There are times when obvious exaggeration is nothing worse than politeness, nothing more than an expression of admiration and affection. “You’re the best boss anyone ever had,” is in this category, especially when the boss is retiring or dying. But when one is speaking in public about controversial and historical matters involving well-known public figures, the margin between excusable hyperbole and unethical dishonesty or worse is much smaller. Al Gore learned this when he played loyal Vice-President on the day his President was impeached by vote of the House of Representatives. Gore’s statement that Bill Clinton was “a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest Presidents” was intended as supportive, but interpreted as a toadying endorsement of Clinton’s unsavory and dishonest conduct, impeachable or not. It probably cost Gore the Presidency.
Worse yet was Trent Lott’s clumsy effort to praise the ancient, infirm and mentally failing Sen. Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party. Lott said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have all these problems over all these years, either.” Thurmond, running on the Dixiecrat ticket, had opposed segregation, and Lott’s comment, less fact than flattery, made him sound like he longed for the days of Jim Crow and “white only”rest rooms. The lessons of these hyperbolic gaffes are similar: if the well-intentioned compliment concerns a public figure in historical context, historical exaggerations either appear to be unjust to history or its important figures, seem to make inappropriate value judgments, or come off as a blatant effort to mislead the public.
Rahm Emanuel hit the Trifecta with his fawning farewell to President Obama, as he left the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago. Obama, he said, is “the toughest leader any country could ask for, in the toughest times any president has ever faced.”
Here’s the problem: The contention that these are “the toughest time” any President has faced is absurd. If Emanuel believes that, then he was too historically ignorant to serve as White House Chief of Staff. If he doesn’t believe it—and no one who passed high school civics could—then he is intentionally pandering to the most ignorant among the public, and lying to the rest.
Let me see: what Presidents faced as tough or tougher times? There’s Washington, of course, who had to hold a fledgling country together; Madison, who was driven out of the White House (which was burned) during the War of 1812, and nearly lost the nation to the British; and Andrew Jackson, who presided over a cultural and political upheaval, a financial crisis and threats of secession. Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan were watching the nation break into warring camps over slavery and economic issues: Congressmen were beating each other over the heads with canes, and free state citizens were intentionally foiling the national laws that protected slaveholders. Then Lincoln had to cope with that Civil War thing, which Rahm might have heard about, and which was pretty clearly “tougher” to deal with than anything that occurred in the past two years. His successor, Andrew Johnson, had to reintegrate half the nation back into the fold, while some states devoted 20% or more of their budgets to artificial limbs. His job was impossible, in fact…and it helped get him impeached. Cleveland faced a depression that was worse than the current recession, and it nearly bankrupted the Treasury.
I think most historians would agree that coping with World War I and its aftermath was as “tough” for Woodrow Wilson as the last two years have been for Obama. He also had aggressive and relentless Republican opponents to contend with, and gave himself a stroke fighting for his policies. Poor Herbert Hoover had the stock market crash to deal with in his first year in office, and subsequently had to oversee a nation dealing with unprecedented economic collapse. That was the big economic meltdown that the current mess is always described as the worst since.
Note to Rahm: that means it was tougher.
Franklin Roosevelt had to deal with the resulting Depression and the largest war the world had ever witnessed, or ever has, dance with Soviet Russia, save Europe, and fight on two fronts…all beginning with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that killed nearly as many as the September 11 bombings. Poor Obama has to cope with tougher times than those in his first two years?
Nobody believes that.
Harry Truman, of course, had to finish the war, decide what to do with the atom bomb, lead the country’s participation in the Korean War, deal with runaway strikes in many industries as the adjustment to a peacetime economy was rocky, launch the Marshall plan as the U.S. worked to stabilize Europe, and stake out our approach to the Cold War. Tough times, I’d say.
Ike had to preside over the start of the nuclear arms race, the Suez crisis, the school segregation battles in the South, plus three recessions. Then there was Joe McCarthy causing a new Red Scare. The Fifties weren’t all “Happy Days,” Rahm.
Then JFK started his administration with a botched invasion of Cuba, the Berlin Wall going up, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tougher times, I think, than now; even unemployment isn’t as bad as the threat of being nuked. President Johnson had to take over after an assassination, passed the Civil Rights Act, was caught up in the escalation of Vietnam, and had inner city race riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the Cold War too. Drove him right out of office. I’d call that tough.
Do we count the times the Presidents made tough for themselves? I would think so: tough is tough. The Watergate scandal and hearings drove Nixon to drink, they say. And he had all those campus riots, the Kent State shooting, Vietnam. Jimmy Carter’s book is out: he sure seems to think he had it tough, with an energy crisis, double-digit inflation, a recession, having to bail out Chrysler, and then Iran taking the American hostages and Carter’s failed rescue attempt. And I’d love to hear Emanuel explain how the situations George W. Bush faced, with the attacks of 9-11, the run-up to the Iraq war and the decision to undertake it, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, Abu Ghraib and then Katrina weren’t at least as tough as anything Obama has had to cope with. Because, of course, they were.
Rahm’s comment, intended to stroke Obama’s ego, nonetheless belittled the many national problems, conflicts and looming disasters faced by Obama’s predecessors, and showed him to be willing to both exploit the public’s ignorance of history and to add to it. Politico published a response to Emanuel’s hyperbole by a Rahm ally, who wrote:
“As Rahm might say, if you think the American people don’t see these times as some of the toughest our nation has ever faced, you’re dead f***ing wrong.”
Well, since the people who see it that way are themselves “dead f***ing wrong,” it is the duty of public officials like Emanuel to set them straight, not support their misconceptions with slanted history. And Rahm didn’t say “some of the toughest”—that would have been at least arguable. He said “the toughest times any president has ever faced.”
That’s a lie, not an opinion, and he knows it.