Feb. 20, 2012
A British reviewer of a history book I researched fairly sneered at my authors admiration for past American presidents. Just go to Mount Rushmore, he mocked, and youll save the effort of reading it.
Challenge accepted! South Dakotas Mount Rushmore is a tribute to four outstanding American leaders: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. These were four distinguished Americans whom our Great Republic (Churchills description of us) chose to elevate to the pinnacle of power and authority. Admiring Britains storied past as I doexcept, of course, for the tyrannical King George IIII would ask my British friend if any nation on earth has been so blessed with great leaders as America has. For Britain, the list of great leaders might include Gladstone and Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher. But, under their parliamentary system, the voters chose the parties and the parties chose the Prime Ministers.
I sincerely believe our fathers chose well in the 1930s honoring the four presidents of Mount Rushmore. With apologies to the Beatles, I call Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and TR the Fab Four. But I would go further. I believe we could confidently choose four more presidents for a Mount Rushmore II.
My list of chief executives to honor since TR would include, as it must, his cousin Franklin. Critical as we must be of many aspects of FDRs New Deal, and mindful of his troubles in dealing with Stalin during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt was nonetheless the dominant political figure of the first half of the twentieth century. In ending World War II, FDR applied th lessons cousin Theodore taught about ending the first World War.Invade Germany, demand unconditional surrender, try the German ruling elite for war crimes, de-Nazify it, but welcome the German people back into the fold of the West.FDRs personal qualities of courage, optimism, and resilience are surely traceable to his faith. My father is a deeply religious man, his son told Winston Churchill when the leaders first met. These qualities admirably equipped FDR to lead a nation crippled by depression and through the crucible of world war.
Harry Truman surely deserves a place on Rushmore II. Truman came into office suddenly on FDRs death. He had been vice president less than 90 days. He had to meet Stalin at Potsdam and press him to keep his Yalta agreements. As a faithful ally, he informed Stalin in general terms of the existence of the atomic bomb. Stalin, whose spies kept him well informed, wished Harry success in using it. That decision was critical. Since the 1960s, leftists here and abroad have been trying to indict Truman for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. But in recent scholarship from Dr. Wilson Miscamble of the University of Notre Dame, and others, we know that Trumans decision doubtless saved the tens of thousands of allied POWs who were threatened by a kill all order of Japans military. For the Truman Doctrine, which saved Greece and Turkey from Communist subversion, for the Marshall Plan and NATO, for issuing the order to de-segregate the U.S. military and for recognizing Israel in 1948, Truman earned his place.
Dwight D. Eisenhower attained greatness the old fashioned way: he earned it. Son of an impoverished family, he graduated from West Point and rose to be a five-star general. He won the allied victory in Western Europe and became the first military chief of NATO. Elected president in a landslide, he worked behind the scenes to end racial segregation, all the while bringing Americans together. After concluding a durable truce in Korea that preserved South Koreas freedom, he never lost another American in combat. He lost no territory to the Communists. Ikes Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway transformed America and put us on the path to be a military and industrial superpower. Eisenhower built a nuclear navy but resisted panic in the wake of the Soviets sputnik moment.
My final nominee, of course, is Ronald Reagan, the greatest president of my lifetime and the man I was so proud to serve. Reagan overcame moderate Republicans, liberal Democrats, a hostile media, a skeptical academy, and a sluggish bureaucracy to change the world. He faced down an Evil Empire by stressing U.S. resolve, rearmament, and American exceptionalism. Reagan defended human life in the womb and human lives at risk from Communist brutality. He lowered taxes and eliminated thousands of unnecessary federal regulations. The boom his policies spurred lasted until 2008. He saw America as a Shining City on a Hill. Reagan formed a heroic bond with the American people. When liberals groused about naming Washingtons National Airport for Reagan, we conservatives responded: If Bill Clinton had done so much, youd be demanding we re-name the country for him.
We the People chose these great men to be our presidents. Even though Washington and Eisenhower were military heroes, they had to appeal to the people for support. Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt might have qualified as aristocrats, but it was the American voters who elevated them.
Under each of these great American leaders, we were citizens, not subjects. Nearly two years ago, the National Archives announced with some fanfare that they had uncovered an earlier draft of Thomas Jeffersons Declaration of Independence. In it, Mr. Jefferson had crossed out the word subjects and penned in citizens. It was, the archivists told us, the first time we thought of ourselves as citizens.
Constitutional self-government has never been in greater danger. Unless Americans today awaken to our peril, we will find we are subjects once again, taught to believe that it is only in government that we and move and breathe and have our being.