Dec 29, 2006

On the Worship of Presidents

Gerald Ford Photo of Gerald R. Ford courtesy of MSNBC

I was saddened to see that former President Gerald Ford died this week, as I view him as a decent sort of person who seemed to be just the right man to calm the ship of state after the tumultuous Nixon years. I disagreed with his decision to pardon his predecessor, but on the whole I think his short term in office was beneficial to the United States.

Yet I am once again puzzled by the outpouring of adoration that borders on a form of worship for the politicians who become American presidents. Even the disgraced Richard Nixon received a hero's sendoff when he died in 1994, and we as Americans continue to exhibit a tendency to deify (or at least beatify) our leaders.

US flag at half staff for Gerald Ford Photo of US flag at half-staff courtesy of ABC News

I must admit that, as a historian whose inclination is towards social history and a person who frequently demonstrates an iconoclastic attitude toward elites and celebrities, I am apt to dismiss all forms of hero-worship. Still, one might make a strong case that the American fixation on the lives of its presidents and ex-presidents borders on a form of monarchophilia.

We build museums, memorials, and libraries as shrines to our ex-presidents, even for those with very short periods in office. The inauguration of a president has become a weeklong series of events that more resembles a coronation than a welcoming into elected office.

I do not wish to take away from those who mourn the passing of Gerald Ford as a decent man and a calming presence in a time of turmoil. Most presidents, however, have little long-term effect on the world and the lives of everyday people, and those we think of as particularly noteworthy simply happened to be in the right place at the right time, riding existing social, political, or economic waves like a surfer hanging ten through a tube on the Banzai Pipeline.


microdot said...

Frankly, he was lucky enough to accidentally become president in relatively quiet times. Appointed VP after Agnews fall from grace, then president after Nixons resignation.
Both Cheney and Rumsfeld garnered more power during his administration.
He was president during the Mayaguez debacle and tacitily gave Indonesia the go ahead for the massacre in East Timor.
He did Pardon Nixon, but then again he did very compassionately grant pardons to over 100,000 draft evaders.
Could have been better, could have been a lot worse. I read a piece today that claimed that Chevy Chase ruined his chances for re election.
That was just plain senile...
If a president was ever desroyed by a comedian, perhaps you should look at Dan Ackroyds very scary Jimmy Carter impersonation......

DaveSchulzToledo said...

That same thought crossed my mind this week as well. His death gave me flashbacks to my favorite president, Ronald Reagan. He was the first president I had vivid memories of besides being my political inspiration. I cried alot during Reagan's funeral. What a great man.

We Americans do have a special fixation or connection with our presidents. Combining their great power when in office and their work out of office creates a special bond with Americans.

I only knew about Nixon from history but did see him alot on talk shows discussing foreign policy. He really rehabilitated himself and was a statesman in the end. I visited his library in the early 90's.

LTLOP said...

Just a couple of thoughts here. Could the worship stem from:
1. The fact that these were "ordinary" people that became the most powerful person in the world?
2. After "retiring" from they generally fade away from the public eye on purpose to let history mellow the memories, except Carter with his current book and allegations of plaigarism and calling for UN oversight of the US elections. It seems to me that with Nixon people sought him out rather than him sticking his nose in where it did not belong.
3. Presidential deaths are far and few between, the last one prior to Nixon was Johnson in '73. (I was only 3 so I don't remember much) Then #1 & #2 kick in.

Also given that fact that the remaining Presidents are "relatively" young and in decent health we may not have another state funeral for a few years. Unless former President Bubba has a heart attack with a chubby intern while eating McDonalds super size fries.

Jeffrey Smith said...

My memory of first hearing about the pardon is of a sigh of relief. Good it's over. It is odd, though, how they're put on a pedestal when they die. Even by people who hated their guts when they were in office.

McCaskey said...

I doubt if anything will top the media orgy that took place after Reagan's death. The pomp and circumstance around that event lasted well past a week, day after day of tributes, private and public. It began taking on the tone of a conservative public relations campaign, orchestrated by Karl Rove.

I hope Gerald Ford gets his just due. A good man, a decent man. The right man at the right place and the right time. A relatively simple man that many if not most American can identify with.

It will be interesting to see the reaction when Jimmy Carter passes. He has many of the qualities as Ford did and we'll see if conservatives are as apt to tip their caps to him as most liberals have to Gerald Ford.

Lisa Renee said...

I think it somehow stems back to our history of being a part of a monarchy at times. Remember the reaction here in the states when Princess Di was killed.

I do also wonder the same thing that McCaskey did as to what will be the reaction when the day comes that Jimmy Carter dies. I was not really that sad to hear that Gerald Ford had died since he at 93 had lived a very full life. Remembering those accomplishments is appropriate but a huge production doesn't seem to be something that even he would have wanted.

Mark said...

I don't think it ends at Presidents. Surely, they achieve a form of hero-worship not seen for other people who have passed on, but isn't it always the case at a funeral that people remember the deceased as a "good person who lived a great life and will be surely missed?"

Never will you hear, "He was an SOB and I'm glad (s)he's dead" at a funeral, even for those who will deserve it.

Just a thought.

Dariush said...

Excellent post, Mike.

I think that one of the things that always comes to light during these moments is the dichotomy that exists among the American population as a whole. A strain of libertarianism that runs side by side with a strain of authoritarianism.

The worship (and there really is no better word for it) bestowed on our political class, and the State as a whole, is among the most visible aspects of this authoritarianism.

Of course, the media plays a huge role in promoting this kind of worship of our political figures -- Just a couple of hours ago I got an email from my boss explaining exactly how much time we would be giving to coverage of Ford's funeral procession from the Capitol to the National Cathedral. The whole thing just leaves me cold. The Pope is one thing, but a single-term President whose major accomplishments were pardons?

Dennis Perrin does a great job of analyzing the media's role in this kind of spectacle:

"The Great American Whitewash remains one of the more effective propaganda tools used by those who write the history. If a major event or serious crime can be played down or simply omitted from an official account, then it most certainly will, while the more 'uplifting' aspects of the narrative are expanded and polished to a clean shine. This tactic doesn't always work, and sometimes reality seeps through. But for the most part, the GAW is a reliable way to make our history appear superior to other nations. Or as Archie Bunker once put it in a slightly different context, it's what 'separates the US of A from the red chinks and all those other losers.'

The GAW can be used for just about anything; but when a former statesman, or better still, an ex-president dies, then the GAW is wrapped in sparkling stars and stripes and thrust at the reader/viewer with the subtlety of a 40 car pile-up. We saw this when Nixon passed, then Reagan. And now that Gerald Ford has died, we see it again..."


"...For the Times, and pretty much every other Ford obit I've read, the 38th president's true patriotic glory came when he pardoned Richard Nixon, after Nixon fled to San Clemente in order to avoid certain impeachment and criminal prosecution. At the time, there was some editorial grumbling, and leading Dems like Ted Kennedy denounced Ford's choreographed move. But for the most part, the owners of the country and their stenographers praised Ford for ending the 'national nightmare' of Watergate and keeping their profitable system intact, because, you see, America couldn't afford to actually place a president in the dock and try him for various state crimes. Even Ted Kennedy came around to this view, which the obit writers are flagging to show bi-partisan appreciation for Ford's inspired and necessary act. When everyone in the political class agrees to overlook or push aside crimes that might call the whole system into question, it proves that the system 'works,' and self-congratulation is the order of the day. (Some contemporary libloggers buy into this view as well, thus proving their political 'rationality.')

"The other legacy that Ford left behind is of course his backing and bankrolling of Indonesia's invasion and dismemberment of East Timor...."


"Now, a civilized country that dealt with its history honestly would mention the above in any overview of that period. And had Gerald Ford been, say, a Chinese premier who ordered a client army to wipe out a third of a smaller country's population, I'm guessing that would be mentioned in American news outlets upon his death. But being the U.S. president who ended a 'national nightmare,' Ford's direct hand in mass murder is completely ignored. I have yet to find any mainstream mention of this, much less any critical words from libloggers, content to tap 'Gerald Ford RIP' and nothing more. If any doubt remains in you about the utter depravity of our intellectual and political culture, the fuzzy obits on behalf of Gerald Ford should sober you up. That is, if you're not loaded on the Great American Whitewash."

Mr. Schwartz said...

If Ford had been president 80 or more years ago, he would be as well remembered as Millard Fillmore and Warren G Harding. He's only really remembered because his presidency happened in the days of television. But his real impact on overall history is very minor.

He's getting nowhere near the attention or admiration as President Reagan got when he died.

Still, he was president and deserves a full presidential funeral.

microdot said...

One thing that no one mentions in their recollections of Gerald Fords presidency is that he was the only president to survive 2 assination attempts, both made by women, too boot!
Not many lucky bastards get that close to Squeaky and live to tell about it!

historymike said...

I see a difference between simply paying respect for former leaders and the lavish cult of personality we as Americans place in the office of the presidency.

As for power, one might argue that the Fed chief has a greater ability to affect the lives of ordinary people than the president. Ratchet up the federal funds and discount rates enough, and millions of people will hit the bricks looking for work.

historymike said...

Agreed, Jeffrey, that there was a certain catharsis that followed the pardoning of Nixon, but the same could have been said if he were convicted (or found not guilty) in a trial.

historymike said...

Agreed about Jimmy Carter, McCaskey.

Given the fact that the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity go apopleptic every time Jimmy Carter farts in public, I suspect they will do a "hooray-another-dead-pinko" dance.

And, while I disagree with many of Reagan's policies, he was at least able to communicate in a convincing fashion what is great about America, getting people to believe that ideals like liberty are important.

historymike said...

Agreed, Lisa, that Americans as a whole have lapped up the televised nonsense of British royals, especially the wedding of Charles and Di and her funeral.

I had to turn my TV off for a few days.

historymike said...

Excellent links, Dariush. Ford also turned a blind eye to the murderous Argentine junta that carried out La Guerra Sucia.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Great points all.

Having recently returned from visiting the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA, I can't begin to describe the almost shrine-like atmosphere/aura that emanates from the place.

It is very well done and you can't possibly do it justice in one day.

All who attended with me were in awe...