Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

John J Pitney brings valuable perspective to Barack Obama's assertion that he is America's first "Pacific President." Obama means to say that he is the first to have been born and raised in the Pacific - true enough as he spent most of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia. But there are plenty of American presidents who had adult experience in the Pacific that maybe was a little more relevant preparation for the Presidency: America's First Pacific President
It is true that the president was born in Hawaii (sorry, birthers), lived from ages six to ten in Indonesia, and attended a Honolulu prep school. But he is not our first Pacific president. Richard Nixon was born in California in 1913, and spent much more of his life in the Pacific region than the current president has. Moreover, while Barack Obama made his career in Chicago and Springfield, Ronald Reagan made his in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

And the incumbent is hardly the first chief executive to have lived in another Pacific Rim country. William Howard Taft was governor-general of the Philippines. Dwight Eisenhower had military postings in the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone. Herbert Hoover worked as a mining engineer in Australia and China; he even learned to speak Mandarin. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon,
Ford, and Bush 41 all served in the Pacific during the Second World War. What they did as adults was perhaps more consequential than what Obama did as a child.
Pitney might also have mentioned that Ulysses S Grant made a months long trip to Japan after his presidency was over, and that John McCain was born in Panama and served with distinction in a "Pacific" war, and further that McCain's family spent decades involved in the Pacific Rim.

We've all gotten used to Obama's self-aggrandizing view of the world and his fabulous world-historic self. While this is mostly a result of his arrogance and ego, it is also the product of his - and his speech writers - ignorance about American history. They undoubtedly are the products of elite educations and meritocratic CV buffing, yet they seem to honestly think that, until Obama came along, America lacked a Pacific perspective. Newsflash boys: Americans, especially Californians, have been traveling back and forth to Asia for decades. We have fought not one, not two, but three major Asian land wars, plus been involved in Pacific Rim power politics since the day Admiral Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay. The next time you decide to declare Obama to be the "first" of anything, I would suggest growing up and getting a clue, or at least reading a book.

Obama might also consider the transitory nature of human affairs. Pitney's mention of Taft's turn as governor-general of the Philippines reminds me of how even America's most remarkable figures are often forgotten and ignored by us. Taft was not a memorably great president, but he certainly had an impact on us. He was Teddy Roosevelt's right hand man in foreign policy during an era when America was spreading its wings as a global power. After his presidency (lost thanks to TR's maverick third party run), he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, where he presided over the Court of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. More important, he helped create the modern Supreme Court and federal judiciary through his advocacy for the passage of the Judiciary Act, the creation of the modern "docket system," the promulgation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and even the construction of the Supreme Court Building. Yet, most of our public schools are comfortable simply teaching kids that Taft was the fattest man to ever be President. Is it any wonder that the smartest among us are often the least knowledgeable?

Anyway, except for the accident of birth, Obama has no perspective that could be called "Pacific," unless he is about to start advocating for heavy industrialization, crony capitalism, and ancestor worship. If Obama is anything, he is our first "European" president kind of like how Bill Clinton was our first "black" president. Maybe, instead of trying to tell us what superlatives to apply, Obama should just do his d*** job.

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