America’s Best Presidents

There was no Presidents Day in my younger years. Instead, February stood out as the month we celebrated, separately, the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

I have no problem with a day that seeks to honor all those who have served as president, but there are some who certainly don’t deserve as much honor as others (I won’t name names) and the fusion of all presidents into one day has diminished the special occasions of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, so that, in my view, is another downside to the change.

As a historian who comes at politics and government from a Biblical and conservative perspective, some presidents rise above others in my admiration. Four, in particular, rise to the top for me. Let me identify them and explain why I esteem them above all the others.

George Washington

This is the man who was indispensable to the Founding of the nation. I don’t use the word “indispensable” lightly. Washington’s roles as head of the military during the American Revolution and as the first president were the glue that held us together. No one else during that era commanded the same respect as he did.

The Constitutional Convention was given greater legitimacy through his attendance as president of the convention, and the expectation that he would take on the responsibilities of the presidency calmed the country as it sought stability.

Washington’s character was his hallmark; he demanded integrity from himself as much as from others. He suffered through those long years of war, holding a ragtag army together when the Congress couldn’t figure out how to supply and pay the soldiers.

When, at the end of that war, Congress faced a potential mutiny of the officers, it was Washington who defused the mutiny with the force of his character. Respect for their commander who had shared their sufferings kept the nation from starting out with a military coup.

When the war ended, he resigned his commission and went home, confounding King George III, who couldn’t conceive of anyone voluntarily setting aside the kind of power and authority Washington had attained. He rebuked those of his followers who urged him to proclaim himself king of America.

He also stepped down from the presidency after two terms, even though the Constitution at that time didn’t require it, thus setting a precedent for all who followed after.

So, yes, I believe George Washington deserves special honor on this day.

Abraham Lincoln

There are still people today who grate at the name of Lincoln, believing he was a tyrant during the Civil War. Research into his character and actions overall, though, put the lie to that perception.

Lincoln was devoted to the Constitution and was a keen student of American history and government. All one has to do is read his Cooper Institute speech prior to his presidency to see how he amassed a ton of information on the views of the Founding Fathers as the basis for his political positions. And no one can escape his devotion to the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln was one of the greatest of presidential wordsmiths; he crafted his speeches carefully in the hope of showcasing the principles that lay at the foundation of the nation. His Gettysburg Address and his inaugurals, particularly the Second Inaugural, are testaments to the heart of the man, as he wove Biblical charity and forgiveness into the texts for all to remember.

The Civil War was the greatest crisis the nation has ever faced, and Lincoln had to deal with issues no president before or since has had to handle. If this was the ultimate on-the-job training, he came through magnificently.

The tragedy of his death is that he was only beginning to embark on the path of a peaceful, forgiving reconstruction of the country. Without him, that path became much rockier.

Through the loss of two sons to early deaths and the burdens of a great war, Lincoln was compelled to draw closer to God. I believe, in the end, he rediscovered his Christian faith. He richly deserves the honor so many have bestowed upon him.

Calvin Coolidge

Some will be surprised by the inclusion of Coolidge in my list of most honorable presidents. Liberal historians disparage the man they say did nothing in his presidency. They promote the idea that because he was a man of few words that he was insignificant. Well, wordy people are not always the significant ones; those who use caution in what they say may be far wiser.

Coolidge, as vice president, found himself thrust into the presidency by the death of Warren Harding in 1923. It was not an easy task to ascend to the office at that point because scandals in the Harding administration were just beginning to bubble to the surface.

Upon hearing of Harding’s death, the first thing Coolidge did was to take his wife’s hand and kneel with her by the bed to pray for guidance and the wisdom to take up the challenges set before him.

Coolidge, because of his basic integrity, made sure all investigations of those scandals proceeded accordingly. People who had been in the Harding administration went to prison. He offered no favors to them, no pardons.

The 1920s were a boom time economically for the country. Coolidge’s low-tax and reduced-regulation policies helped spur innovation and prosperity. He was in no way to blame for the later Great Depression. The prosperity of the 1920s was genuine.

He won election in his own right in 1924, and undoubtedly would have won again in 1928, but he voluntarily relinquished the power of the presidency in the same spirit as Washington. In his memoir, Coolidge explained why he chose to step down, and I find it one of the wisest statements ever made by a president:

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

Character meant more to Coolidge than power. For that reason alone, he deserves our respect and honor.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan as one of my top presidents should surprise no one. After all, I’ve written a book about him. He won the presidency at one of the lowest points in the history of that office. Post-Vietnam, posts-Watergate, post-Carter, the nation was in the doldrums. Reagan, with his sunny disposition, helped restore optimism. And his policies—tax cuts, deregulation, and the rebuilding of the military—inspired new confidence in the nation’s future.

Couple all of that with his solid defense of liberty and firm belief that communism was destined for the ash heap of history, and we witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and new hope for freedom.

Reagan’s Christian faith was real; I interviewed his former pastor and left that interview with confirmation of that fact. Reagan believed God had a purpose for America and that this country, despite some of its missteps over time, remained the beacon for freedom in the world.

Reagan’s humility stands out above all else in his character. He never took credit for the economic upsurge in the 1980s; he said it was the result of the hard work and faith of the people. When he received the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he wrote one final address to the American people. The last paragraph states,

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Even in that address, it wasn’t really about him—it was about America. His humility was his strength. Ronald Reagan deserves our gratitude and should be honored for what he brought to the Oval Office.

There are other presidents who served admirably, but, in my view, Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, and Reagan are the four best in American history. Let’s remember them today.

The Left Going Crazy, Trump Being Trump

Watching the cultural/political Left go crazy the past few weeks should be instructive to many Americans. Although there’s nothing really surprising about the “progressive” reaction to Trump’s presidency, their out-of-control rage, whining, and actual destruction of property offers a valuable lesson about the dangers of Totalitarian Leftism.

The University of California Berkeley retains an iconic status in the minds of those on the Left. They believe it is the place where free speech was born in the 1960s. That image is imaginary. Free speech existed long before the presumed free speech movement at Berkeley.

Recently, Berkeley is again in the news as riots have broken out on campus, complete with attacks on local businesses. No one is allowed to have a different idea at Berkeley; genuine free speech is a rarity on many American campuses—all in the name of tolerance.

As a university professor myself, I think I can assign a grade:

Conservative voices are either silenced or harassed in many of our cultural venues. Calm, reasoned debate no longer is the norm; emotions rule all too often:

Stakeholders on the Left are all upset that a woman who fervently believes children need better educational options is now confirmed as the new secretary of education. Apparently, working for school choice (I thought the Left loved “choice”) and donating tons of personal funds toward helping children get the education they need is now a disqualification for being the education secretary. Their reaction has become typical:

And of course there are all the organized and funded protests over a travel executive order that has been characterized undeservedly as a “Muslim ban.” Never mind that it was in accordance with previous legislation and similar to what other presidents have done; rationality and constitutionality are not part of the Left’s thought process anymore.

The real problem with that particular EO was the way Trump handled it and how it was applied to people who should not have been targeted. What Trump should have done is make a short address to the American people about what he was going to do and explain the precise nature of the order ahead of time, thereby short-circuiting some of the hysteria that erupted.

Instead, he just dumped it out there without sufficient explanation. That’s one of Trump’s ongoing problems. He just does things and doesn’t take into account the possible reaction.

He also continues to have a brain-to-mouth issue. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, when asked about Putin, whom O’Reilly correctly called a killer, Trump came back with the quip that the US has done its share of killing as well.

That came across as Trump proclaiming a moral equivalency between an increasingly totalitarian Russia and the US. Putin finds ways to create suspicious deaths for those who criticize him; when has that been US policy?

Trump continues to harbor admiration for Putin and other strong dictators, and he somehow seems to think that America has been just as bad as other nations in how its citizens have been treated. Tell that to the 7 million Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin. Explain how the persecution and executions of Christians in communist countries compares favorably with how we treat our people.

This moral equivalence argument is fantasy land, and Trump needs to disavow it immediately. It reverses the realistic view that Reagan brought to policy in his day.

Donald Trump remains his own worst enemy. If he wishes to succeed as president, it’s going to take more than bluster and insults toward those who disagree with him. He’s going to have to learn some statesmanship. Will his basic character allow this?

The Confirmation Circus

Confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees have become quite a circus. It was to be expected, unfortunately. I remember when Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was putting forth his agenda a few years ago. Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature ran away to Illinois so there wouldn’t be a quorum to conduct business. Senate Democrats seem to be copying that strategy, refusing to show up to vote on whether to send nominees to the full Senate.

It’s a tried and true method used by toddlers, angry juveniles, and immature people everywhere.

Republicans had to alter the rules even to get the nominees out of committee. Perhaps it’s the only way to deal with temper tantrums.

In the Democrats’ crosshairs now is Betsy DeVos, slated to be the new education secretary. Since she’s an advocate for private schooling, the teachers’ unions are up in arms. They’ve been busy consolidating their support with the Democrats:

I’m always amused by cries of “influence” when aimed at various conservative groups who donate to Republicans. The National Education Association (NEA) and its allies practically own Democrats; they have more money to throw around than all conservative groups combined.

Soon we’ll be treated with the confirmation hearing for Neil Gorsuch, chosen to take Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. The circus will continue. Over a decade ago, Gorsuch received a unanimous vote for his current judicial position. That’s history.

I trust Gorsuch is prepared for what he is about to experience:

Will Republicans have to turn to what is called the “nuclear option,” not allowing a filibuster on the nomination?

What a shame that this scenario has turned into an unbridgeable political divide. Democrats have become unhinged over these nominees, using their outrage to raise even more funding for their theatrics.

I know that theatrics have played a role throughout American political history, but I don’t believe we’ve ever witnessed the kind of role-playing that has come to the forefront ever since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, at least not on such a sustained basis. We are a nation that is verging on a complete cultural and political division not seen since the Civil War.

What will be the result?

Obama’s Self-Congratulatory Farewell

Two more days and Barack Obama will no longer be president. On his way out, he’s doing his best to make sure he’s not forgotten. He just commuted the sentence of Bradley/Chelsea (take your pick) Manning, the former army intelligence officer who leaked sensitive intel back in 2010. Obama also shortened the sentences of 209 other convicts and fully pardoned another 64. No president has ever overturned as many sentences as Obama has done in his eight years.

Some of those might have been good decisions, but based on his overall record these past eight years, his basic worldview, and his radical political beliefs, I can say with some sense of assurance that most were not people I would have pardoned if given the choice.

The presidential farewell address has become a tradition of late. Ronald Reagan’s was one of the most eloquent. I encourage you to find that one on YouTube and watch a real president who had quiet dignity and humility.

Then there’s Obama. He had to go out with a flair, speaking to a huge crowd of adoring fans in his home city of Chicago. It was not a farewell address in the sense of others like Reagan’s; rather, it was another campaign rally, focused on defending his actions. In other words, it was no different than all of his other speeches.

It left out some things that he didn’t really want to mention:

More than one cartoonist picked up on that theme:

He seems to believe he has made America better during his tenure. Most of America, though—the America outside of academia and the entertainment industry—has a different perspective:

Yet the Democrats will never see it that way. Their view of Obamaworld has a distinct hue:

They are going to have to come to terms with the arrival of a new president. What will he bring? Can we have confidence in him? On inauguration day, I will offer my thoughts on those questions.

Fake News Is Not New News

Everyone is now decrying “fake news.” As if it’s a new phenomenon. I’m a historian; I can testify that fake news is nothing new.

Three decades ago, while working on my doctorate, I was immersed in fake news—from the 1790s. Newspapers of the era were sponsored by either Federalists or the Democrat-Republicans. The “news” in some of those papers was sometimes pure speculation, often made up just to undermine the political opposition. My subject of study was Noah Webster, who was editor of a New York City newspaper at the time. He stood out as one of the few who refused to succumb to the fake news temptation.

Read all the commentary on Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, then tell me that fake news has only popped up in the last campaign. I recall scurrilous stories about Ronald Reagan when he took office. He supposedly hated minorities; he sought to throw old people out in the streets; Nancy was taking taxpayer money to buy china for the White House (that’s “china” as in plates, not the country).

I hate to be the one to break this “news”—human beings lie, cheat, and slander other human beings all the time. It’s something called sin.

The latest example, apparently, is the report of a dossier about Russia that purports to show Donald Trump is pretty much owned by the Russians. Beyond that, there were hints of sexual improprieties. Those were only hints until a liberal organization called Buzzfeed decided to open the sewer.

Is everything in this dossier untrue? We don’t know. Is anything true? We don’t know. Why? Nothing has been substantiated. It was unethical in the extreme for Buzzfeed to feed the controversy without proof of the allegations.

Unfortunately for Trump, he has not done himself any favors by seeming to be almost buddy-buddy with Putin. He has made a number of statements that show admiration for the Russian dictator. He is the one who has created that impression, so if it’s not really how he feels, he needs to correct that impression as soon as possible:

Maybe Putin can do his part to help:

There also has been pushback against Trump in the arts. Some performance artists have decided to use the liberty this country provides to decline to perform at Trump’s inauguration (it’s a good thing they aren’t Christian bakers or photographers, for whom that liberty doesn’t exist). Well, who needs them? I’m sure Trump’s people can find substitutes:

Meryl Streep, at the Golden Globes, where Hollywood pats itself on the back each year, gave a short speech that, while not mentioning Trump by name, made it clear that she had contempt for him. Hollywood wants to think it is somehow the conscience of the nation.

Streep didn’t say anything unusual; these award ceremonies are always politically liberal. It’s just expected. Yet because Trump is going to be the president with the thinnest skin since Andrew Jackson, he couldn’t help himself—he had to immediately tweet that Streep is an “overrated” actress.

Now, while I disagree with everything Streep said, there is no way she is an overrated actress. When I know Streep is in a film, I know at least one thing about that film: the character she portrays will be handled wonderfully. She is an excellent actress.

Trump continues to hit back at anyone who insults him. Streep is only the latest in a long line of individuals and/or organizations to be called overrated, losers, etc. What if even the pope were to give him advice he doesn’t like, advice he considered insulting?

Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.

Healthcare & the Constitution

America is counting down the days remaining in the Obama administration. What more damage can he do in the next two weeks? Well, keep in mind he’s been able to accomplish quite a bit during his tenure and he doesn’t show any signs of letting up. Let’s summarize:

The first target for Republicans will be Obamacare. Obama himself continues to act as if it’s doing just fine. The reality is somewhat different:

Democrats in the Congress are trying to rally the troops to defend the centerpiece of Obama’s vision, but their hope may be illusory:

They are going with the old tried-and-true strategy that they have used on every Republican from Ronald Reagan to the present day:

I remember back in the 1980s when Democrats sought to convince the public that Reagan was going to throw old people out on the streets to die. Not that long ago, Paul Ryan was pictured as pushing an old woman in a wheelchair over a cliff. Perhaps this time the public will tire of that overused and thoroughly dishonest tactic.

So Republicans have the knives out to remove Obamacare from the public life, but there is not unanimity in the ranks over how to do it, whether anything is worth keeping, or how to replace it.

My solution for this is not a popular one. How about going back to the Constitution and reading it one more time? If we do so, we will see that there is no authority in that document for the federal government to legislate on healthcare whatsoever. Why not allow the market to work and then let states deal legislatively with anything that needs correction?

I understand the politics, all the accusations that Republicans would have to face if they followed my advice, but that would be the constitutional thing to do. Unfortunately, constitutionalism won’t even be considered.

The nation has become so dependent on federal outlays and policy from on high that it will take a massive re-educational effort to change that outlook.

Democrats can always play on that and promise the world, while those few Republicans who do take the Constitution seriously seem to have the more difficult task explaining why the government should be kept out of this.

Even though this last election is being portrayed as a rejection of government interference, far too many people have become, in the insightful words of C. S. Lewis, “willing slaves of the welfare state.” They want what is “theirs” from the government.

And Democrats are always on the lookout for creating more government dependence:

Have we really learned our lesson as a nation? Will principles ever make a comeback?

Those Closest to Trump

Last week, I gave an overview of some of Trump’s picks for his cabinet, both the solid ones and ones I consider questionable. I omitted a few (hard to cover them all), but I should mention in passing the choice of Rick Perry for energy secretary (very good) and Elaine Chao for the Department of Transportation.

There are mixed reviews on Chao: she served as secretary of labor previously, where some said she did very well, but there is criticism that choosing the wife of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not exactly a prime example for the drain-the-swamp battle cry.

Many Trump supporters have high hopes for what he will accomplish, for sure:

That would be nice, but I’ll wait to see what kind of results we get.

Some of the jobs closest to Trump don’t require Senate confirmation. They tell you the most about who Trump trusts.

First on that list would be Stephen Bannon, formerly of the Breitbart website. All kinds of opinions have been offered about Bannon. My view of him is somewhere in between those who view him as the devil incarnate and those who see him as the policy savior.

With the lofty title of chief strategist, Bannon will apparently be responsible for guiding Trump in his decisions on what policies to push for and how to get the job done. Bannon is hard-driving, which can be good for such a position, but he also can alienate people very quickly.

My first acquaintance with Bannon was positive. He was one the writers/producers of a video that I use in my course on Ronald Reagan and modern American conservatism.

That video, In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, details Reagan’s decades-long fight against communism and the strategy he used to take down the Soviet Union. It is a powerful video, one that offers a clear corrective to the liberal interpretation of events that led to the Soviet downfall.

The quality of the video is outstanding, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has not yet seen it.

Bannon’s latest position at Breitbart, though, gives me pause. I don’t accept the cry of “racist” that some would level at him. I am concerned, though, that he allowed that site to be a provocative place where the so-called “alt-right” felt comfortable. I want nothing to do with them, as they are far too close to neo-nazism for me.

Bannon is no racist or Nazi, but when you play footsie with those who are, you tarnish yourself. Just so you know, I used to be a contributor to Breitbart’s Big Government site, so I have no axe to grind here. During the election, though, I stopped reading anything from Breitbart, as I saw it devolve into a Trump propaganda mouthpiece, willing to smear other candidates in its devotion to Trump.

I’m definitely wait-and-see with Bannon.

Another controversial appointment is former general Mike Flynn to serve as Trump’s national security advisor. I’ve watched Flynn being interviewed on news programs, and again, I’m a little torn.

Flynn’s positive is that he understands the Islamist threat. His negatives are that he is potentially too emotional, too open to conspiracy theories (like his boss), and perhaps far too friendly to Russia, which I continue to see as a threat to our national security, not an ally.

As with all of Trump’s questionable choices, I simply hope and pray for the best.

Finally, there is the very first decision on personnel that Trump made: installing Reince Priebus as his chief of staff. That decision was probably wise, as Trump needs someone who can work well with the Republican party overall.

Priebus, as chair of the Republican National Committee over the past years, has shown himself to be someone who can navigate the perils of politics. I’ve not always been a big fan of his, especially when he seemed to jump on Trump’s train much too soon and shut down any opposition to Trump at the national convention.

Yet if Trump is to succeed working with the party he so recently joined, he needs someone like Priebus to act as a guide.

I believe I’ve covered most of the key players in the upcoming Trump presidency. I hope the good ones can have a positive influence on him and his policies; I hope the questionable ones are either denied confirmation or will not detract too much from what this administration needs to be to reverse the political course of the nation.

Let me add this, though: reversing the political course is not enough; it’s the spiritual/moral foundation that is in need of the greatest repair, and that will never come through politics. Christian influence on the culture remains the top priority.