I found this quote at the top of the Download for Democracy website:
To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.
What a fantastic quote! Of course this fits perfectly with my sensibilities. This whole “love it or leave it” attitude that has been so pervasive in the American public, particularly during the George W. Bush administration and his war on terror, has really rubbed me the wrong way. In my mind it always seemed that criticism is very American. That our country was founded on the ideals of open discussion of ideas.
Aren’t we the country who on July 4, 1776 said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Who decided that we would break our ties with the British monarchy because we were tired of the crown making unilateral decisions for us without regard for our own opinions.
Aren’t we the same country who said on December 15, 1791, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It says it all right there in the final clause, the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That says to me that we can criticize the President. Before we abolished slavery, before we gave women the right to vote, we felt it was important that people could speak their mind about our government and our leaders.
So I decided to research the Roosevelt quote further. It sounds great but what was its context? We have unfortunately turned into a nation (and perhaps a world) of sound-bites. That quote seems to support an idea that I feel is important. But does it really?
America entered World War I on April 6, 1917. In September 1917, the Kansas City Star started running editorials by Theodore Roosevelt about the war. He probably seemed like a good choice. Not only was he a veteran of the Spanish-American War, but during his presidency he started to change America’s tendency towards isolationism with his semi-imperial policies towards Central and South America. In fact after the Germans destroyed a field hospital on September 7, 1917, Roosevelt wrote a biting column in the paper about Germany’s “calculated brutality” and their “deliberate policy of wickedness”.
But if the paper was hoping to only get hawkish war cries from the ex-President they were out of luck. On May 7, 1918, he wrote the editorial which the quote above is from. The war in Europe was still raging. The armistice was not declared until November 11. And yet even during this, during wartime, Roosevelt felt it was important that we not forget that it is ok to speak out against the President and his policies. This is a longer version of the quote I found at The Theodore Roosevelt Association:
The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.
I definitely need to learn more about Theodore Roosevelt. He sounds like he was a good man.