Posts Tagged Ronald Reagan

The presidents: relative greatness

FDRPerspective is a good thing which, I guess, is why Newsweek decided to release a list of the 10 best presidents since 1900. With 18 presidents vying for a spot, each had about the same odds of making the list as they did of getting elected in the first place. However, the stakes were much lower here.

People (especially people with history degrees) like to say that the real measure of a great president is his legacy. That’s true; it is hard to know what a president’s impact on the country will be until we see the long term effects. Still, I’m not a fan of ranking the presidents.

Certain presidents are obviously greater than others: FDR topped Newsweek’s list, and rightfully so. The problems come when historians, pundits, or the general public try to compare incomparably great acts.

FDR won World War II, but Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War and freed the slaves. So which one is better? America wouldn’t be the same without either man, so how can one be better than the other?

The United States of America has had many moments that have defined its history and character. Singling out one triumph or crisis as the moment that made America the country it is today is nigh impossible.

There are other methods of ranking presidents, though. If weighing the relative importance of different historical events is too subjective, why not make it a popularity contest? Instead of pretentious historians, why not leave the decision of up to the people each president has sworn to serve?

That would be even more subjective. Frankly, the public may not know enough to make the choice. People live in the present, which is where they need to be to make informed decisions in the 2012 election, but it’s not so good if they’re judging the president from 1912, or 1812.

Ronald Reagan made Newsweek’s list, and he was also chosen as the “Greatest American” in a 2004 Discovery Channel poll. Most people think the Gipper deserves these accolades because he ended the Cold War. In reality, other parties deserve more credit. Reagan didn’t make the people of East Germany and the Soviet Republics to overthrow their governments.

Historians can be pedantic sometimes, but they have the contextual knowledge that allows them to understand the “big picture” of a president and his time. That’s why Barnes & Noble sells their books.

A quality like “greatness” may be too subjective to quantify although, like certain other things, people know it when they see it. That will inevitably lead to arguments over relative greatness, which will lead to a new search for an objective measure. It’s vicious cycle time.

Even if there were an objective way to measure presidential greatness, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. We might know that the man who ended slavery is greater than the man who fought World War II, or the man who was president first, but what meaning does that distinction actually have?

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Other People’s Starships: USS Excelsior (NX/NCC-2000)

USS Excelsior at space dockThe Enterprise gets most of the glory, but there are plenty of other ships in Starfleet. One of my favorites is the Excelsior, a ship that was meant to be the first evolution beyond the Constitution-class ships of the original Star Trek series.

Service History

The USS Excelsior (NCC-2000) was a prototype for a new class of starship. It entered service in the 2280s, toward the end of the Original Series era, in the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. When Kirk brings the badly damaged Enterprise-A back to Earth Spacedock, he moors up next to the Excelsior. Kirk called the new ship Starfleet’s “great experiment.”

What made the Excelsior a “great experiment” was its transwarp drive. According to the Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual for the USS Enterprise, transwarp drive “relied  on an extremely complicated set of equations that boosted the power of a conventional warp engine.” No canonical Star Trek work describes the system in any detail.

The transwarp was supposed to make the Excelsior the fastest ship in Starfleet, but the ship failed on its first trial run and was eventually rebuilt with a conventional warp engine.

After switching back to conventional warp drive, the Excelsior proved to be a capable starship design, spawning an entire class of identical vessels, including the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-B) seen in Star Trek: Generations.USS Excelsior bridge

The Excelsior herself went on to be captained by Hikaru Sulu. After a three-year mission cataloging gaseous planetary anomalies in the Bet Quadrant, Sulu took the Excelsior into Klingon territory to rescue his former shipmates Kirk and McCoy, who had been framed for the assassination of Klingon Chancellor Gorkon. These events played out in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Other Excelsior-class ships made brief appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. By the 24th century, these ships were apparently the backbone of Starfleet and were only just being replaced by the larger Galaxy-class.

The Excelsior’s motto was “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Design

The Excelsior had 32 decks, and was capable of saucer separation. Armament included Type 8 phaser emitters and fore and aft photon torpedo launchers.

The script for Search for Spock called for a ship that would make the Constitution-class Enterprise look old fashioned. The Excelsior was described as a “super starship” with lines similar to the Enterprise, “but she is clearly bigger, sleeker, and very new. She sits at her mooring like the new Queen of Space.”

USS Excelsior in spaceIndustrial Light & Magic designer William George based the Excelsior’s look on what he thought the Enterprise would look like if it had been designed by the Japanese.

The result is one of the best looking ships in Starfleet. The Excelsior’s low profile and elongated lines make it look like it’s at warp even when it’s standing still.

I always liked that design; it’s much less bulky than other Star Trek ships. I also think the name is kind of funny. I picture the crew carrying a bust of Al Gore around, the same way the USS Ronald Reagan carries a bust of the Gipper. I also like to imagine the captain yelling “Excelsior!” as the ship warps off into the unknown.

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Barack Obama: America’s First Superhero President

Most Americans view George Washington as the “Father of Our Country.” That may be true, but he never shared a cover with Spider-Man. Many presidents are remembered as “larger-than-life” characters, but none of them have made as many appearances in the ultimate showcase of American mythology, comic books, as Barack Obama.

President Obama on the cover of "Amazing Spider-Man #583." Image courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Obama is America’s first superhero president. In the DC Comics miniseries Final Crisis, he made a cameo appearance as Superman. He was also on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #583; in that issue, Spider-Man and the 44th President foiled an Obama doppelganger.

Even when he is not donning a cape, Obama still makes regular appearances in superhero comics. When Asgard was attacked by Norman Osborn in Siege, Obama pardoned and reinstated Steve Rogers (the original Captain America) who was declared a public enemy after he rebelled against the government in the Superhuman Civil War. And, as if the recession was not enough of a problem, Obama recently had to respond to an attack by Godzilla.

So why to comic writers like Obama so much? One possible explanation is the emphasis on realism in comics. In the Marvel Universe, Bruce Banner may turn into the Hulk, but everything else is exactly the same as the real world. With that rule, any president should be a regular character in Marvel’s comics; supervillain attacks and alien invasions probably warrant the Commander in Chief’s attention.

However, not every president gets the comic book coverage Obama does. When George W. Bush was president, he was barely mentioned in Marvel, even when he signed the Superhuman Registration Act into law in Civil War. It doesn’t explain why DC turned Obama into Superman either. DC does not view its characters’ universe and the real universe as the same; Obama is just as fictional in the DC Universe as Clark Kent is in ours.

Maybe it’s just politics. Perhaps comic book writers and artists are the nerd version of the Hollywood liberal elite: a bunch of hopelessly biased Obama-worshipping commies. A comprehensive poll of comic creators’ political views would be difficult, but one thing is certain: the Obama stories don’t seem political. He appears in stock superhero plots fighting stock villains, not Republicans.

In contrast, there was an open attempt to fight the political battles of the 1980s in comics. While not explicitly named, a president who looks exactly like Ronald Reagan started a war in Central America (and provoked the Soviet Union) in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. On the conservative side, Reagan’s Raiders featured “the Gipper” and his cabinet carrying out the administration’s foreign policies in red, white, and blue spandex.

Showing Obama shaking hands with Spider-Man is very different from those openly political stories. When he opens his mouth, the word bubbles aren’t filled with lines about socialized medicine or job creation. Every time he appears in comics, Obama is too busy trying to save the world from a super-powered threat to plug his own, real-life policies. If stories that include the President are supposed to be political propaganda, it’s all very subtle.

Obama as Superman in "Final Crisis #7." Image courtesy of DC Comics.

In fact, Obama blends very well into the world of comics. That’s where the “larger-than-life” factor comes in. When Obama ran for president in 2008, people treated him like the Messiah. He was charismatic, well-spoken, and promised real change to a political system many Americans had lost faith in. He became the first African-American president and killed Osama bin Laden, organizing a special operation worthy of the Secret Avengers.

America’s desire for a president that is more than the average politician, and 52% of Americans’ belief that Barack Obama could be that president, made him seem like a comic book character. Since 2008, Obama has lost some of that luster; maybe he should read a few of his own comics.

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