America's Early Presidents Were Admirable Men of Principle--Whereas Modern-Day Presidents Stand for Nothing
On Presidents Day, most Americans would like to celebrate the men who have been leaders of the greatest country in the world. It is a sad commentary on our times to note how far back in history we have to go to find presidents genuinely worthy of admiration.
We can admire George Washington, who rejected the opportunity to be a monarch and became the father of our republic. We can admire Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. We can admire James Madison, the father of our Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. Those presidents stood firmly for certain core American principles: individual rights, a free society, limited government. They acted, to the best of their abilities, to implement and preserve these principles.
Today, however, our leaders have distanced themselves so much from such principles that there is no one to admire. Most Americans feel little more than contempt for modern politicians, presidential and non-presidential alike. The reason is that our politicians do not stand for anything at all.
Compare the moderns with the founding fathers. The latter based their concepts of a proper system of government on a careful study of history and philosophy; the former study only opinion polls. The founding fathers asked themselves what was right; the moderns ask themselves only what is expedient--i.e., what will make them popular for the next two weeks. Modern politicians are unprincipled pragmatists, moved by their feeling of the moment and enacting whatever they hope will "work" for the range of the moment.
Most will say anything to get elected and do anything to stay in office. Their typical utterances are some combination of meaningless platitudes, promises of handouts to pressure groups--and just plain lies. They live not in a world of ideas and principles, but in a world in which they sell their souls to the highest bidder.
The most notable moral quality lacking in modern politicians is integrity. Whatever convictions they may be able, in their better moments, to articulate, are quickly abandoned at the first sign of opposition. Witness the Republican party's capitulation over the past couple of years on virtually every significant (i.e., non-Lewinsky-related) issue on which Clinton has fought them.
Their attempt to impeach Clinton is a sign, not of principled opposition, but of a narrowly focused desire to get rid of an inconvenient foe. Observe that the Republicans have offered little protest over actions by Clinton that are far worse than trying to cover up sex with an awestruck intern--such as allowing campaign contributors to buy influence in government, giving key military technology to China, or overseeing the collapse of medicine in America.
The Democrats are no role models either. As with the Republicans, nobody knows what they stand for. They were willing to defend Clinton to the death simply because he is a Democrat. The sole conviction Clinton himself appeared quite sincere about was having no convictions at all--other than the conviction that he wanted to stay in office at all costs. It was said that he wanted to be remembered as a great president, but he did not have the slightest inkling of what greatness entails. Was it pardoning criminals in his last day in office?
Greatness consists in holding rational principles and acting consistently to apply them in action. Greatness was illustrated in the founding fathers' commitment to "pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" on behalf of the principle of liberty. Is any current politician remotely capable of such a commitment?
America was established as a country of principle--a country, unlike all others, governed by a dedication to individualism. Today's politicians, however, have been taught by our educators that nothing is fixed or absolute, that there are no objective truths, that human reason is incapable of knowing anything with certainty, that everything--from the nature of reality to the meanings of "sex" and "is"--is whatever anyone wants it to be. The very idea of an unyielding principle is incomprehensible to the moderns.
If we are ever to have a modern president we can admire, it is this idea which our politicians will have to rediscover. Let us hope that President Bush can do it.
Edwin A. Locke, a professor of management at the University of Maryland at College Park, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.