The American public tends toward a rush to gush. In February, the Gallup Poll queried the public on how recent presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, will go down in history. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton remain the public’s favorites, with 69 percent judging Mr. Reagan as “outstanding” or “above average,” and 60 percent saying the same about Mr. Clinton.
Whatever their statistical validity, such polls tend to be fabulously misleading, blurring the line between popularity and presidential accomplishment.
The question inspires nostalgia, rather than an objective view. We excuse ourselves from the onus of judicious thinking, settling for fickle notions about “popularity” or even physical beauty.
Last month, PBS aired a four-hour documentary on Clinton. Much of it was painful to watch, especially the ordeals that he inflicted on the nation over his sexual exploits, lying, impeachment, and quest for public redemption.
The behavior overshadowed his presidency to such an extent that it automatically disqualifies him from a presidential pantheon, despite the robust economy he left, including a whopping budget surplus that his Republican successor frittered away.
But methinks the real thespians of the Clinton tragedy are the American people who manage to overlook his past mendacity and betrayals and still give him a standing ovation when he walks into an NBA basketball game.
There is a particularly telling moment in the PBS documentary, when, with his back to the wall, as it often was, Clinton was said to have shouted at his staff, “Tell me what to do!”
William Hazlitt, the 19th-century English literary critic and essayist, wrote, “No man is truly great who is only great in his own lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.”
Historians routinely rank the presidents, sometimes according to specific categories, such as leadership, accomplishments, and character. They tend to agree on the truly great – the indispensables of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But historians also hold subjective – and variable – views.
Perhaps there should be an edict for pollsters – and historians – that no president can be pronounced “great” until 50 years after leaving office. One school of French academics used to believe one shouldn’t even write history until a century after an event to allow for distillation of more-impartial judgments.
Often, moderns are simply too close to render reliable verdicts. In 1932, Winston Churchill, then a journalist, said of Adolf Hitler, “I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat…. [He had] a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose.”
Yes, even journalists, who take the first pass at history, can get it wrong.
Reagan’s sycophants contend he was truly great because he made Americans feel good about themselves and his policies made many of them richer. But, unlike Clinton, about whom we know too much, Reagan may be better remembered as a national enigma.
He is credited with tamping down the cold war. But that overlooks the fact that he had a near pathological hatred of the Soviet Union. One has to ask how much greatness ascribed to Reagan was actually a consequence of his wife, Nancy, whispering “peace” in his ear at night. One of her biographers makes a convincing case that it was she who nudged him into serious arms-reduction talks.
And although the cold war was winding down on his watch, credit should be shared with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and the godfather of glasnost, Alexander Yakovlev. Ultimately and perhaps inevitably, the Soviet Union imploded of its own backwardness.
Even Reagan’s purported greatness gets wobbly when superimposed over the likes of Dwight Eisenhower. Taking the measure of all the US cold-war presidents, Yale University’s John Lewis Gaddis hailed Ike as “the most subtle and brutal strategist of the nuclear age,” more so than the Nixon-Kissinger team.
Jean Edward Smith’s brilliant new biography correctly recognizes Eisenhower as “the most successful president of the 20th century,” with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Yet, when Eisenhower left office 51 years ago, he was not highly regarded and was dismissively referred to as mediocre, a caretaker, a better general than chief executive. Ike was soon forgotten as the hoi polloi too quickly rushed to embrace the young, beautiful Jack Kennedy.
Americans are notoriously impatient to pass judgment. Perhaps it’s a function of the pace of the world in which we live. Our presidents can be best understood in historical context. We need to remember that no president is ever as bad as his enemies aver, and very few are equal to the adulation they receive.
Public pronouncements of presidential greatness often suffer from myopia. Fortunately, time has its own perspective.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.