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presidential politics

On Presidents’ Day, in the week that the Republican presidential candidates were crisscrossing my home state of South Carolina, I stumbled across an essay in a magazine that tells how you can find the gigantic busts of forty-three American presidents standing broken and decaying in a farmer’s field in Virginia. The essay is full of dramatic pictures. Like a prophetic parody of Mount Rushmore, the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head has caved in, and the weather has stained George Washington’s face as if he is weeping for his nation.

The busts are all that remains of Presidents Park, an open-air museum where visitors could once walk among the monuments of presidents. The park opened in 2004 after a local landowner, Everette Newman, got together with Houston sculptor David Adickes. Their tourist attraction, which cost about $10 million to create, went into foreclosure six years later. They couldn’t bring themselves to break the sculptures, so a local farmer did his best to transport them to his property. Many were damaged in the process and now stand forlorn, weathered, and wounded in the tall grass.

Faced in 2016 with a disappointing array of presidential candidates who eerily reflect the decadence, arrogance, and ignorance of our electorate, the essay made for depressing reading on Presidents’ Day during the overheated run up to the South Carolina primary. Seeing the battered and weather-beaten monuments to America’s greatness, I could not help but think of Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Meanwhile, the candidates around me, eager Ozymandiases all, were spending obscene amounts of money advertising how mendacious, cunning, vulgar, untrustworthy, and incompetent their opponents were, while bragging about their billions or praying piously as they buckled up their Bibles and praised Jeezus to try to please us. Before long the other two rascals will come creeping into the Carolinas, like two aged Gollums searching for their precious.

What are we to make of these colossal wrecks who would be the King of Kings, all made unattractive by their attraction to power: antique travelers through the Manhattan marketplace of greed, the grubbiness of graft, a priapic presidency, and the cosseted closets of the champagne socialists? Alas, it is only the two sons of immigrants who seem to present the best chance….

presidential parkWe can only look on them and despair, not only for their own frailty, but for ours because we get the leaders we deserve. The presidential candidates are us. Are they corrupt, greedy and base? We are too. Do we shrug and yawn at their adulteries and not-so-secret affairs? We are open about ours. Do we dismiss their hidden violence, their cutthroat ways hiding and sliding behind their smooth exteriors? We do that. Do we admire their boasting about themselves and their roasting of their foes? We like that. Do we believe their strutting ways, their pious phrases, their self-righteous airs, and their lofty promises? We believe all the lies we tell ourselves.

The gigantic presidential heads in the field in Virginia are a stark reminder that all the presidents and all the president’s men are Ozymandias and so are we. Our nation, like the abandoned presidents’ busts, is broken, battered, and weather-beaten. Why? Because we did not preserve what is best in a beautiful memorial park. We turned it into a tourist attraction with tickets for sale, and when the amusement park went bust we abandoned it and moved on to a new entertainment, putting the past out to pasture.

The parable of the president’s park is this: that if we do not preserve what is best from the past we should not be surprised if the future is even worse. For the better part of the past half-century we have demolished and distorted the morality, the law, the principles, and the faith of our fathers.

Now the past being abandoned and broken, the present is our curse.

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18 replies to this post
  1. Or it could be that politics is in the process of cleaning itself up. Much of the public has concluded that the political establishment, which means the leadership of both parties, much of the press, and lobbyists and special interests of various kinds, have made the process inherently corrupt and dishonest. And thus several outsiders have come along to directly attack the status quo, and the public seems to be embracing them. This is actually a good thing.

  2. A quick search reveals no attributable source so I shall source this as a none-to-wise otherwise pastor from my past: “The pendulum never stops in the middle.” A folksy way to suggest the power of Regression to the Mean. Problem is, with regard to society and many social issues, I suggest that a previously-critical restoring force is gone and that the mean has thus shifted. Time was, in many ways large and small, if not in the family than certainly in the classroom and public square, the vast majority were inculcated, however successfully, in the Judaeo-Christian principles and morality upon which the nation and society were built. This has been largely snuffed out in practice and, where still extant, fears to speak its name. With a force more powerful than any Ozymandius stripped out of the equation, is it any wonder that the nature of the new equilibrium is unrevealed? Or is it… Societies that lose their way, die. You can look it up.

  3. I agree with much of this article. Only perhaps the cause of mistortune isn’t because we have forgotten what is best about us, but it is because the chickens are finally coming home to roost. After all, ours is the nation that started with ethnic cleansing slavery. How was that any less decadent than we are today?

  4. Voegelin tells us that cultures both get better and get worse. It’s how we human beings are. I’m with Eric (above) in that this assault on the progressive-elite class CAN be a very good thing. A restoration of both republican principles and virtues if we are guided by our better natures.

    But, I agree with the good Father. There’s much work to do.

  5. There is a slight “fallacy of composition” in stating that “We get the politicians we deserve.”

    Rather, politicians who have often risen to power, due to a long-term erosion of the latent culture encouraged by the Constitution, have done so through plutocratic and oligarchic machinations that typically benefitted only certain sectors of the citizens, mega-finance, international corporations, and all too many who are perpetually tenured drones or governing elites within government at all levels.

    Arguably, the majority of remaining basically honorable citizens who remain deserved none of this. Out of despair and anger they are apparently giving it one last try by placing a bull in the china shop who is named Trump.

    If that fails, Jefferson’s well known quip about the “natural manure” of the “tree of liberty” may again have great relevance.

    • Imprimipotest,
      Considering that it is our apathy and blind allegiance to a 2-party system that has been bought out which enables the current selection of candidates, I would be more inclined to agree with the statement: “We get the politicians we deserve.”

        • Eric,
          Since I plan to vote for 3rd party candidates only, we will not be getting the politicians I vote for. And yes, we are getting the politicians we deserve as a country. Our thinking is too simplistic. We care more about group loyalties and materialism than we do about prnciples and morals. And we continue to choose candidates who come across as elites who intend to save us.

          • Good luck with that — A third party vote is precisely a vote for the entity to which the third party is opposed. That is reality with a proud tradition; Taft gave us Wilson and Perot gave us Clinton.

  6. Some years back, on a semi-related topic, Pogo, the famous philosopher once remarked, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    On a very related topic, America Deserves Frank Underwood. (And, once again, life imitates art.)

    • I’m getting a little bit tired of hearing about pogo, as if he were somehow so brilliant instead of just a clever cynic.

      • As you wish. 🙂

        “Some years ago, the perceptive and brilliant critic of society and culture, Mister Walt Kelly noted that, in a land of popular government, unaccountable politicians (and industries), and an ignorant and lazy citizenry, no amount of optimism or allegiance to the status quo will prevent dire consequences from following irresponsible actions.
        “Or, as he so pithily put it, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’.”

        There, is that better?

  7. “The parable of the president’s park is this: that if we do not preserve what is best from the past we should not be surprised if the future is even worse. For the better part of the past half-century we have demolished and distorted the morality, the law, the principles, and the faith of our fathers.”

    Hear, hear! Spoken like a true conservative, and I don’t mean the political kind.

  8. Mr. Day, such an inclusive assertion prescinds from specific historical facts about particular agents concerning how and why said “apathy” and “allegiance” to the “two part system” have been successfully promoted and maintained.

    Even the grain of truth in cartoonist Walt Kelly’s (Pogo) caricature statement plays upon similar assumptions in regard to who is most responsible for demolishing and distorting the morality, law, principles and faith of our fathers.

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