Time Heals All Wounds

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When former
president Gerald Ford passed away, the adulation of the media was
deafening. Every President, it seems, now becomes glorified upon
death; even Nixon became partially rehabilitated when he died. Mere
proximity to the Oval Office confers demigod status.

There is one
thing to take solace in. While Ford's stock has abruptly risen,
he's still not a president of the first rank, for which we should
be thankful. Not enough powerlust, not enough usurpations, not enough
corpses. Only the great warmongers, tyrants, and usurpers of power
achieve that distinction in the mainstream history books. Still,
it seems that death is now a sure route to near-universal adoration
in the mainstream.

This raises
an interesting question: how can we expect more recent presidents
to be viewed a few decades down the road? Will they win the same
acclaim as Gerald Ford, or perhaps even greater glory?

I believe they
will. Let's consider the two most recent cases. Clinton has obvious
liberal appeal: he was a resolute statist who tried to create universal
health care, expanded gun control, and engaged in the sort of "humanitarian"
warfare that even many ostensibly antiwar liberals and leftists
can't say no to.

These are not
spectacular achievements – he didn't manage to get into any major
ground wars or massively enlarge the state – but they're respectable
enough, certainly enough to bring great accolades when he passes
on. The impeachment will work in his favor, too. The image of a
great statesman hounded by lesser men with partisan vendettas will
be trotted out over and over again.

I don't
expect conservative hatred of Clinton to last. If Harry Truman can
become a full-fledged conservative icon despite trying to nationalize
the steel industry, among other things, Clinton can be forgiven
a few lapses. And that's assuming they're even considered lapses!
Today's conservative position was often yesterday's liberalism.
Most mainstream conservatives seem to have made their peace with
the welfare state; neocons especially. It's not unreasonable to
suppose that in a few decades, things like universal single-payer
health care will be within the conservative mainstream, with only
a few hidebound reactionaries holding out against it. As the last
few years have shown, the Republican Party has almost totally abandoned
its attachment to limited government. If a major Republican figure
like Newt Gingrich can proclaim Franklin Roosevelt a great president,
Clinton can certainly be accepted by Republicans once time has healed
partisan wounds a bit.

What about
our current president? Strange as it may seem given his current
unpopularity and the rancor of much public discussion of him, I
have little doubt that George W. Bush will also be well-regarded
by history. The greatest presidents are those that gave us wars
or expansions of federal power, and Bush has generously provided
both. That should, in the long run, win him the approval of liberals
and conservatives alike.

Conservatives
will praise his heroic struggle against terrorism, and his willingness
to carry on the Iraq war (and perhaps the Syrian or Iranian war)
in the face of domestic unpopularity. His willingness to wisely
balance liberty and security by signing thing like the Patriot Act
will likewise be praised.

How will future
liberals regard him? George W. Bush is rather like Nixon, in a sense;
a man who is regarded as a right-wing ogre by many despite being
a liberal in many ways. For that reason, I expect liberals of the
future to be much kinder to him than liberals today. His expansions
of domestic entitlement spending will be praised as compassionate
and visionary. Republican Party's ties with even the pretense of
support for limited government will be seen by future generations
of liberals as an important step in creating a more “reasonable”
conservatism. Bush will be a progressive figure, a man who put his
party on the right side of history by jettisoning the conservative
movement's outdated distrust of government.

What about
the war? I expect his attempts to spread democracy by force of arms
to be praised as a noble enterprise sabotaged by domestic isolationists;
even those who consider it a mistaken enterprise will admire its
idealism. Liberals, for the most part, are hardly principled opponents
of war; when Clinton was bombing Serbia and starving Iraq, it was
mostly the far left, not mainstream liberals, who protested
it. Liberals are squawking about the Patriot Act now, but that will
pass; once those powers have been in the hands of a Democratic president,
they'll gain a new appreciation for it.

It's always
risky to speculate about the future, of course. But I stand by my
predictions. Whatever their differences, both parties love the power
of the state, and they love to see it wielded and expanded. Our
recent rulers have not disappointed in that regard.

January
15, 2007

John
Markley [send him mail]
is a freelance newspaper reporter from Illinois. He maintains a
blog at The Superfluous
Man
.

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