“On this side of the law
On that side of the law
Who is weak? Who is wrong?
Who is for and who’s against… the law”
Were We Unfair to the Oregon Protesters?
We return our attention to the freedom fighters holed up on the high plains… and their standoff with the law in a federal bird sanctuary in Oregon.
On the plains of Oregon…
Photo credit: Nancy & Steve Ross
We have been reading our mailbag with interest and unease. Readers are upset with our thoughts on the protest leaders, the Bundys, and their takeover of a public park in Oregon. We’re not surprised. We weren’t happy with our thoughts either. We reread it three times.
There was something wrong with it. The tone? The emphasis? The substance? We couldn’t figure out what was the matter (and not merely that Burns is on the east side, not the west side, of the Cascades, as some readers rightly pointed out.)
Were we being unfair to the cowboys? Was this really just a case of naïve yahoos challenging a minor outpost of the Deep State?
The Right to Be Wrong
As long-time Diary sufferers know, we cherish the right to be wrong like a moonshiner cherishes his still. We’d be out of business without it. Most of the reader feedback tells us how the feds have run roughshod over the prairies of the West… and how the Bundys are patriots for standing up to them.
Perhaps we should have doffed our cap. Are they not heroes – the Ed Snowdens of Oregon? The Bravehearts of Sage? The Parnells of the Prairie? Should we not say a prayer and wish them well, rather than ridiculing them?
Like the magician in the movie Closely Watched Trains, the Bundys bravely stand before a column of Wehrmacht tanks… and command them to stop. “And they did stop,” recounts the magician’s son, “for a few seconds.”
Facing Down a Tank
There is something romantically, sentimentally attractive about facing down a tank. As friend to underdog and halfwit, we admire those who do it. But as a weathered observer and hard-boiled cynic, we wonder: Do these heroes have a hope or a clue? Do they know who is right and who is wrong? On which side of the law do they fall?
The world would be a less entertaining place without them but not necessarily a better place because of them. “If you set out to take Vienna,” said Napoleon, “take Vienna.”
We doubt the Bundys will take Vienna. Most who try – like Bonaparte himself – would probably be better off staying at home. We’ll try to answer these questions in more depth another time… Since this is Friday, we reach into the archives for more on the subject of heroes, patriots, and our favorite U.S. president.
America’s Best and Brightest
[ed. note: originally published March 25, 2005]
The benefit of royalty is that they are as variable as the gene pool. One king has a long nose, like Louis IX. Another has a pert, little snoze that turns up and makes him look boyish even when he’s commanding executioners.
Occasionally, subjects of a kingdom get a rotten monarch who cannot leave well enough alone… and occasionally they get a bonnie prince and good king who spends his time dallying with courtesans and leaves his countrymen in peace.
Even a bad king, like Charles I, was better than a self-righteous hustler, such as Oliver Cromwell, who cut his head off. As long as Cromwell lived, Britain knew no peace; after he was gone, the country gratefully and eagerly brought back another Charles, dusted him off, and put him back on the throne.
Self-anointed “Lord Protector”, the puritan hustler and busybody Oliver Cromwell, as portrayed by Robert Walker circa 1649. He has been named “one of the greatest 10 Britons of all time”, which should tell you all you need to know. British Catholics fell prey to his genocidal urges, he invaded Ireland in an extremely brutal campaign marked by several memorable massacres, then he invaded Scotland and Scottish soldiers that weren’t killed in battle or by disease in prison camps were sent off as indentured laborers (read: slaves) to the colonies. Then he established a military dictatorship in the UK and imposed his personal view of morals on the public, taking most of the fun out of life. A “great Briton” indeed.
Cromwell was more like a modern president: a leader by intention and design, rather than by dumb luck. This made him immeasurably less suited to lead, in our opinion, because he was full of foolish ideas and ruinous plans – like Woodrow Wilson or Franklin.
Having no royalty, Americans have only their elected presidents to bow before. Too bad they always seem to choose the wrong ones. An honest and upright man has no place in national politics. A man with his wits about him is too modest for the role. He suffers greatness as a sort of hypocrisy.
He has no better idea of how the nation should be led than anyone else – and he knows it. Dissembling wears him down until he is shouldered out of the way by bolder liars and abject stone-heads.
The former will say whatever the voters want to hear – and then go on with disastrous projects. The latter have no plans or fixed ideas of any sort… They merely shake hands and blabber whatever cockamamie nonsense comes into their heads.
The former never make good presidents. The latter often do.
Many of the best U.S. presidents – Garfield, Harding, and Arthur – are rarely even mentioned. Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, on the other hand, are routinely described as national heroes. Nobody really knows which president was good for the nation and which was bad. We would have to know what would have happened if the man in the Oval Office had done something different.
FDR, Lincoln and Wilson. As John V. Denson points out in his book “A Century of War”, these so-called “great presidents” were at the heart of the transformation of the American Republic into an executive dictatorship and the statist Leviathan it has become today. Liberty came to an end by means of war – with the public pushed into supporting these wars by means of deceitful ploys and deft political maneuvering. The 20th century then saw 170 million people killed by governments – most of them innocent civilians.
Would the nation be better off if Lincoln had not slaughtered so many southerners? Would world history have been worse if Wilson had not meddled in World War I? We can’t know the answers; we can only guess. But the historians who guess about such matters have a disturbing tilt – not toward mediocrity, but toward imbecility.
Like crooked butchers, they advertise our biggest mutton brains as prime beef – and push their thumbs down on the scales of history to give them extra weight. Those they select as “great” are merely those who have given them the most meat – those who have made the biggest public spectacles of themselves.
Most historians rate Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt as our greatest presidents. But every one of them might just as well be charged with dereliction, gross incompetence and treason. Every one of them at one time or another betrayed the constitution, got the country into a war that probably could have been avoided, and practically bankrupted the nation.
The presumption that underlies the popular opinion is that a president faces challenges. He is rated on how well he faces up to them. But the biggest challenge a president will face is no different from that faced by a Louis or a Charles – merely staying out of the way.
People have their own challenges, their own plans, their own private lives to lead. The last thing they need is a president who wants to improve the world. Every supposed improvement cost citizens dearly.
If it is a bridge, it is they who must pay for it, whether it is needed or not. If it is a law forbidding this or regulating that… it is their activities that are proscribed. If it is a war, it is they who must die. Every step toward phony public do-goodism comes at the expense of genuine private improvements.
That is why a president who does nothing is a treasure. William Henry Harrison, for example, was a model national leader. Rare in a president, he did what he promised to do. He told voters that he would “under no circumstances” serve more than a single term. He made good on his promise in the most conclusive way. The poor man caught pneumonia giving his inaugural address. He was dead within 31 days of taking the oath of office.
William Henry Harrison not only looked funny, he did the best thing a president can possibly do: he spent only 31 days in office.
Image via Getty Images
James A. Garfield was another great. He took office in March of 1881. The man was a marvel – he could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other… at the same time. He was shot in July and died three months later. “He didn’t have time to accomplish his plans,” say the standard histories. Thank God.
The assassination of James A. Garfield. He spent most of his presidency suffering on his deathbed – essentially killed by his arrogant and incompetent doctors (the bullet hadn’t been fatal, and it is thought that he would likely have survived if they had simply done nothing). Garfield was held to be an exceedingly brilliant man, which is all the more reason to believe that it was actually a stroke of good luck that he “didn’t have time to accomplish his plans”.
Image via Niday Picture Library
Millard Fillmore was one of America’s greatest presidents. He did little – other than trying to preserve peace in the period leading up to the War Between the States. Preserving peace was an achievement, but instead of giving the man credit, historians hold up the humbug Abraham Lincoln for praise. America has never suffered more harm than on Lincoln’s watch.
Still, it is the Lincoln Memorial to which crowds of agitators and malcontents repair, not the Fillmore Memorial. As far as we know, no monument exists to Fillmore, who not only kept the peace… but also installed the first system of running water in the White House, giving the place its first bathtub.
Millard Fillmore – where is the monument for the man who kept the peace and improved White House hygiene?
Photo credit: Mathew Brady
Fillmore was a modest man. Oxford University offered him an honorary degree. But Fillmore couldn’t read Latin. He refused the diploma, saying he didn’t want a degree he couldn’t read.
If Fillmore couldn’t read Latin, Andrew Johnson was lucky to be able to read at all. He never went to any kind of school; his wife taught him to read. He too is often held up as an example of a failed presidency. Instead, he seems to have made one of the best deals for the American people – buying Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
Who has added so much since? Who has actually made the nation richer, rather than poorer? Johnson did the nation a great service. Still, he gets little respect and practically no thanks.
President Andrew Johnson: bought Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million, in what in hindsight has to be one of the shrewdest property transactions ever. Didn’t wage any wars or genocide anyone, so naturally he is considered a “failure”…
Photo credit: Mathew Brady
But our favorite president is Warren Gamaliel Harding. In his hit book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells how Harry Daugherty, a leader of the Republican party in Ohio, met Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1899 in the back garden of the Globe Hotel in Richwood, Ohio. Both were having their shoes shined. Daugherty blinked and thought he saw a man who could be president. Journalist Mark Sullivan described the moment:
“Harding was worth looking at. He was, at the time, about 35 years old. His head, features, shoulders, and torso had a size that attracted attention, their proportions to each other made an effect, which in any male at any place would justify more than the term “handsome.”
In later years, when he came to be known beyond his local world, the word “Roman” was occasionally used in descriptions of him. As he stepped down from the stand, his legs bore out the striking and agreeable proportions of his body, and his lightness on his feet, his erectness, his easy bearing added to the impression of physical grace and virility.
His suppleness, combined with his bigness of frame and his large, wide-set rather glowing eyes, his very black hair, and bronze complexion gave him some of the handsomeness of an Indian.
His courtesy, as he surrendered his seat to the other customer, suggested genuine friendliness toward all mankind. His voice was noticeably resonant, masculine, and warm. His pleasure in the attentions of the bootblack’s whisk reflected a consciousness about clothes unusual in a small-town man. His manner as he bestowed a tip suggested generous good-nature, a wish to give pleasure, based on physical well-being and sincere kindliness of heart.”
The regal and imposing figure of Warren Harding – whom we admire for stopping the plans of his busybody secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover (a.k.a. “the secretary for everything”) to worsen the recession of 1921 by means of government intervention. It was the last time in history a US government took a hands-off approach to an economic downturn (as a result, the downturn is hardly remembered today – it was fierce, but over in record time). When Hoover was finally free to enact his interventionist plans in the downturn of the early 1930s, the Great Depression promptly ensued.
Photo via Library of Congress
Not only did Harding have the looks and the presence – he also had the bad-boy image. Gladwell writes, “Not especially intelligent. Liked to play poker and to drink… and most of all, chase women; his sexual appetites were the stuff of legend.”
As he rose from one office to the next, he “never distinguished himself.” His speeches were vacuous. He had few ideas… and those that he had were probably bad ones. Still, when Daughtery arranged for Harding to speak to the 1916 Republican National Convention, he guessed what might happen.
“There is a man who looks like he should be president,” the onlookers would say.
“Harding became President Harding,” wrote Gladwell. “He served two years before dying unexpectedly of a stroke. He was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history.”
But on the surface, he sounds like one of the best. We have never heard of anyone being arrested and charged under the “Harding Act.” We have never seen a building in Washington, or anywhere else, named The Harding Building. We know of no wars the man caused. We recall no government programs he set in motion. As far as we know, the nation and everyone in it was no better off the day Warren Harding stepped into office than they were they day he was carried out of it.
Harding’s presidential campaign consisted mainly of him giving speeches from the front porch of his home in rural Ohio – to what were at times huge crowds. He not only regularly played poker with his cabinet (rumor has it that he actually bet the White House china at one point and lost), he had other qualities as well. Although he was only in office for about two years, when he died US government spending had been cut in half and taxes had been lowered for every income group. No wonder he is widely considered a “failure” today.
Photo via dispatch.com / Hallett
Harding was a decent man of reasonable talents. He held poker games in the White House twice a week. And whenever he got a chance, he snuck away to a burlesque show. These pastimes seemed enough for the man; they helped him bear up in his eminent role… and keep him from wanting to do anything.
Another saving grace was that President Harding neither thought nor spoke clearly enough for anyone to figure out what he was talking about. He couldn’t rally the troops… and get them behind his ideas; he had none. And even if he tried, they wouldn’t understand him.
H.L. Mencken preserved a bit of what he called “Gamalielese,” just to hold it up to ridicule:
“I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved.”
The sentence is so idiotic and meaningless, it could have come from the mouth of our current president [ed. note: at the time this was written, GW Bush was in office]. But the crowds seemed to like the way he delivered it. He said it with such solid conviction, said Mencken, it “was like a blacksmith bringing down a hammer on an egg.”
Harding was so full of such thunderous twaddle that he stormed into office… and then drizzled away until he died.
Image captions by PT
The above article originally appeared at the Diary of a Rogue Economist, written for Bonner & Partners. Bill Bonner founded Agora, Inc in 1978. It has since grown into one of the largest independent newsletter publishing companies in the world. He has also written three New York Times bestselling books, Financial Reckoning Day, Empire of Debt and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets.
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