When last I took a course in American History, in the late 1960s at the University of Minnesota, one of the timeless truths that had been passed unrevised from generation to generation of students was this: thanks to the genius of the American system of government, it can survive even the most dangerously dim and corrupt fool or demon elected to the White House.
As examples of these temporary "speed bumps" in America's road to the perfect earthly society, our text and professor named Ulysses (Useless) Grant, a great Civil War general but hopelessly out-to-lunch civil administrator; and, a little later, Warren Gamaliel Harding, whose besetting sin was trying to please his Ohio friends with gifts (like oil lands) that rightly belonged to the American people. (That's why a signed photo of the man, sent to my mother on the occasion of my grandmother's death, currently hangs inside my sister Beverly's kitchen closet in Columbus).
Grant's post-Civil war mis-administration ushered in an unprecedentedly greedy period of American life that Mark Twain aptly named "the Gilded Age"; and Harding's years at the poker table in the White House, at the outset of the "Roaring Twenties," became a by-word for political greed and brazen corruption in America (Look up "Tea Pot Dome," for example, in your encyclopedia). And yet, despite corruption at the highest levels, our country, to whose flag we children pledged undying allegiance each morning of our public school years, has stumbled around blindly to become, in the words of LBJ's press secretary Bill Moyers, "a nation combining immense physical power with terrifying moral ambiguity."
I take little comfort in continually reminding myself that I didn't vote for George W. Bush in either his first or second campaign for President, and scarcely more in silently pledging to myself never again to vote for Republicans, those self-styled "guardians of privilege," to use a term pinned on them by Harry S. Truman. When I considered how many U.S. presidents have died in office, to be replaced by their vice-presidents, the thought of Dick Cheney running/ruining our already severely wounded and morally bankrupt country sends chills up and down my spine. No, I'd sooner vote for an amateur crook of the kind you can see pictured on post office bulletin boards. Let him run the country, for a change. His crimes will ruin the lives of a lot fewer people, even if we fail to keep shotguns out of his hands.
Our vaunted military intelligence some years ago foresaw the rejoicing of the Iraqi natives when they welcomed the liberating American armed forces to their shores.
Well, if our military intelligence is that befuddled, I'm surprised our troops weren't let off in Iran or Ireland, instead of Iraq. Yes, we did liberate the Iraquis from the horror of Saddam Hussein, but, in the process, we also destroyed the country as a working human mechanism, decimated their population, and hatched a civil war that shows no signs of abating On the desk beside me lies a lined piece of 8 1/2-by-11 paper, a body count listing the numbers of American soldiers who have died since George W. Bush, without the "advice and consent of the Congress," sent American kids to invade Iraq and annihilate as many Iraqis as were foolish enough to try to turn back the American troops who were invading and raping their homeland, in 2003, assured by U.S. intelligence, that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. And so, we began a war there which hasnét yet stopped taking the lives of American and Iraqi soldiers, fathers and mothers, and children too young to fire a rifle or plant a bomb.
I've found that keeping a daily or even weekly body-count of American troops killed in Iraq helps make the war much more human to me, as Matthew Brady's photographs never let you forget that our own Civil War, the so-called first modern war, was, when all was said and done, a human war, the face-down lifeless form on the battlefield -- whether Union or Confederate, it scarcely matters -- is, in Whitman's poem "Reconciliation," "a man as divine as myself." And so, according to my calculations, the figure 3,197, gives way on March 21 to 3,201, which number gives way on March 24 to 3,238. With no end in sight. And these numbers fail to take into account the Iraqi civilians who have died during the course of the same war, whose only crime has been to want to live their own lives and let their children do likewise.
This country we live in used to be seen around the world as the new Jerusalem, the promised land, the land of freedom and equal opportunity. I hear that, according to a recent survey, we are now the "world's most feared nation." Small wonder, I think. The huge transformation of America's role in the world, from savior to bully and tyrant, is in no small way due to the swagger and strut of our history's worst president, the man and the cronies he's kept under his wing.
I've seen advertised in a couple of national magazines recently an ad for a wrist watch that counts down to the exact day and hour that George W. Bush and cronies exit the White House for good.
Can the United States wait that long?