Mountain Pine Beetles, and Political Polarization, Subvert American Greatness

Ten men have presided from the oval office during my life.

Of all 45 US presidents, only four grace the granite outcrops of Mount Rushmore: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Before I hypothesize which of my ten are most likely to earn a giant bust overlooking the dying forests of South Dakota, I have a question: Why isn’t Franklin Delano Roosevelt already up there? Our longest serving, and arguably greatest president’s absence on Mount Rushmore mystifies me.

I’ll get to the focus of this piece, soon, but first, let me share an episode from my honeymoon, last summer: Returning to Iowa from of our meandering journey through the mountain west, we stopped for a few nights in western South Dakota, and during one day, we hiked on a rugged trail near the shadow of Mount Rushmore.

My wife, a Kenyan national, was in the midst of immigration; I had never visited Mount Rushmore: We hoped a pilgrimage to the foot of the great American monument might garner some good luck to her immigration proceedings.

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The volume of dead trees leaning at perilous angles, and littering the ground produced a post-apocalyptic visage that clashed with the mood of our romantic trek across mid-America.

Mountain pine beetles continue to ravage forests across the western USA. The insects leave behind a fungus after burrowing into bark to lay eggs. The fungus interferes with a tree’s ability to distribute water and nutrients: Eventually, after a few weeks of attack, a tree starves.

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Mountain pine beetle. Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Services.

Frequent droughts since the 90’s deprived trees of water and further weakened their defenses against pine beetle intrusion. Lower frequency of cold winters allowed a greater survival rate for pine beetles. More warm days over several years allowed a succession of longer breeding cycles further increasing the pests’ population.

The large number of rotting trees threaten to fuel a fire, given a timely spark. It’s strange I should suggest building another giant sculpture on Mount Rushmore when the federal government isn’t capable of funding an effort to clear away a large hazard to South Dakota’s tourist industry, and the regional ecosystem.

If viewing Mount Rushmore requires passing through an expansive wasteland, in the near future, there may not be enough visitors to view any proposed additions to one of USA’s greatest memorials. But, assuming there is still a collective psych, and fiscal will, to add another face to Mount Rushmore, my logic for and/or against my ten presidents follows:

Lyndon B. Johnson  He essentially quit by refusing the Democrat’s nomination in 1968. He retreated to his Stonewall, Texas ranch, chased by a leftist revolt: LBJ captured little of the Kennedy’s idealistic verve, and his constituency turned on him because of his support of the Vietnam War.

It’s unlikely he would have been elected president in 1964 without the tragic assassination of his boss, so it’s remote that he’ll ever have his face carved into Mount Rushmore.

His legislative prowess influencing passage of civil rights laws is impressive and favor his longterm value, but his perceived deficiencies are likely to forever outshine his accomplishments.

Richard Nixon  If a high IQ were the only consideration, it’s probable Nixon could score in the top five of all presidents, and lead my ten’s intellectual power ranking. Unfortunately, for him, he’s the only POTUS forced from office, so far. Nixon has zero chance of gracing (Should I say tainting?) Mount Rushmore.

Gerald Ford  A decent man and steady public servant. Ford was a fundamentally boring man, who failed to win his only presidential election. His association with, and pardon of, Nixon renders him ineligible for Mount Rushmore.

Jimmy Carter  Unfortunately for Carter, Mount Rushmore projects images of two revolutionaries; a former colonel who first achieved fame leading a charge up a hill during an unnecessary and aggressive war; and the man whose orders led to untimely, often violent, deaths for over half a million Americans.

Appeasing, and avoiding war with a newly minted Islamic Republic (Iran) is unlikely to even long-list Carter for Mount Rushmore. We shouldn’t expect too much from Carter. He inherited mission impossible: Nixon’s resignation would have doomed even the most talented politician running for presidential reelection so soon after Watergate.

Ronald Reagan  He bestrode USA’s political landscape the entirety of my teen years, and his presence carried over into my time in college under the governance of his chosen successor.

Opposition politics seemed like a waste of energy during the Reagan era because of his reelection mandate in 1984—Reagan won every state except his opponent’s home.

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Reagan exerted power and influence unlike any other Cold War politician.

With the Reagan mythology initiated during the Clinton Administration that continues to metastasize under Trump’s peculiar banner, Reagan’s memory-turned-legend demonstrates the kind of mystique necessary to earn a bust on the South Dakotan pantheon.

Not to mention, Reagan’s tough talk at the USSR is in line with the four aggressive personalities already on Mount Rushmore.

Love him, or hate him—and it’s often one extreme, or the other—Reagan is the most probable addition to Mount Rushmore among my ten.

George HW Bush  He was the best moderate politician of my lifetime, but he’ll always be remembered as Reagan’s wimpy backup. Since there’s no logical path to sculpt Reagan and the first Bush on Mount Rushmore, we can write off HW. It’s a shame because he impressed with his ability to make the UN function properly as the New World Order congealed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Bill Clinton  Possibly the most talented politician since FDR. Unfortunately for Clinton, the waning years of the twentieth century yielded no significant challenges for the baby boomer political prodigy to navigate.

It’s a pity Clinton and Bush II couldn’t switch historical circumstances: The placid historical waters of the 90’s suited a “compassionate conservative” like W; imagine how great Clinton could have been if he had a real crisis during his administration. Clinton’s handling of 9/11 would have certainly amazed historians, and probably, even his contemporary detractors.

Unfortunately, we’ll remember Clinton most for his female associations: detailed, over publicized infidelities in the corridors of power, and, even more, for his marriage to the first woman nominated by a major party, but, shockingly, lost to Trump.

Clinton is another write off for Mount Rushmore.

George W. Bush  Creating a Jeffersonian democracy, by force of arms, between the Tigris and Euphrates was ambitious, bordering on quixotic; of course, if this ever succeeds in any meaningful way, W’s bust will overlook the fruited plain, posthaste.

We won’t know the full effects of invading Iraq for several decades, or centuries. Perhaps USA won’t even exist in the same way once we feel the full brunt of consequences initiated by W’s Mesopotamian maneuvers. It seems Bush II will go down in infamy, or praised as a visionary.

I suspect George W. Bush’s presidency will escape definitive, unbiased classification for the remainder of my life; so I won’t speculate his odds of scoring a spot on Mount Rushmore.

Barrack Obama  Post-racial America fizzled, and regressed—Perhaps racial nirvana was a hope-laden illusion?—but Spockish 44 will look savory in Chaotic 45’s historical wake.

Although Obama, during his second term, imitated Carter’s Iran weakness in Syria, Obama will always be the first US president that wasn’t a white male (this assumes we never discover evidence that another president before Obama was black). Obama’s racial classification seems irrelevant according to modern political correctness, but when looking at Obama through the larger prism of several centuries of presidential history, his election should be a significant turning point.

Obama would be the most passive personality on Mount Rushmore, but we can’t possibly know how the first black president looks in the grand sweep of US history from the viewpoint of 2117, or 2217. If we plan to recognize the political progress of black people in America with an eternal presence on Mount Rushmore, Martin Luther King, Jr. seems like a superior candidate—I’m sure Obama would agree. But, MLK’s lack of a presidential pedigree would make him a bit out of place, so it’s unlikely he could do an end run on Obama.

The Affordable Care Act seems expensive to many of our contemporaries; availing quality healthcare for all humans will be a no-brainer, soon, I hope. If government—or some other surrogate on the cusp of existence—ultimately provides health care for all citizens, the ACA will be landmark legislation. Obamacare in tandem with being the first non-white male elected president makes Obama a probable addition to Mount Rushmore.

Let’s call Obama a dark horse—no pun intended—to earn a bust next to his ideological predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.

Donald J. Trump  If our current president lives up to his detractors, Trump may be distinguished as the last white male POTUS. In that light, we could view Mount Rushmore as a memorial to USA’s faded (Perhaps I should say explosively self-destructive?) era of white supremacy. If that’s the case, and Mount Rushmore eventually becomes a monument to a debunked social hierarchy, Trump is a safe bet for the last spot on Mount Rushmore.

After less than 100 days in office, it’s difficult to say if Trump does or does not have what it takes to get a bust on Mount Rushmore, but if he does, and he has some influence over the construction, he’ll certainly ask for a bigger face. Maybe he’ll manufacture a steel reinforced concrete sculpture on top of the current monument.

In my opinion, the last ten presidents produced two bonafide candidates for future sculptures on Mount Rushmore: Obama and Reagan; both seem worthy according to my arguments above.

Unfortunately, few of my compatriots are capable of simultaneously appreciating the merits of Reagan and Obama. Those who advocate for the greatness of Obama, demonize Reagan. A modern day US citizen who lights a candle at Reagan vigils, believes Obama embodied an existential threat on par with the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.

In the currently polarized atmosphere of US politics, it may be difficult to muster the kind of community spirit necessary to develop a common narrative to honor another president on Mount Rushmore.

All the while, mountain pine beetles thrive at the expense of American greatness.

Similar post: An Evolving Universe III—The Insurgent

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