While historians continue to be divided among the factual and the apocryphal, at the conclusion of the American Revolution, so the legend goes, George Washington was confronted by a movement within the Continental Army to declare him king. According to the story, a major proponent of the plan was Col. Lewis Nicola, a Frenchman who had fought under Washington alongside the colonists. The proposal was supported by a group of influential Army officers who evidently had little understanding of the man who had just led them to victory. When Nicola put forth the idea for Washington’s consideration, he received an immediate response laced with scorn and revulsion: “Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your country, concern for yourself or for posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind and never communicate, as from yourself or any one else, a sentiment of like nature.”
Thus did the nation’s most revered Founding Father set the country on a democratic course that would explicitly reject the cult of personality. The ensuing centuries would produce dozens of American statesmen and scoundrels with unique qualities and defects that would capture the country’s attention and occasionally even its collective imagination, from presidents like Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK and Reagan, to demagogues like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy. But unlike Argentina’s enthrallment with Juan and Eva Peron as well as numerous other examples in South America, Europe and the Far East, America has never succumbed to the cult of personality by surrendering its liberties to any movement based on a pledge of unquestioned devotion and loyalty to the will of a single individual.
Perhaps for the first time in our history since Washington, the nation’s present leader has come to power through the cult of personality, except this time he appears to welcome and encourage the movement surrounding him rather than reject it, as Washington did, in the interests of democracy. Barack Obama ran a campaign largely based on personal charisma as well as the promise of “change.” As with most personality cults, he found a receptive audience among a restive electorate generally dissatisfied, if not disgusted, with the outgoing administration on many counts, including already out-of-control government spending and two wars that appeared to be going nowhere. The economy had already begun to crumble under the weight of a growing financial crisis. These were nearly perfect conditions for candidate Obama to seemingly parachute into the fray out of nowhere, armed with a studied “cool” demeanor, a genuine gift for eloquence, and a powerful ally in the news media that followed him with an unprecedented fawning obsequiousness that gave him a free pass on crucial issues such as legislative experience, personal judgment, and character.
Thus it is actually less remarkable than it seems that a very junior and untested politician, distinguished by nothing other than the most liberal voting record in the Senate during his very brief tenure, managed to get elected, tripping up a battle-hardened, doggedly determined Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and rocketing past a passé and enervated John McCain in the general election. It was a campaign run with a paucity of substance, relying instead on vague slogans and promises, fueled largely by the candidate’s personal charm and verbal genius. A news media awash in moral rectitude over the county’s ability to depart from its racist history and elect its first black president sealed the deal.
Encouraged by a huge victory based on an attractive but empty message, it should be no surprise that Mr. Obama, in his first six months, has embarked on a course apparently unencumbered by political comity, legal niceties, or fundamental fairness. That accounts for a number of unprecedented administration moves including ramming through vast expenditures of money for “stimulus” and bank bailouts; sinking tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into failing car companies largely as a political payback to unions; waving aside traditional bankruptcy principles and contract law, thereby impoverishing secured bondholders, again for the purpose of delivering to the unions; attempting to rush through a thousand-page healthcare “reform” monstrosity that runs contrary to the wishes of millions of Americans who do not want the government meddling in their personal health choices; endorsing the demonization of citizens who appear at public meetings to exercise their right to disagree with the mammoth expansion of government influence; enabling a thoroughly politicized Department of Justice to conduct a witch hunt among public servants who acted to protect the country during a time of maximum distress and vulnerability, thereby exposing America to future terrorists attacks and bloodshed; and conducting a foreign policy based on apologizing for American’s supposed transgressions while “reaching out” to dictators, despots, and murderers in a blatant effort to appease them.
Having pulled off much of this extra-legal program nearly unimpeded, and thus convinced of the force of his personality and will, the president has proceeded to surround himself with a shadow government largely outside the purview of Congress or the public at large. This shadow government consists of literally several dozen appropriately-dubbed czars and czarinas who allegedly perform “duties” already amply covered by the various cabinet-level departments of government. They consist of a widely varied assortment, from bona fide experienced officials like Dennis Ross, a long-time Mideast diplomat, to numerous blatant political contribution paybacks, as well as ultra left-wing venom-spewers like “green jobs” czar Van Jones, a dedicated and openly-avowed racial instigator and socialist. It is, indeed, an eclectic collection, immune from congressional vetting and confirmation, and largely out of the public’s sight.
In other countries and cultures, “strongmen” surround themselves with such individuals. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez come to mind, both of whom are high on the list of Obama’s “reach out and express contrition” list. And one should not forget the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, on whose behalf the Obama administration is pressuring the legal institutions of Honduras, which have acted according to that country’s constitution and the wishes of its people, to welcome this power-hungry despot back with open arms.
The conventional wisdom, even among a media throng that remains large supportive of the president and his now patently socialist agenda, is that the administration’s radical legislative initiative might unravel as the result of the significant public turbulence over the healthcare bill and its “public option.” That view is somewhat simplistic and omits an important component of the present American public/Obama administration dynamic. Healthcare, of course, is a critically substantive issue in which the vast majority of Americans have an acute interest. Substance, of course, was never the strong suit of the Obama operation, either in its candidacy phase or in its present administrative form. That the public should become disenchanted with genuine policy positions, then, whether they involve healthcare, the economy, taxes, deficit spending, or the general role of government, is hardly shocking. It may simply be a case of voters beginning to discover that the governing agenda of the candidate they elected does not align with their own interests and values.
The far more telling event that perhaps represents a growing rift between the president and his fellow citizens occurred just this week, and it was an episode that had nothing to do with legislative initiatives or public policies to which voters might object. Instead, it was an effort by the president that seemed to strike a nerve among a populace imbued with a historical rejection of the cult of personality. Thus, what has normally been an almost controversy-free tradition of a president addressing school children on their fall return has turned into the latest White House misadventure. Parents have raised objections all over the country, and many, if not most, local school boards are making attendance optional. The strongest objections, of course, are in largely Republican strongholds, where many districts have decided to not air his message at all. But an ambivalent, if not unreceptive response, is taking place nationally.
It is testimony to the growing general distrust of the president—on a personal rather than political basis—that many parents have viewed his speech as an effort to indoctrinate children with his radical thinking. The president did not help his case by suggesting to teachers that they formulate lesson plans in which students would be assigned to write letters to themselves on what they can do to “help the president.” This only added fuel to the fire of parents’ suspicions that the speech was nothing more than a thinly-veiled effort to gently nudge children into the cult of Obama. One parent on a nationally-televised news program asked why she should give access to her school-aged child to “someone I don’t trust.”
Putting aside all of the partisan conflicts and controversy over a host of legislative issues, the American public—on its own and away from Congress—is beginning to display a decided distrust of a politician who based his candidacy—and now his presidency—on a personality cult.