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