Transforming Reality Into Mythology

by Philip Greenspan

October 4, 2004   


(Swans - October 4, 2004)   Several articles have recently appeared that claim that Dubya Bush is the worst American president. (1) It's too early to judge. He should complete his term and then a little time should elapse for an objective evaluation.

Since 1948 eleven major surveys have been conducted to rate the presidents, usually among historical scholars. (2)

Franklin Roosevelt's performance was so exceptional -- he won the presidency an unprecedented four times -- that I recall people stating, while FDR was president, that he was the best. Those surveys place him up there in the top ranks, usually in second or third place. (3)

Just as most were able to predict Roosevelt's evaluation, Bush, by a similar exceptional performance so far, might validate that "worst" designation by ending up in future surveys if not dead last then in the lowest ranks.

Rating presidents is a subjective exercise. Each participant's measuring standards vary from those of the other judges. I erroneously thought that those rating the presidents judged them based on their performance in office. Two prominent historians evaluate on personal characteristics. The criteria employed by James MacGregor Burns are in increasing order of importance: character, competence, courage, conviction, and commitment. Fred I. Greenstein's standards are: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. (4)

Shouldn't a president's rating reflect the results that his policies and actions produced? What did he do during his term that affected the lives of his fellow citizens? How many lives improved; how many suffered? Were the beneficiaries those most in need, and not his supporters or the wealthy? What are the long term effects of his policies? Will current hardships produce major improvements in the future? How did his policies affect others throughout the world?

I decided to apply these standards to the consistent survey winner, the president who took first place nine times and second place (to George Washington) twice, Abraham Lincoln. What did he do during his presidency and how did it affect the people?

During the critical period before the war, most people in both the North and South were hoping that a peaceful resolution could be negotiated. (5) Yet, when Fort Sumter was attacked Lincoln did not call Congress into session for them to debate and vote on future action, possibly war. Instead he ordered the militias to respond to the attack, and delayed calling Congress into session for four months. With war then a fait accompli, Congress obediently appropriated the necessary funds. (6)

Lincoln ignored the Constitution and assumed dictatorial powers. He dispensed with habeas corpus. Arrests were made on suspicion and by war's end over ten thousand men had been imprisoned and more than 300 newspapers that did not support the war or merely questioned it were closed. (7) Lincoln went so far as to order the arrest of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, who had granted a writ of habeas corpus. (8) He even created a new state, West Virginia, from the state of Virginia, once again, in violation of the Constitution. (9) He fought the war to preserve the Union but was never willing to permit a debate of the issue. Few disagreed with the right of a state to secede. Many Northern and Southern states had previously asserted that right. Lincoln himself never questioned that right, since he was aware his position was weak. (10)

When Lincoln won election in 1860 the population was 31,443,321; 27,489,561 free and 3,953,760 slaves. (11) His decision for war shortly thereafter put over 3 to 4 million men under arms and resulted in an estimated 620 thousand deathsand over 400 thousand wounded -- more than ONE MILLION casualties! (12) Those more than one million casualties were mourned by parents, wives, children, siblings as well as other relatives and friends. The survivors would grieve for years and years and often for lifetimes.

Poor, hard-working citizens were compelled to serve in the military while the wealthy on both sides could avoid service by sending a substitute, buying their way out, and in the South, by owning 20 slaves. (13)

On a per capita basis it cost a northerner $150 -- about one year's income -- and a southerner two and a-half-times that amount, $376. Property losses in the belligerent areas approached almost one and a half trillion 1860 dollars. (14) (The conversion factor for one 1860 dollar to a 2003 dollar is 0.047; or one 1860 dollar would be $21.28 in 2003.) (15)

Those phenomenal property damage costs are attributable to the war crimes of northern generals that Lincoln not only condoned but actually encouraged. (16)

Was preserving the Union worth such a cost? What did it accomplish?

It did free the slaves, didn't it? Yes, but that was not Lincoln's intention when he made the fateful decision for war. He was quite willing to accept slavery so long as the Union was preserved. In his first Inaugural Address he stated unequivocally that he did not intend and did not have the lawful right to interfere with the institution of slavery. In a letter to Horace Greeley he wrote: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." (17)

His Emancipation Proclamation was a tactic he used to help win the war. It permitted slavery to continue in every slave state that remained in or rejoined the Union before its effective date, four months hence. If the war had not been going badly he would not have tried it. (18) It was a desperation action. Should he be commended for making it?

If slavery was not the reason for the war, what was?

The major cause of all wars is MONEY. For many years the South strenuously objected to a 20 percent tariff that protected northern industry and filled the coffers of the Federal Treasury with funds that were parceled out inequitably to the north. When Lincoln won the election the South realized from campaign promises that the objectionable tariff would be substantially increased. That was too much to take. The economy of the South was extremely profitable to business interests in the North. The business elite, the bankers, and Wall Street financiers were quite willing to permit the South to secede so long as their profitable business arrangements were not altered. However, once the South set up a free trade zone, undercutting the protective tariff, there was a quick change of heart. Those business interests were now in the forefront demanding that the government take prompt and strong action against the southern culprits. (19) And like all good puppet presidents, before and after, Lincoln heeded his master's voice!

How does Lincoln measure up to my standards? So poorly that I am convinced that he is without doubt the WORST president. Yet he rated so well on all eleven surveys. That surely perplexed me. But there are quite logical reasons why.

Sorry to interject -- I'll continue with the essay later -- but right now I'd like you to know how this essay evolved.

When the GI death toll in Iraq reached 1,000, my thoughts focused on the terrible fate of those poor soldiers, their families and friends, and the many more innocents in the war zones.

It revived memories of the war of my generation, World War II. Those memories still haunt me. WWII took the lives of a close friend, several schoolmates, several acquaintances, as well as an uncle, my mother's youngest brother. He was only a few years older than me and I was quite fond of him. Over the years I often think of those who are gone with great sadness. They all should have survived for many more years. I also had a close friend who was wounded. He was close to death, spent over a year in the hospital and survived.

I believe that most who lived through the WWII years were similarly touched by the deaths and injuries of relatives, friends and acquaintances. How much more misery did the people who lived during the Civil War years endure -- a smaller population with more war deaths than WWII? Yet war casualties do not shock. There is no outcry. The same gung ho battle cry continues. The voices of the establishment, the government, the media, the two major parties shout, "Full steam ahead!"

My original intent was to highlight the enormous human costs that the Civil War produced. I had stumbled across one of those obscure facts that could have added immeasurably to the impact of my essay. There were more deaths in the Civil War than in World War II. Realizing that the population was substantially less (census figures show 1940 to be 4.2 times more than 1860) I could imagine the misery that was brought about by so many casualties.

If I juxtaposed the veneration of Abraham Lincoln against the enormous losses suffered by an overwhelming number of people I could reasonably rate him as the worst. It would just be one sensitive individual's strong feeling for the inordinate numbers of casualties that the pro-war patriots ignore. The character of Lincoln and the moral justification for the war would essentially remain intact. But the impact of how insensitive we have become to the casualties might enlighten and impress some reader.

By doing some research for the essay -- lo and behold, I discovered a treasure trove of abominable secrets. An example of how the myths of a state's acceptable version of history turn an ignominious chapter into a glorious humanitarian victory.

With what I learned required an amendment to my rough draft to include additional facts. Lincoln's excellent showing in those eleven surveys -- many of them by noted historians -- became inconceivable. Surely some of those historians must be aware of these facts. I have given the matter considerable thought and have come to some possible conclusions.

Historians are not only aware of the facts but of the state's accepted historical myths as well. They are also aware of the reprisals that await those who buck the establishment. They have become respected authorities by following and advancing those accepted myths. It is also possible that they, like many others who overlook unpleasant facts, honestly believe in spite of everything they know that the results still were worth it. And of course, they can always claim that they judged not on the basis of a president's performance but on his personal character; and anyone who could pull off what Lincoln did had a very formidable character!

But now I'll stop digressing and continue with the essay.

How does Lincoln measure up to my standards? So poorly that I am convinced that he is without doubt the WORST president.

Yet he rated so well on all eleven surveys. That surely perplexed me. But there are quite logical reasons why.

Before I attempted to write this essay I held Lincoln and his presidency in high esteem. I had never learned any of the facts set forth above in my high school and college history courses. I don't think that others in this country were taught any differently.

There is an accurate saying that "The Winners Write History." It would be equally accurate to recognize that every nation writes an acceptable version of history that is instilled in its citizens; a history that highlights the nation's accomplishments and hides its failures. A history that elevates former leaders into heroic figures interpreting their actions favorably -- extolling their accomplishments while hiding their transgressions in the shadows.

Only when someone digs into those shadows do the ghosts in the closet reveal themselves.

With what has been disclosed by the facts above and what you know of the actions of the last four years, how would you compare the current occupant of the White House with that Civil War icon, Abraham Lincoln?

The historical mythmakers have certainly done a phenomenal glamorizing job on old Abe. What they did for one they could do for another. Just give it a little time. Memories will fade.

How quickly people forget is illustrated by a popular bumper sticker and poster: "No One Died When Clinton Lied." It epitomizes the absurdity of Clinton's lies resulting in impeachment for his "oh horrors" sexual indiscretions contrasted with Bush's lies gaining patriotic approval for commencing a needless war where over 1000 GIs and thousands more are dead and wounded.

It's surprising that this pithy expression about lies should itself be a whopper. The number of deaths that Clinton was responsible for was several times greater than the tens of thousands under Bush. Have those who display that phrase forgotten already?

Clinton's insistence on maintaining the sanctions in Iraq was a humanitarian tragedy that was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. The devastating effects of the sanctions caused two UN humanitarian coordinators to resign in protest. One of them, Dennis Halliday, stated ". . . the UN economic sanction . . . constitute famine conditions. . . It is a continuation of the genocide that the economic embargo placed on Iraq. I say genocide because it is an international programme to destroy a culture, a people, a country." (20)

More deaths can be attributed to Clinton with the war and dismemberment of Yugoslavia. And then there were the bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan. (21) The Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that was bombed provided about half of the medicine for the entire country and may have resulted in the death and suffering for tens of thousands. (22)

Clinton was so bad that it prompted Howard Zinn to write an article entitled "Ten Real Reasons to Impeach Clinton." In addition to the crimes above he also included the armed attack in Waco, Texas. (23)

With an assist from short memories, historical mythmakers have been able to perform amazing feats in transforming reality into a fairyland. Tyrants are transformed into saints and vice versa. What Oscar Wilde did for Dorian Gray they did for Abraham Lincoln. And they can perform the same magic for Dubya. They will load him with every attribute necessary to transform him into the next presidential hero. What the Wizard did for the straw man, the tin man and the cowardly lion, the mythmakers will do for Bush. They'll give him a brain! They'll give him a heart! And they'll give him courage!

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Notes and Resources

1.  Helen Thomas, "GWB Is Worst President in American history," http://www.rense.com/general34/worst.htm

"Press Corps Doyenne Gets No Notice," http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0307-07.htm

"US Nobel Laureate Slams Bush Gov't as 'Worst' in American History," http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0729-06.htm

"Bush wins Triple Trifecta as worst president ever," http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/HL0402/S00146.htm

"Gay group calls Bush worst president ever," http://www.nyblade.com/2004/9-17/news/national/index.cfm

"The Worst President Ever," http://www.smmirror.com/volume5/issue42/the_worst_president.asp  (back)

2.  "Presidential ratings: lessons and liabilities," http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0KVD/is_1_3/ai_109025095  (back)

3.  "Presidential ratings: lessons and liabilities,"


Note: N = Total number of participants in survey

Several of the surveys do not include William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield because each served for such a short time. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey does not include William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor for this reason.

Schlesinger, Sr. (1948) [N = 55]

GREAT Lincoln, Washington, F. Roosevelt, Wilson, Jefferson, Jackson

NEAR GREAT T. Roosevelt, Cleveland, J. Adams, Polk

AVERAGE J.Q. Adams, Monroe, Hayes, Madison, Van Buren, Taft, Arthur, McKinley, A. Johnson, Hoover, B. Harrison

BELOW AVERAGE Tyler, Coolidge, Fillmore, Taylor, Buchanan, Pierce

FAILURE Grant, Harding

Schlesinger, Sr. (1962) [N = 75]

GREAT Lincoln, Washington, F. Roosevelt, Wilson, Jefferson

NEAR GREAT Jackson, T. Roosevelt, Polk, Truman, J. Adams, Cleveland

AVERAGE Madison, J.Q. Adams, Hayes, McKinley, Taft. Van Buren, Monroe, Hoover, B. Harrison, Arthur, Eisenhower, A. Johnson

BELOW AVERAGE Taylor, Tyler, Fillmore, Coolidge, Pierce, Buchanan

FAILURE Grant, Harding

Porter (1981) [N = 41]

GREAT Lincoln, Washington, F. Roosevelt, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt

NEAR GREAT Wilson, Jackson, Truman, Polk, J. Adams, L. Johnson

AVERAGE Eisenhower, Madison, Kennedy, Cleveland, McKinley, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, Van Buren, Hayes, Taft, Hoover, Carter, Arthur, B. Harrison, Ford

BELOW AVERAGE Taylor, Tyler, Fillmore, Coolidge, A. Johnson, Grant, Pierce

FAILURE Nixon, Buchanan, Harding

Chicago Tribune (1982) [N = 491]

10 BEST Lincoln, Washington, F. Roosevelt, T. Roosevelt, Jefferson, Wilson, Jackson, Truman, Eisenhower, Polk

MIDDLE RANGE McKinley, L. Johnson, Cleveland, Kennedy, J. Adams, Monroe (tie), Madison, Van Buren, J.Q. Adams, Taft, Hoover, Hayes, Ford, Arthur, B. Harrison, Taylor

10 WORST Carter, Tyler, Coolidge, A. Johnson, Fillmore, Grant, Pierce, Buchanan, Nixon, Harding

Murray-Blessing (1982) [N = 846]

GREAT Lincoln, F. Roosevelt, Washington, Jefferson

NEAR GREAT T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Jackson, Truman

ABOVE AVERAGE J. Adams, L. Johnson, Eisenhower, Polk, Kennedy, Madison, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, Cleveland

AVERAGE McKinley, Taft, Van Buren, Hoover, Hayes, Arthur, Ford, Carter, B. Harrison

BELOW AVERAGE Taylor, Tyler, Fillmore, Coolidge, Pierce

FAILURE A. Johnson, Buchanan, Nixon, Grant, Harding

Schlesinger, Jr. (1996) [N = 32]

GREAT Lincoln, Washington, F. Roosevelt

NEAR GREAT Jefferson, Jackson, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman, Polk

HIGH AVERAGE Eisenhower, J. Adams, Kennedy, Cleveland, L. Johnson, Monroe, McKinley

LOW AVERAGE Madison, J.Q. Adams, B. Harrison, Clinton, Van Buren, Taft, Hayes, Bush, Reagan, Arthur, Carter, Ford

BELOW AVERAGE Taylor, Coolidge, Fillmore, Tyler

FAILURE Pierce, Grant, Hoover, Nixon, A. Johnson, Buchanan, Harding

Intercollegiate Studies Institute (1997) [N = 38]

GREAT Washington, Lincoln

NEAR GREAT Jefferson, Jackson, Reagan, T. Roosevelt, F. Roosevelt, Eisenhower

HIGH AVERAGE J. Adams, J.Q. Adams, Cleveland, McKinley, Taft, Coolidge, Truman, Polk, Monroe

LOW AVERAGE Madison, Van Buren, Ford, B. Harrison, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Bush

BELOW AVERAGE Tyler, Fillmore, Wilson, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover

FAILURE Buchanan, Grant, Harding, L. Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Pierce, A. Johnson

C-Span Historian Survey (2000) [N = 58]

Lincoln, F. Roosevelt, Washington, T. Roosevelt, Truman, Wilson, Jefferson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, L. Johnson, Reagan, Polk, Jackson, Monroe, McKinley, J. Adams, Cleveland, Madison, J.Q. Adams, Bush, Clinton, Carter, Ford, Taft, Nixon, Hayes, Coolidge, Taylor, Garfield, Van Buren, B. Harrison, Arthur Grant, Hoover, Fillmore, Tyler, W. Harrison, Harding, Pierce, Johnson, Buchanan

C-Span Viewer Survey (2000)

Lincoln, Washington, T. Roosevelt, F. Roosevelt, Jefferson, Reagan, Truman, Eisenhower, Monroe, Madison, J. Adams, Kennedy, Wilson, Jackson, J.Q. Adams, Bush, Polk, McKinley, L. Johnson, Nixon, Cleveland, Coolidge, Ford, Taft, Taylor, Hayes, Carter, Garfield, Grant, Van Buren, B. Harrison, Tyler, Hoover, Arthur, W. Harrison, Clinton, Fillmore, A. Johnson, Pierce, Harding, Buchanan

Federalist Society/ Wall Street Journal Survey (2000) [N = 78]

GREAT Washington, Lincoln, F. Roosevelt

NEAR GREAT Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, Jackson, Truman, Reagan, Eisenhower, Polk, Wilson

ABOVE AVERAGE Cleveland, J. Adams, McKinley, Madison, Monroe, L. Johnson, Kennedy

AVERAGE Taft, J.Q. Adams, Bush, Hayes, Van Buren, Clinton, Coolidge, Arthur

BELOW AVERAGE B. Harrison, Ford, Hoover, Carter, Taylor, Grant, Nixon, Tyler, Fillmore

FAILURE A. Johnson, Pierce, Harding, Buchanan  (back)

4.  "Presidential ratings: lessons and liabilities," http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0KVD/is_1_3/ai_109025095/pg_4  (back)

5.  Charles Adams, When In the Course of Human Events, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Lanham, Maryland; 2000; 257 pages; page 39  (back)

6.  Ibid. page 77  (back)

7.  Ibid. pages 37-44, 52, 57-58  (back)

8.  Ibid. pages 46-49  (back)

9.  Ibid. page 58  (back)

10.  Ibid. pages 14-16  (back)

11.  "Population of the United States (1860)," http://www.civilwarhome.com/population1860.htm  (back)

12.  "Civil War Potpourri," http://www.civilwarhome.com/potpourr.htm  (back)

13.  "The Draft in the Civil War," http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h249.html  (back)

14.  "The Economics of the Civil War," http://www.eh.net/encyclopedia/ransom.civil.war.us.php  (back)

15.  "Inflation Conversion Factors for Dollars 1665 to Estimated 2014"
http://oregonstate.edu/dept/pol_sci/fac/sahr/sahr.htm - Conversion Factor 1860 = 0.47  (back)

16.  Adams, pages 114-116  (back)

17.  Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. New York, 1980, 1995; 675 Pages; page 186  (back)

18.  Ibid. page 187  (back)

19.  Adams; pgs 61-64; Zinn; page 233  (back)

20.  "Death For Oil," http://www.commondreams.org/views/071800-102.htm;

"AUTOPSY OF A DISASTER: THE U.S. SANCTIONS POLICY ON IRAQ," http://www.accuracy.org/iraq/  (back)

21.  "The Rational Destruction of Yugoslavia," http://www.michaelparenti.org/yugoslavia.html  (back)

22.  "Clinton Bombs Sudanese Pharmaceutical Plant," http://thereitis.org/displayarticle167.html  (back)

23.  "Ten Real Reasons to Impeach Clinton," http://www.accuracy.org/zinn/  (back)

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Published October 4, 2004
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