The fascinating thing about President Bush's Sept. 11 speech was not that more people preferred to watch football than hear him, but that, as is true of every one of his Republican predecessors since 1981, he resolutely offered Democratic presidents as models.
When Franklin Roosevelt vowed to defeat two enemies across two oceans, he could not have foreseen D-Day and Iwo Jima -- but he would not have been surprised at the outcome. When Harry Truman promised American support for free peoples resisting Soviet aggression, he could not have foreseen the rise of the Berlin Wall -- but he would not have been surprised to see it brought down.
Yet the characters of the patrician Franklin Roosevelt and the plain-speaking Truman were the furthest from that of George W. Bush, a profoundly lazy, overprivileged and mendacious man.
Why don't he and his fellow Republicans point to their own great presidents instead of attempting to steal luster from the heroes of their opposition's party?
Afraid to remind us of Herbert Hoover? The 31st president not only failed to respond to the Great Depression, but in July 1932 sent troops against poor World War I veterans encamped in the Washington Mall demanding the payment of a promised postwar bonus.
Or how about Richard Nixon? Is Bush afraid to recall Tricky Dick's burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex?
We all know now that Ronald Reagan was probably hiding Alzheimers during at least part of the longest role of his acting career, in which the White House was his stage. We also know that he was too cowardly to accept blame for the Iran-Contra scandal that involved his immediate staff: first he denied the whole thing, then he denied the drug dealing. For all the eponymous airports and buildings, who wants to suggest emulating Reagan too closely?
Is Dwight David Eisenhower's affair with Kay Summersby the reason why Republicans so rarely cite the postwar president? GOPers active in the 1980s and 90s purported to abhor the taint of adultery -- except when adulterers Newton Leroy Gingrich, 1998 House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston and Rep. Henry Hyde had their "youthful indiscretions" unveiled to the public.
Or how about Calvin Coolidge and his response to the flooding of Louisiana in 1927? Was he FEMA's model for Hurricane Katrina in 2005? (It might be recalled that Coolidge's flood relief man was then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, whose relief efforts eventually got him to the White House; note also the parallel that Hoover's abandonment of black flood refugees led to the final parting of African Americans from the party of Lincoln.)
Mention the name Warren Harding and what comes up but the Teapot Dome scandal?
Theodore Roosevelt is admired as a conservationist and political reformer in New York. But he was also a rough-rider in Cuba, in a war against Spain that was a travesty of naked and racist expansionism in which no decent man should have participated.
Bush might be more familiar with the experience of Rutherford B. Hayes, who snatched a contested and fradulent election from Democrat Samuel Tilden, the 19th century Al Gore, who won the popular vote but failed by one vote to win in the electoral college.
Does anyone at this late date forget that the Ulysses Grant administration was the most corrupt in the 19th century?
Finally, we come to the grand old man who invented the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, a man who was not, in fact, as honest as he is portrayed in his hagiography.
His Emancipation Declaration was pure rhetoric, as it freed slaves in territory his armies did not control but left untouched those in Union territories. The man who professed veneration for government of the people and by the people jailed the entire legislature of Maryland for the duration of the Civil War, lest they decide to secede.
In any case, now that the GOP is so full of white Southerners who never forgave the Democrtic Party's proposal and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even mentioning Lincoln's eloquence and his virtues probably does not play well among Bush's partisans.
Little surprise, then, that George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans need Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who saved this country from abject poverty and European fascism, and Harry Truman, who completed FDR's work and desegregated the armed forces. Perhaps this is why Republicans are forever mentioning them, along with the charismatic John F. Kennedy and party founder Thomas Jefferson, and why they never quote the wit and wisdom of Hoover, Nixon, and Harding.
Without a doubt, the Democratic Party is not unblemished; presidents elected on the party's slate were not saints. But Democrats need not call upon the words and deeds of Republican leaders to justify their policies.
That's because throughout history Republican presidents have produced the most complete catalogue of misdeeds to avoid.