Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Calf's Tail

"So I said to Barack, I knew Abe Lincoln, and you ain't no Abe Lincoln!"
On this Presidents Day weekend, language used by politicians is worthy of comment.

We used to observe Lincoln's birthday on February 12th and then Washington's on the 22nd. Wouldn't you know it was the commercialization of their birthdays that prompted a change? Led by automobile dealers in the late 1980s, their need for a long weekend in which to hold a sale is what eventually produced "Presidents Day." It splits the goalposts between Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays and gives us three days and a shopping weekend mid-winter. Now it's not just those two we cite, but every president.

President Bill Clinton
I'm always fascinated with what presidents say and have said. Perhaps the most famous use of language and how it could be parsed was Bill Clinton's lamentable, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Or when questioned under oath, his "That depends on what your definition of 'is' is." I'm almost certain Bill Clinton said some things that are far more astute than those two statements, but they will forever be attached to him as the most memorable.

Jimmy Carter had a memorable quote along those lines long before Bill Clinton acted upon his thoughts and temptations, however. Carter once gave an interview for Playboy Magazine, in which he famously said, "I've looked on many women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me."
President Jimmy Carter

No matter what their political enemies may say, most U.S. Presidents have an abiding love for this country, its heritage and its values. Carter underscores that idea with this statement: "The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself -- always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested by adversity."

Three years into his failed presidency he was on national television giving what later came to be known as his "Crisis in Confidence" or "malaise" speech in which he said, "I promised you a President who is not isolated from the people, who feels your pain, and who shares your dreams and who draws his strength and his wisdom from you."

Then along came Ronald Reagan who asked voters a simple question, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" They went for Reagan in a landslide election a year later in 1980.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.
There's a story attributed to Abraham Lincoln, when he was faced with some thorny issues. He would ask his opponent who thought a question could be settled with a twist of language or a slight abuse of power, "How many legs would a dog have, if we called the dog’s tail, a leg?" Confident of simple math, Lincoln's opponent would respond, "Five,” to which Lincoln would respond, "No, calling a dog’s tail a leg, doesn’t make it a leg.”

The genesis of that story is interesting. Because it has been so widely quoted, most have assumed the use of the dog in the metaphor is accurate, but I found a source this morning that is the most credible I've seen in print. This source contends beginning on page 241, continuing into page 242, that the animal was actually a calf and not a dog.

Here's the source for the quote: Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by distinguished men of his time / collected and edited by Allen Thorndike Rice (1853-1889). New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1909. The University of Michigan has the entire text on-line, in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, an on-line source whose whole text is searchable.

President George Washington
George Washington, hailed as the Father of our Country by his peers, and fully aware that every move he made was being logged into the history books for future generations, observed, "I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."

Knowing there would have been no agreement on the Constitution without leaving the question of slavery untouched and having to pragmatically kick the question down the road for another generation of Americans to deal with, Washington lamented:  "I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery."

President Ronald W. Reagan
Ronald Reagan, recently confirmed once again by American citizens (as he has been for the last twelve years in eight different polls) as the "greatest president in U.S. history," left many memorable quotes in the history books. This is one of my favorites: "Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have."

Reagan recognized, as few ever have, where the horsepower behind America's economic engine comes from: "Entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States."

Ronald Reagan was always warning about the fragility of our heritage as free people: "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same."

Reagan was the people's president. He had an uncanny ability to tap into their psyche and he routinely used his sense of humor to poke fun at the politicians we love to hate. This is only one of his many gems:  "It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first."

President John Adams
Readers of this page will understand my affection for John Adams, who said, "Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society."

In his defense argument of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre in 1770, where his clients were acquitted, Adams famously observed, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

To all the bloggers in our enlightened age, Adams would say, "Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write."

Like most of the founders, John Adams had a reverence and a complete awareness of what they were creating in the American experiment. Lest we forget in our day, he reminds us, "I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth."

President George W. Bush
In more recent years as the politicians have sparred, criticized and lampooned (get ready, it's coming again soon in the run up to the 2012 election), it was refreshing to hear George W. Bush stand down: "I just didn't want to get out there anymore; I didn't want to get back into what I call 'the swamp.' And the other reason why is I don't think it's good for the presidency for a former president to be opining about his successor. President Obama's got plenty of critics - and I'm just not gonna be one."

President John F. Kennedy was inspirational in so many ways. As a young man I loved reading his Profiles in Courage compilation. He reminds us, "A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or regard that quality in its chosen leaders today - and in fact we have forgotten."

President John F. Kennedy
It was Kennedy who offered the unforgettable line in his first inaugural, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Kennedy is credited with "breaking through" the unspoken barrier of religious affiliation as a litmus test for presidential candidates when he asserted, "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic."

No matter what your political affiliation or persuasion might be, you can rest assured of one thing: Presidents of the United States of America generally do what they believe in their hearts is the best course for America. Recently, Bill O'Reilly, the number one rated cable talker in America these days, interviewed both former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama. He came away with the surprising conclusion that each man sincerely believed he was right, even though their policies could not be more diametrically opposed.

O'Reilly observed:

"But what happens when a person's conviction is wrong? There is no question that Saddam Hussein could have been destroyed by other means. Surely the world is a better place without him, but would most Americans support the Iraq invasion if we could do it all over? I don't think so. In hindsight, the Iraq situation should have been handled by the Air Force and Navy. Saddam's regime could have been strangled without so much American blood.

President Barack Obama
"Things are a bit murkier on the economic front. Since the Obama administration has been in power, the feds have spent an astounding seven trillion dollars. This has left the United States vulnerable in the world marketplace because we need to borrow so much money from nations like China. The massive $14 trillion debt has now become as big a threat as the economic meltdown of three years ago. No matter how you frame the issue, federal spending must be cut back, and Mr. Obama has to know this. But, like Mr. Bush, the president does not regret his controversial policies."

So let's remember the calf's tail when it comes to measuring "truthiness" from politicians on this Presidents Day honoring not just Lincoln and Washington. Just because Bush or Obama calls a calf's tail a leg, doesn't make it a leg after all.

Sometimes the statements politicians write onto the parchment of time must age a bit to be fully understood and appreciated. We celebrated the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan recently. During his presidency he was anything but beloved. People were scared to death about this "cowboy" who had his finger on the trigger of nuclear weapons and didn't seem shy about pulling it as he took on the "Evil Empire." But the one thing he had going for him was his authenticity. He connected with people, even Mikhail Gorbachev eventually. We had to have a bit of perspective as Americans before we embraced Reagan and fully credited him with the end of the Cold War.

Only time and experience will tell the whole "tale" with accuracy.

In the meantime, let us give a wide berth to political "truth" in the here and now and wait upon history to make its judgments someday.

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