For all their flaws and gaffes and imperfections, America’s presidents have given us a treasure trove of good advice and wise counsel over the centuries. Perhaps some of their advice will help guide us through these unpredictable times.
For those who are dubious about the spread of representative government, George Washington reminds us of the irresistible power and momentum of freedom: “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”
Burnishing their neoconservative credentials, albeit about two centuries early, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams endorse an unambiguous, unapologetic foreign policy of power-projection. Jefferson even has the audacity to dismiss Europe as (gasp) old: “We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders, and to hobble along by our side.” Jefferson presciently concluded, “What a colossus shall we be.” Adams would seem to agree: “Any effort on our part to reason the world out of a belief that we are ambitious will have no other effect than to convince them that we add to our ambition hypocrisy.” Doubtless, today’s self-styled wise men in Washington–the people who gave us détente and dual containment and diplomatic nuance–would dismiss both men as imperialists and warmongers.
Abraham Lincoln reminds us of our responsibilities to wage and win this war–and to honor with more than words those who fight it on our behalf: “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
And for those who argue that the current president’s expressions of faith are somehow an aberration in American history or a cause of cultural unease between America and its secularized cousins in Europe–or even between America and its radicalized enemies in the Middle East–we need look no further than Lincoln for a commander-in-chief unafraid to defer to heaven: “There is a divinity that shapes our ends,” he concluded as war raged all around him.
U.S. Grant, one of our warrior-presidents, explains the importance of action–and the need for flexibility–in a time of war: “In war, anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong, we shall soon find it out and can do the other thing. But not to decide…may ruin everything.”
The words of Theodore Roosevelt serve as a reminder that America should listen to its conscience–and should help the weak in places like Sudan and Srebrenica, Kigali and Kosovo: “There are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror as to make us doubt whether it is not our manifest duty to endeavor at least to show our disapproval of the deed and our sympathy with those who have suffered by it. The cases must be extreme in which such a course is justifiable…What form the action shall take must depend upon the circumstances of the case; that is, upon the degree of the atrocity and upon our power to remedy it.”
For those who say democracy won’t work in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan or Iran, for those who forget the same gloomy predictions were made about democracy in Japan, Germany, India, and a sliver of British colonies in North America, Woodrow Wilson offers this rebuttal: “When properly directed, there is no people in the world not fitted for self-government.” Freedom, while it may not be the organic product of every nation, is still, given help and guidance, within the reach of all.
For those who confuse moral relativism for wisdom, who travel to foreign lands to undermine this campaign against terror, who compare American troops to our enemies, Franklin Roosevelt answers with a sharp reply: “As a nation, we may take pride in the fact that we are softhearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed…The best way of dealing with the few slackers or trouble makers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example.”
In an echo of FDR, George W. Bush adds, “There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.”
For those who think a doctrine premised on the spread and defense of freedom is something new and aberrant to America, two Cold War presidents say otherwise: “It must be the policy of the United States,” Harry Truman declared as world war gave way to cold war, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures…If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world–and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.” As John Kennedy famously added almost a generation later, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
For those who say America’s acquisitiveness and materialism are the byproduct of the Bush presidency–and for those who fail to see the dangers of this “affluenza”–Jimmy Carter’s observations from 1979 provide some perspective. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
For the fatalists and pessimists among us, who believe that people are pieces of driftwood carried along by forces and currents beyond their control, Ronald Reagan’s life and words prove otherwise: “I reject,” he defiantly declared, “…the doctrine that sees us as helpless creatures of inexorable fate.” Reagan knew from experience that people make history, not the other way around.
For those who think the current occupant of the White House rushed into an unnecessary, unwarranted war in Iraq, Bill Clinton offers a reasoned rejoinder: “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons,” he warned. “I have no doubt today that, left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again…The best way to end that threat once and for all is with a new Iraqi government–a government ready to live in peace with its neighbors, a government that respects the rights of its people. Bringing change in Baghdad will take time and effort.”
And let us end where we began–where America began–with words about the spread of liberty. Amid the ferment of freedom last year, when revolutions of orange and purple and cedar shook Ukraine and Iraq and Lebanon, George W. Bush fused together Washington and Jefferson, Wilson and TR, FDR and Reagan: “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” he intoned. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
That’s not only a good place to end; it’s a good place to begin.