Some thoughts for Presidents' Day 2004....

By Kevin Nelson

February 15, 2004

Forty-three presidents have served the United States in these past 228 years, overseers of the longest running democracy in the world.

While the Bush II Administration's "War on Terror" and its Orwellian progeny -- Patriot Acts I & II -- demand that Americans relinquish their civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and Constitution in exchange for Homeland Security, we must never forget that this country has survived a Revolutionary War, a Civil War, two World Wars, a Cold War, and half a century of CIA malfeasance, without devolving into a totalitarian state.

America's greatest presidents were keenly aware of the fragility of liberty and freedom of expression, and worked steadfastly toward their protection.

Consider how the following sentiments would be interpreted by today's media pundits, were each of these men currently campaigning for the office of the presidency. Which candidate would be endlessly derided as the "peacenik," the "America hater," the "anarchist," or the "lunatic fringe" candidate? Which candidates would be placed on terrorist watch lists?

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." -- Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to (Col.) William F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864, five months before his assasination.

"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else." -- Teddy Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star, May 7, 1918.

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." -- Abraham Lincoln.

"The high office of President has been used to foment a plot to destroy the Americans' freedom, and before I leave office I must inform the citizen of his plight." -- John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Columbia University, 10 days before his assassination, Nov. 12, 1963.

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." -- James Madison, June 16, 1788.

"Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of government. The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it." -- Woodrow Wilson.

"Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. -- Ronald Reagan, March 2, 1977.

"There is more selfishness and less principle among members of Congress ... than I had any conception of, before I became President of the United States." -- James K. Polk, December 16, 1846.

"When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we'd been saying they were." -- John F. Kennedy.

"The best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation." -- James E. Carter.

"There is nothing wrong in America that can't be fixed with what is right in America." -- William Clinton.

"The goal to strive for is a poor government but a rich people." -- Andrew Johnson.

"The more I study it [the Constitution], the more I have come to admire it, realizing that no other document devised by the hand of man ever brought so much progress and happiness to humanity." -- Calvin Coolidge, 1929.

"We Americans have no commission from God to police the world." -- Benjamin Harrison.

"The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." -- George Washington, Treaty of Tripoli, 1796.

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." -- Thomas Jefferson, February 10, 1814.

"War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed." -- William McKinley, March 4, 1897.

"He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions." -- Thomas Jefferson, August 19, 1785.

"Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear." -- Harry S. Truman.

"To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed." -- Teddy Roosevelt, December 3, 1907.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 4, 1933.

"In the field of world policy; I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor." -- FDR, March 4, 1933.

"I will never apologize for the United States of America -- I don't care what the facts are." -- George Bush, Newsweek, August 15, 1989. (Commenting on the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the U.S. warship Vincennes, killing 290 civilian passengers.)

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, in a final sense, [is] a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." -- Dwight Eisenhower, April 16, 1953.

"Evil acts of the past are never rectified by evil acts of the present." -- Lyndon B. Johnson, July 21, 1964.

"Peace is more than just the absence of war. True peace is justice, true peace is freedom. And true peace dictates the recognition of human rights." -- Ronald Reagan, September 22, 1986.

"Depends on what your definition of is is." -- Bill Clinton, August 17, 1998.

"Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president but they don't want them to become politicians in the process." -- John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

"You know I could run for governor but I'm basically a media creation. I've never done anything. I've worked for my dad. I worked in the oil business. But that's not the kind of profile you have to have to get elected to public office." -- George W. Bush, 1989.

"I don't know whether I'm going to win or not. I think I am. I do know I'm ready for the job. And, if not, that's just the way it goes." -- George W. Bush, Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 21, 2000.

"I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves." -- George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Sept. 21, 2003.

"If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier -- so long as I'm the dictator." -- George W. Bush, Dec. 19, 2000.

Honorable Mention: Scottish jurist and historian, Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813) summed up the natural progression of self-governance thusly: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage."

--Kevin Nelson is editor of the weekly column Drug War Briefs, which appears on AlterNet.