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WISEMAN: Five Presidents and an enduring constitution

The United States, though still a young country by comparison, has the oldest continuous constitution of any country in existence in the world today. On rare occasions an event takes place that reminds us of the uniqueness of our country. Such an event took place two weeks ago in Texas.

Although we had very little practice at forming an enduring government, we took a shot at it and got it right. We defined, in writing, the structure of a government for a free people and that structure has stood the test of time and numerous crises from global and regional wars to economic calamities and the steady but certain evolution of social conditions.

Two weeks ago we were given pause to consider for a moment the march of recent history as we arrive at this juncture in the life of this constitutional democracy called the United States of America. The event making this possible was the dedication of the George W. Bush Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I will confess that I had no special plans to watch the dedication ceremonies, but I passed the television just as the festivities were beginning. Five first ladies of the United States were introduced, followed by four former Presidents and current President Barack Obama. That scene of five Presidents arrayed across the front steps of the Bush Library was plenty breathtaking.

Several thoughts occurred to me. First, often the transfer of power in other countries is the cause for great tension and in many cases it serves as the stimulant for violent adventurism for those wishing to take advantage of what they perceive as a momentary power vacuum. Secondly, it hit me that never have I had the occasion to see five heads of state from each of the two major parties from the same country standing arm-in-arm. Thirdly, a quick flood of memories of dilemmas and crises spanning the times in office of these five presidents proved to be mind-boggling.

There was the Georgia peanut farmer, Democrat Jimmy Carter, who came to office somewhat by surprise and perhaps overly imbued with idealism about the way things ought to work. He suffered through the Iranian hostage crisis that went a long way toward spelling doom for his administration. Yet it was President Carter who mediated the Middle East peace accords — The Camp David Accords — between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar El Sadat.

Republican George Herbert Walker Bush like Carter served only one term. But it was during that term that the elder Bush presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of Soviet style Communism in Eastern Europe. This was an event that most of us assumed we would never see in our lifetimes, and to many it signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Then there was, and for that matter still is, the Democrat from Arkansas, Bill Clinton. He will be remembered for numerous domestic efforts as well as the protracted Balkans conflagration in Eastern Europe. And yes, there is the incident of the Monica Lewinsky affair and the ill-fated attempt of the rival Republicans to remove Clinton from office following his impeachment. Clinton has clearly been rehabilitated and now is most often remembered for producing the first, and perhaps the last period of budget surpluses in all of our lifetimes.

The honoree, Republican George W. Bush, upon reflection, was called upon to deal with many issues and threats to national security. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, remain indelibly imprinted on our nation’s psyche. Then there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of course the historically-disputed 2000 election in which Democratic Party challenger Al Gore polled over a half-million votes more than the ultimate winner Bush, who won via the electoral college.

Finally there was the appearance of current President, Democrat Barack Obama — the nation’s first African-American President. No doubt his accomplishment of an approach to the provision of health care to virtually all Americans after so many others had tried and failed will be a hallmark of the Obama presidency. So too will numerous battles fought over social issues and the constant partisan headwinds in his face from the worst recession since the great depression.

The only missing link at the festivities, but one that would have most certainly further enlivened the largely partisan Republican crowd, was the late President and Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

It was good to see the angry bickering among the partisans of these philosophical opposites shoved out of site for a few hours. Four decades of the orderly transition of power and representative government were on display.

As might have been expected, as the words of the benediction faded into the Texas afternoon, the talking heads reloaded their verbal arsenals and resumed combat. Fox News refocused its sights on President Obama and its claims that the President had reopened the door to terrorism. MSNBC began dismantling the accolades spoken during the Bush Library dedication as mere revisionist history.

Here we go again.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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