Then and Now

Then and Now

© David Burton 2008

  Antique Democratic Logo

Antique Democratic Logo


I’ve recently completed reading two historical non-fiction books, the first, by, Doris Kearns Goodwin, titled, A Team of Rivals, (Ref. 1), about president Abraham Lincoln and the second, written some 60+ years ago by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., titled, The Age of Jackson, (Ref. 2) about President Andrew Jackson. After reading these books, I reflected upon the apparent repeat of history in regard to President George W. Bush and a few of his predecessors. What follows is my take on history repeating itself in many ways plus some conclusions about the George W. Bush presidency.

Judging a Book by its Cover

“The conduct of the republican party in this nomination is a remarkable indication of a small intellect, growing smaller. They pass over . . . statesmen and able men, and they take up a fourth rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar.” Was this a national newspaper commenting upon the nomination of George W. Bush by the Republican Party for the presidency of the United States? No, this quote appeared in the New York Herald on May 19, 1860, commenting on Abraham Lincoln’s nomination for president at the Republican National Convention. (Ref. 1, Forward) From this, we can observe the wisdom of not judging a book by its cover.

In the same vein, only history can judge the abilities and ultimate accomplishments of prominent people. Premature conclusions are frequently grossly in error. In writing this article, I am not in any way attempting to equate President Bush with President Lincoln. What I would ask the reader to do is to consider the similarities in events, policies, positions, and attitudes then and now. The book is mostly closed on history’s assessment of President Lincoln. The book is still being written about history’s evaluation of the impact of President Bush on our nation and, indeed, upon the globe.

The Constitution

There has been much furor regarding actions taken by George W. Bush and his administration that many have challenged as violations of the constitution. Whether or not the steps President Bush and the administration have taken or advocated are in violation of the constitution is not the subject of this discussion. What is clear, however, is the fact that such situations have arisen for about 200 years in the history of the United States. In 1810, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter in which he stated, “To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself , with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means . . . The line of discrimination between cases may be difficult; but the good officer is bound to draw it at his own peril, and throw himself on the justice of the country and the rectitude of his motives.” In reference to this, Schlesinger comments that, “Probably this statement describes accurately the necessities of leadership in a democracy. A kind of power is required in crises which would be dangerous normally and which rest ultimately on popular approval. In any case, Jefferson’s statement certainly applies accurately to the behavior of himself, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and the Roosevelts in major crises. Jefferson evidently regarded the Constitution as an instrument to prevent bad action but not, in cases of emergency, to prevent good.” (Ref, 2, footnote on pages 512 and 513)

What Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt did was to take actions that they judged necessary in crises that could be challenged as unconstitutional in less dangerous times. The justification for their actions, upheld by most rational people, was that such actions were necessary to protect the country and its citizens in dire times. Facing the very real facts of an undeclared war to the death over the entire globe that has been thrust upon the United States and all peoples who refuse to bow down to the fundamentalist Muslim extremists, the Bush administration has instituted warrantless wiretaps and imprisoned terrorists in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp without civil trials, among other actions. The Bush administration actions were deemed necessary to protect and defend the American people in a time of crises. Nothing new in nearly 200 years!

Clearly, there have been historical precedents for actions that are uncertain with regards to their constitutionality and even actions that are definitely at variances with the Constitution. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, the emancipation of slaves in the seceded Southern states was most decidedly in violation of the original Constitution which expressly protected slavery in the states where it existed. (Ref. 1, pg 460)

Congressional Gridlock

Sec. of State Seward said: "I ask Congress to authorize a draft. . . . They fall into altercation . . . Every day is a day lost and every day lost is a hazard to the whole country." (Ref. 1, pg 462) In today’s terminology, this would be called gridlock. The president asks for action on a bill before Congress - they quibble, stall and frequently fail to take any action at all. The same can be said for bills brought up by Republicans and opposed by Democrats and vice versa. Politics is politics and, in many respects has not changed much in 200 years.

Panic and Finger-pointing

Many people, today as then, react to setbacks with blind hysteria and a frenzy that can only be sated by placing blame. Setbacks in Iraq have panicked the less resolute and they have called for the impeachment of the president, immediate surrender and withdrawal and for the sacking of the secretary of defense and his generals. Defeats in the Civil War elicited the same response. Following a humiliating defeat in the Peninsula campaign in 1862, the following reactions occurred.

"The defeat . . . devastated . . . Northern morale." From George Templeton Strong: "we are in the depths now, permeated by disgust, saturated with gloomy thinking." From John Nicolay: ". . . I don't think I have ever heard more croaking since the war began." (Ref. 1, pg 445)

From the New York Times: "The first necessity of every community after a disaster, is a scapegoat. It is an immense relief to find some one upon whom can be fastened all the sins of a whole people, and who can then be sent into the wilderness, to be heard of no more." (Ref. 1, pg 447) This observation has never been more true than today. Before the flood waters of Katrina had finished cresting, there was a clamoring for someone on whom to place the blame. You can name any recent disaster, problem or setback and there is a rush to point the finger and to place the blame. Big oil is responsible the skyrocketing fuel prices. The United States is responsible for global warming. George Bush is responsible for the casualties in Iraq. Israel is responsible for Radical Islamic terrorists hating and attacking the United States. Etc., etc., etc. Of course, we can never accept the wisdom of Pogo “We have met the enemy and it us.” It’s always someone else’s fault.

Staying the Course

One common thread among our supposedly great presidents (and among other great figures of history) is an unyielding firmness in their position once they have made their decision. The bulldog persistence of Winston Churchill is perhaps his most well-known trait. Frederick Douglas, one of the first great Negro figures in American history observed of Lincoln (in respect to the Emancipation Proclamation) that, “once the president staked himself to a forward position, he did not give up ground.” (Ref. 1, pg 497) The same may be said of President Bush. This can be seen in a positive light or, as his detractors would put it, as obstinacy. In any event, President Bush has demonstrated that, once put forward, his position is unlikely to change. Fortunately, more than a century ago, President Lincoln remained resolute and confident in ultimate victory. A similar description of George Washington can also be made. Washington and the Continental Army suffered many defeats before ultimately attaining victory and securing America’s independence from Great Britain. Wars tend to be untidy affairs and never seem to follow plans and timetables. The realists understand this and act accordingly, i.e., they take temporary setbacks in stride, adjust plans and schedules according to the realities of the situation and keep pressing on. The weak-hearted and the defeatists look at every setback as a sign of the hopelessness of the cause and immediately call for retreat, surrender and blame-placing.

With the mid-term elections taking place in 2006 and the presidential elections taking place in 2008, the Democrats have focused on the issue of the war in Iraq and have staked their position to abandoning the effort there. In the 1860’s as now the Democrats opposed a war vigorously supported by the Republican Party and the Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. “. . . under the subterfuge of opposing the Emancipation Proclamation.” a portion of the Democratic Party was “really organizing to oppose the war.” (Ref. 1, pg 502)

“In the Congress the Peace Democrats, popularly know as Copperheads, thought war measures had strayed too far from simply repressing the rebellion and restoring the Union . . .”

“In the House, . . . a lame duck [Copperhead] congressman . . . delivered a series of violent anti-war speeches that attracted national attention.” Similar headlines are appropriate today about certain Democrats and their ‘violent anti-war speeches.’ Today we hear that the United States should not be fighting in Iraq to defend the Iraqis, defeat al Queda or to protect U.S. interests in the mid-east. In 1862, our Copperhead congressman, rhetorically asked, “Ought this war to continue?” depicting the Civil War as “a war for the negro”, instead of a war to defend the Union. He then answered his question thus, “no - not a day, not an hour.” The time had come for the soldiers to go home. Does this have a familiar ring today? For the past 6 years or so - particularly when the road in Iraq became a bit bumpy, we have witnessed Democrats falling over themselves to urge immediate withdrawal from Iraq. The process has intensified considerably in each of the last two presidential election years.

In 1862, “’The Copperheads find that they have gone too fast and too far’ in talking of a compromise peace, ‘and they have brought upon themselves the denunciations’ of Republicans and loyal ‘War Democrats’ alike”

“’The people’ would never sustain the Copperheads’ call for peace on any terms.” (Ref. 1, pg 506) In 2008, the jury is still out on whether the people of the United States will sustain the Democrats’ call for abandoning Iraq or for “peace on any terms.” But, then as now, “one fundamental principle of politics is to be always on the side of your country in a war. It kills any party to oppose a war.” (Ref. 1, pg 546)

Then, in 1863, in response to the opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation and to the Copperheads and others opposing the Civil War, Lincoln said, “You dislike the emancipation proclamation and, perhaps, would have it retracted.” “it can not be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought back to life,” for “the promise being made, must be kept.”

Blame the “imbecile” President and Anyone Else Handy

In the Senate, in a “liquor-fueled harangue, a senator “inveighed against the president ‘in language fit only for a drunken fishwife,’ calling him ‘an imbecile’ and claiming that he was ‘the weakest man ever placed in high office.’” It seems that I’ve heard the same vicious language from many of the present Bush haters. Then and now, the words applied to Presidents Lincoln and Bush are strikingly similar. (Ref. 1, pg 503)

Those opposed to President Bush and his policies in fighting radical Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq justify their opposition by claiming that Bush’s policies are being pursued on behalf of big oil, the Bush family friends (i.e., the Royal Saudi family), Jews, Israel, the military-industrial complex, etc. In the 1860’s, the governor of New York “told an immense crowd that the federal government had exceed its constitutional authority by forcing men into ‘an ungodly conflict’ waged on behalf of the black man.” It was also said that the Civil War was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” (Ref. 1, pgs 536and 537) Similar words then and now - different beneficiaries.

Furthermore, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did,” “And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this consummation, while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” (Ref. 1, pg 554)

Now, nearly a century and a half later, a similar speech by President Bush might read as follows: You dislike the war in Iraq and Afghanistan against the forces of fundamentalist radical Islam and, perhaps, would us give up the struggle. We can not surrender, any more than the dead can be brought back to life, for the promise to defeat these terrorists and murderers being made, must be kept.

Today, victory does not appear so distant as it did, but then, there will be some who can remember that, with silent tongue and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this consummation, while, I fear, there will be others, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.

Lincoln also said that during a civil war, confusion abounded and that “Deception breeds and thrives. Confidence dies, and universal suspicion reigns.” (Ref. 1, pg 568) The same comments apply to the modern American lack of appetite for prolonged fights. Today, wars must be won in 30 days or Deception will breed and thrive. Confidence will die, and universal suspicion will reign. Slightly modifying a statement made by Secretary of State William Seward in 1862, “as in religion, so in politics [and war], it is faith, and not despondency, that overcomes mountains and scales the heavens.” (Ref. 1, pg 578)

In 1863, Ohio Democrats (today, in 2008, it would be the National Democrats) chose a Copperhead as their Gubernatorial candidate against a pro-Union candidate. The Copperhead candidate ran on a platform condemning the Civil War as a failure and calling for “peace at any price” even if slavery was maintained and the Union divided.” (Ref. 1, pg 573) In 2008, the Democrats will have done essentially the same, by calling for withdrawal from Iraq before the end of the war and by effectively calling for peace at any price even if al Quaida and the Talliban were restored to power and the United States and other non-Muslim countries were to again be placed under the threat of terrorist attack.

Then - In 1864, the Democrats delayed their convention (to nominate a presidential candidate) “until the end of August to give themselves a better chance to react to the latest events on the battlefield.” (Ref. 1, pg 623) This should be understood to mean that they were hoping for Union defeats upon the battlefield in order to gain political advantage. In referring to the platform of the Democratic candidate, it was said “the baseness of the platform . . . was unexpected. It contemplates surrender and abasement. Pressed upon the party by the peace contingent, the platform declared that ‘after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war,’ the time had come to ‘demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities.’” (Ref. 1, pg 654) Later in 1864, General Sherman, in his famous march to the sea across the state of Georgia, captured the city of Atlanta. Upon receiving news of the fall of Atlanta, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy noted that ‘This intelligence will not be gratifying to the zealous partisans who have just sent out a peace platform, and declared the war a failure.” (Ref. 1, pg 656) Now - For the past several years the Democrats have been hoping for American defeats upon the battlefield in order to gain political advantage and have been calling for an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq. Reports of success in Iraq after a “surge” in troop strengths were not greeted with enthusiasm by the zealous anti-Bush Democrats who had staked their hopes on defeat and who had declared the war a failure.

Then - In 1864, President Lincoln said, “We accepted this war for an object, a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is obtained. Under God, I hope it never will until that time.” (Ref. 1, pg 629) Now - Despite Democratic attempts to force an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, President Bush, his administration and the military leaders in the fight have steadfastly refused to commit to such a timetable. Instead, the message has been We entered this war for an object [freedom for the Iraqis and the defeat of Islamic terrorism], a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is obtained. The war never will end until that time.

Daniel Goleman in his study on emotional intelligence wrote, “’having hope means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks.’ Hope is, ‘more than the sunny view that everything will turn out all right”; it is “believing you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals.’ Then - More clearly than his colleagues, Lincoln understood that numerous setbacks were inevitable before the war could be brought to a close. Yet in the end, he firmly believed the North would prevail.” (Ref. 1, pg 631) Today - the same trait is evident in President Bush, as is true for many of the great leaders in modern history, e.g., George Washington and Winston Churchill, both of whom endured many defeats before ultimate victory. In all cases, faith in the cause and in ultimate success were their trademarks.

President Bush and others have frequently made the point that withdrawal from Iraq before “completion of the mission” would be a disservice and a dishonor to those who have died and suffered in combating terrorist elements in that country. In a most famous speech, President Lincoln made a similar point. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” (Ref. 1, pg 573)

Then - “On Election Day, November 8, 1864, the New York Times editorialized that “to elect Lincoln was to choose ‘war, tremendous and terrible, yet ushering in at the end every national security and glory.’ To choose” his Democratic opponent “was to choose ‘the mocking shadow of peace . . . sure to rob us of our birthright, and to entail upon our children a dissevered Union and ceaseless strife.” (Ref. 1, pg 664) Now - Paraphrasing what was written in 1864, “to elect the Republican successor to President Bush is to choose to continue the war declared upon us by Islamic radicals, tremendous and terrible, yet ushering in at the end every national and international security. To choose his Democratic opponent is to choose the mocking shadow of peace . . . sure to rob us of our birthright, and to entail upon our children and the children of all who do not submit to radical Islam terror and ceaseless strife.

In Perspective

“It has become fashionable for Americans to hold President George W. Bush up to derision. As many know, I crossed party lines in 2004 to support the president’s reelection, saying at the time that I did not agree with him on a single domestic issue, but I did believe he was the only one running who appreciated the threat of Islamic terrorism to American values and Western civilization and was prepared to wage a war to defends these values.” (Ref. 3) Currently, “Bush’s position can be compared with that of Harry Truman, who left Washington unpopular and alone in 1953, Today, most historians, and certainly the American people, see Truman in a different light, primarily for his willingness to stand firm against Soviet aggression and proclaim the Truman Doctrine, effectively defending the free world from Soviet efforts to expand their hegemony.

“Like Truman, George W. Bush, in my view, will be seen as one of the few world leaders who recognized the danger of the time - in Bush’s case, Islamic terrorism - and was willing to stand up to it.” (Ref. 3)

The Western world is “in great danger from a declared enemy that knows no limits when it comes to achieving its goal of destroying Western civilization and spreading militant Islam through threats and terrorism. . . . The West appears - in many parts of Europe in particular - to have lost its self-confidence and willingness to stand and fight an enemy willing to continue the war until victory is achieved and their goals met.” (Ref. 3)

“The reason I believe history will redeem President Bush is that he is one of the few leaders on the planet today who understands the larger picture. He has not lost his courage and vision of the future. He knows what calamities await the world if it engages in appeasement and deserts an ally in order to buy an illusory peace. We will recognize his worth long after he is gone.” (Ref. 3)

Dr. Paul Kengor compared George W. Bush with Harry S. Truman and concluded the following. (Ref. 4) “. . . the central liability of the Bush presidency (is) a horrid inability to communicate. This was so bad that there effectively was no bully pulpit under this president.” President Bush and his staff “allowed the opposition to define the debate and public perception, particularly on Iraq and the Middle East."    “And yet it remains in Iraq and the Middle East where Bush’s potential long-term impact resides, as does his place in history. It is there too, that a Bush comparison to Harry Truman is most fitting.”    “George W. Bush is the first post-9/11 president; he is presiding over the start of a long war on Terror, not its finish. This was likewise true for Truman and the Cold War. We should no more expect victory from Bush at this point in the war than we expected from Truman in the Cold War in 1947.”    “George W. Bush’s long-term strategy for the Middle East is to plant the seeds of a wider democratic revolution - starting in Iraq and Afghanistan - that eventually produces a ‘democratic peace,’ one utterly crucial to taming the region before WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) are easily available to theocratic regimes.”    “Bush has acknowledged that if he is vindicated in the Middle East, it will not happen while he is president, nor even in his lifetime - like Truman, who died nearly two decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall.”    “Like the man from Independence, Missouri, the man form Midland, Texas will be content with no ticker-tape parade, and (likely) will never live to see the fruits of his labor.”

Another preliminary critique of the George W. Bush presidency comes from Paul Johnson, the eminent British historian.

On September 11, 2001, the “president was a surprised as everyone else, as we grasped from the dramatic photograph taken of him as he was given the dreadful news at an elementary school. But he buckled down quickly to this unprecedented attack on America, determined that such a treacherous outrage should never occur again.

“Nor has it. It is worth inquiring why. There is no doubt that attacking the American homeland remains the prime objective of Muslim fundamentalist leaders. Yet they have not done so. One reason for this is the success of Mr. Bush’s team in learning the lessons of Sept. 11 and building a security system of impressive strength . . . It has yet to be breached.”

“. . . Mr. Bush - partly by accident but mainly by design - has switched the war’s theater of operations to the death-dealers’ territory. At the time of Sept. 11 the battlefield was the undefended West, with its great peaceful cities.” “Now, thanks to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan - which were achieved at relatively minor cost - the battlefield has been decisively switched to the Muslim heartlands.”

“ It’s true that more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and - women have been killed in this five year conflict. But considering the extent of the operations, the importance of the war and the threat to the U.S. populace posed by these terrorists, this total is small. In World War I up to 60,000 casualties were inflicted in a single day. And there were many occasions during World War II when the U.S. and Britain lost more than 4,000 men in a one-day operation.

“On the other hand, the number of Muslim fanatics who have been killed by the Allies in their operations or who have killed each other in Sunni-Shia clashes must be reckoned in the hundreds of thousands.”

“Clearly mistakes have been made in this war, some of them serious. Intelligence has been faulty.” But, “it’s far better for America’s President to react swiftly to intelligence reports of weapons of mass destruction being in the hands of his nation’s dedicated enemies than to ignore the warnings and risk such weapons being used against the U.S. and the West.

“Mr. Bush was right to adopt a no-risk policy, accepting the partisan criticism of his party’s political opponents. This is what a President does in his capacity as Commander in Chief. Indeed, no President worthy of the office could have decided otherwise.

“Looking back over the last few years, (it is) hard to fault Mr. Bush on any major point. He has always been brave. He has never shown the slightest fear of unpopularity, putting the needs of the nation before his political fortunes. He has shown himself ready at all times to make big, risky and venturesome decisions, being persuaded they were in the U.S.’ (and the West’s) interests, and then sticking to them. Indeed, if there’s one thing that exceeds Mr. Bush’s courage, it’s his resolution, then his pertinacity, his steadfast consistency.

“He is a leader who will not give way to threats, criticisms and abuse.”

“Some may call President Bush obstinate; others may say, with some reason, that he is not skilled in explaining his policies. But, . . . beneath it all he has been a heroic leader in a time of testing.” (Ref. 5)

  1. Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperbooks, Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY, ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-7075-5 (Pbk), 2005.
  2. The Age of Jackson, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Konecky & Konecky, 72 Ayers Point, Old Saybrook, CT 06475, ISBN: 1-56852-436-6, 1971 (First published on May 7, 1944).
  3. What Bush Knows, Ed Koch, The Jewish Press, Page 8, May 20, 2008.
  4. History Will Render Bush’s True Approval Rating, Dr. Paul Kengor, The Jewish Press, Page 8, May 16, 2008.
  5. Glad Bush Is Still Around, Paul Johnson, Forbes, Page 27, May 5, 2008.

  30 June 2008 {Article 45; Politics_05}    
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