime Minister Tony Blair does in England, the country would be much better off, because time after time we’ve seen our presidents retreat from the country and into a White House bunker, Nixon being the most disastrous example. As Truman said, if you can’t stand the heat, don’t be messing around in the kitchen. It’s unfortunate that criticism has taken a particularly personal turn lately. Criticism should be about politics, but Republicans, given their recent record, are in no position to cry foul.
Actually, if you look at Randy West’s column (‘Bush administration unravels in the war against Iraq,’ June 9, 2004), it simply does a good job of reviewing the commonly prevailing criticism of Bush’s policies, and policy is the key word here. I am a Democrat not because I cared all that much for the Democratic presidents since I’ve been old enough to know much of anything about them. Kennedy struck me as a glamorous fad. Johnson was crude and misled us into a war in Viet Nam. Carter was the most likable, but I couldn’t vote for him or Reagan, and I protested both of them with a vote for Independent candidate John Anderson. Clinton was morally obtuse and in his policies little better than a Republican in disguise. But policy-wise, Johnson got passed the legislation that finally after a hundred years of neglect addressed the evils of racism ‘ the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which, as he predicted, cost the Democrats the White House for a generation.
Even though Southern Republicans cashed in on that backlash politically, they publicly at least have been dragged kicking and screaming every inch of the way into the mainstream in their treatment of blacks ‘ with a few lapses like Trent Lott’s praise for Strom Thurmond’s earlier white-supremacy and segregation stands. Even Clinton, policy-wise, did some good, keeping the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay from signing over the country lock, stock and barrel to their corporate campaign donors.
We really make far too much of our presidents, most of whom have been pretty mediocre. Other people who never held office have done more for the country than all but a handful of our presidents. Ben Franklin, suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Adams, Lewis and Clark, Martin Luther King and Ralph Nader come to mind. A friend once argued that Ralph Nader was far too valuable to be wasted in the presidency. Considering what he’s done for consumer rights and safety, I agree. You can turn up a Clinton or a Bush every day, but not a Nader.
When I was in the Army in Europe, I saw currencies with pictures of writers, artists, scientists, thinkers and even educators. Such people make great contributions and provide a real basis for making a country something to be proud of. A great number of kids in my generation suffered the rest of their lives because of polio. Thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk and others, polio has all but been eradicated.
We Americans love personality to a fault. We have a weakness, apparently for regular guys with just the right amount of swagger, able minimally to mouth catchy and simplistic slogans and sound bites even though such a persona is the creation of handlers and spinners with enough funds to market their product successfully. And we have a tendency to identify with one or another of these products and joy in seeing him not only win one or another of these products and joy in seeing him not only win but destroy his opposition the way we identify with sports teams and glory in their eliminating opponents and winning a championship. It relieves us of the burden of doing our homework as citizens of a democracy. We don’t have to examine a candidate’s record, analyze his rhetoric, understand his policies, find out who’s bankrolling his campaign and influencing his policies, or hold him accountable for what he does if he wins.
We pay a high price for such dereliction of duty, as can be seen in the terrible cost we and Iraqis are paying for allowing ourselves to be warmongered into their country by an admininstration of guys who avoid combat themselves but are hawkish on sending others into it. We were snookered, but that doesn’t mean the current administration is a royal dictatorship until the next election, even if they try to make us think so.
There’s a difference between the country and the government at any given time. The country belongs to us, not to the current administration, and it has to answer to us about what they are trying to do with it. That’s the American tradition. As Mark Twain put it: Loyalty to country always; loyalty to the government only when it deserves it.
Charles Allen, 70, is a retired humanities and literature teacher at Iroquois High School in Louisville. He and his wife, Marian, live in Corydon.