Cult of the leader

June 2005


Examining the un-democratic deification of dead former presidents.

When I lived in Africa, the picture of the country's president beamed from behind simple frames in every shop, even the most humble. This was not an actual law. The shop keepers felt that not displaying the picture would seem disloyal - a feeling supported by party thugs with brass knuckles and clubs. The police were less than diligent in investigating the crimes of disloyal people and the public prosecutor's calendar just never had any room to prosecute excessively loyal patriots.

For days after Reagan's death, the flags were still at half-mast. I don't recall the flags being at half-mast for a week when IKE died. My son says that people are afraid to be the first ones to stop flying the flag at half-mast. Sounds pretty damn un-American to me.

Ronald Reagan was someone you either hated or you loved. It is bad enough when people deify long dead leaders like Jefferson and Lincoln. It is ludicrous when some want to sanctify Reagan before he's been dead even a week. And please don't get me started on the subject of why he's suddenly being called "Ronald W. Reagan."

What I remember about the man was that he fired air traffic controllers for exercising their legal right to strike. He appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior -- a man who said that it was pointless to save any of our nation's natural resources for future generations and tried to sell them off to the highest bidder. His administration stole the Social Security Administration trust fund. His administration also subverted the Constitution by selling arms to people after the Congress said no -- in the United States, the executive branch is supposed to obey the legislative branch, not the other way around. He denied that it ever happened and then refused to take responsibility for it, after it was proven to have happened. For that, he deserved to be impeached.

However, regardless of the man's merits or failings, I think it is very unhealthy to make such a big deal about one man. This country is not about just the leaders. This country is about all of us, living together in a democratic union in which all men and women are created equal. It is one thing to be glad because we have been blessed with people of exceptional dedication and ability. It is quite another to whoop and holler and harangue the dizzy multitude with the unblemished saintliness of any person, living or dead. It is dangerous. It is dangerous because the people might begin to believe it.

This world is not composed of a few better, smarter, perfectly wise people... and then the rest of us. We are all equal. Our leaders are not better than we are. We are not inferior to anyone. There is only one kind of human being. I am one, you are one, Ronald Reagan was one, George W. Bush is one, and so was Alexander the Great, Shakespeare, Dorothea Dix, Stalin, Abelard, Lao Tzu, Eleanor of Acquitane, ad infinitum. We should not forget this seminal fact of democratic thought.

We should not whitewash a man or woman because he or she is dead. If one's life is going to have meaning, it will have meaning because it is understood, warts and all, for what it was. Those who loved Mr. Reagan do not do him good service by turning him into a tin saint. We adults learn much better from careful objective analysis than from fairy tales.

Put away your flags and get them out again for the fourth.

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