Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Leaders We Deserve?

During inauguration week, the History Channel ran a series on The Presidents. (Everyone has to get into the act when something has been whipped up into a "media event.") The series was based on a book called To The Best Of My Ability, a collection of essays on the presidents written by top historians, edited by James McPherson. The video series takes 400 minutes to tell the stories of forty-two presidents. Which limits each president to less than ten minutes of coverage. Enough to tantalize, but not enough to really learn much of substance. Still, I was struck by how little we know about some of these men. And how much of what we think we know is historically inaccurate. Given the microscopic dissection to which our presidents are subjected during their time in office, I find this surprising. Or maybe not…the attitude of the general public towards government officials seems to be "What have you done for me lately?" Our leaders’ great accomplishments, though admittedly few and far between, fall off our radar screens as soon as we have a beef, or catch the scent of a juicy scandal.

As far as the video series itself goes, I was a little annoyed by the fact that the presentation, in the true style of 21st century journalism, tended to paint the bad presidents in a better light than history has, and tried to chip away at the pedestals upon which the best chief executives have been placed. Why do the media feel they have to elevate the mediocre and knock down the champions in this country? Because they believe that the everyday grunt who buys a newspaper or magazine, or commands the remote, identifies more with the not-so-great, and feels more powerful when heroes are slashed down to their level? Why do we have to make such a huge deal of exposing and exploiting their imperfections? As if we fully expected them to BE perfect when we voted for them, and when we find out they are not, it’s some kind of shocking betrayal. Let’s get real, folks. Our leaders need be neither canonized nor damned. They are, after all, only human beings, and politicians on top of that, which means they are inherently flawed. Perhaps more so than the average man on the street. They exist on a "larger-than-life" plain…where, even as the things they reach for require an exponentially greater degree of strength and resolve than you or I might possess, the cracks in their armor gape like bottomless crevasses.

Perhaps this is all just a frustrating byproduct of our brand of democracy. Government by the people. All the people. People who can’t (don’t) read, people who lead insular or xenophobic lives, who have no clue about the complex 21st-century issues facing our national leaders. The issues that, because the choice of leaders is in our hands, it is imperative that we at least attempt to understand. But since most of us are barely half-informed, whether by misfortune or design, political elections in the United States have been reduced to something either more reminiscent of "American Idol," or a simplistic distillation of the complex issues to a contest between good and evil. The parties invest their time and fortunes in facelifts, elevator shoes, hairstyles, and camera savvy, while spreading propaganda to make the opposing candidate appear to be the devil incarnate. Real issues are rarely addressed in campaign rhetoric. The candidates know that is not what the American people want to hear. So those of us who would like to make informed decisions based on the issues are handicapped by the masses who treat a democratic election like some kind of sports contest.

There was an oft-repeated quote circulating before the election…something about a society getting the leaders they deserve. At first, I bridled a bit at this…I felt like I certainly did not deserve another four years of George W. Bush. But, looking at it a little more closely, I think the American people got exactly what they deserved this election. Our laziness, our complacency, our acceptance of the system as we have allowed it to progress over the last hundred years, have resulted in the perpetuation of the regime of a lackluster leader backed by a powerful machine with an agenda about which we have absolutely no clue. But which, I suspect, has little to do with the welfare of the United States and her people, and everything to do with lining their own pockets and those of their friends, who have paid generously for that service.

We have not just allowed ourselves to be disenfranchised…we have done it to ourselves. We’ve let ourselves be dazzled by media circuses, and duped with empty political rhetoric because we are too lazy? Busy? Apathetic? Discouraged? …to take a meaningful role in the democratic process. And our nation is paying the price.


  1. Interesting post.  I think it's easy to berate the American people for being so apathetic.  I know I find myself doing it from time to time.  But then part of recognizes what many Americans have recognized for a very long time: our democracy is a sham.  The two party system has never truly represented the American people.  It's always been set out to protect the "minority of the oppulent from the majority" as James Madison said at the constitutional convention.  And most opinion polls reflect this.  What I see is one party that shamelessly fights for the rights of the minority of the oppulent; and another party that while doing the same, is benevolent enough to throw a few crums from the table in order to keep the masses content.

    Fortunately, real social change is not dependent upon the ballot box.  Sadly, this well known fact is seldom taught in our schools, and most Americans are woefully ignorant of our great legacy of fighting for social justice.  

    Great entry.


  2. There must be a happy medium between the Greek form of democracy that limiited the vote basically to landowners. The theory being that only they had the time to study the issues and the indepnedene not to be influenced. Ideally anyway and what we've go. Individualism run rampant and a dumbing down that is truly scary.

  3. you made some very good points. well written.

  4. It sounds bizzare ... but one of my favorite Presidents is Grover Cleveland.  The documentary did a fairly good, though quick, overview.

  5. Wow, Lisa!  This would make a snazzy editorial in the newspaper.