Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If the headline is a question, is the answer automatically no?

Or in the case of this video, is asking whether George Bush will be the most unpopular president ever, a reliable guide to his future reputation?

Still, it's a good overview of presidential reputations, and a good warning against making snap judgements. For instance, Harry Truman left office with even lower approval ratings than the current incumbent, but I doubt many people will bracket the two together in years to come.

It's quite the intellectual parlour game, this business of presidential reputation. There's a few surveys (here's a summary, with the usual caveats, from Wikipedia) in which there is a broad agreement on the worst presidents (Buchanan, Harding, Pierce). And there's an even bigger consensus on the top of the list: Lincoln, Washington and FDR as the three best, Jefferson next and Teddy Roosevelt the best of the rest.

There are those who get widely different ratings (eg LBJ and Nixon), while some of those who usually make the top ten: Truman and Andrew Johnson have some pretty big controversies: Hiroshima, the start of the Cold War and Indian Removal (okay, that isn't really a controversy these days). Still, both score highly in other regards: in the case of Truman, few would argue Marshall Aid was a bad idea and there was a growing awareness of the near-impossible circumstances he faced which put his decisions in a more favourable light.

Symptomatic of this shift was Henry Wallace, the vice president who was bumped off the 1944 Democratic ticket (he'd managed to piss off half of Washington and was thought too likely to take a soft line with Stalin.). In 1948, he stood against Truman on the Progressive ticket (the Democrats had splintered three ways, with Strom Thurmond standing for the white, Southern Dixiecrats, no wonder Truman was expected to lose). However, in later life, Wallace decided he had, indeed, taken a far too emollient line towards the Soviets and produced the political memoir with the best title of the genre: Where I Was Wrong. I'd like to see more like this, but somehow I suspect Tony Blair may take the opposite path. Still, you may wish to draw contemporary parallels if you like that sort of thing.

Personally, I'd like to inject a note of sneering negativity – or honesty, as some call it – to these historic debates. In this case: my list of the most over-rated presidents. It's tempting to start with Clinton and Reagan as both are bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia given the style and troubles of the current administration. As a corrective I could cite such things as Iran-Contra; voodoo economics; the failure to deal with al-Qaida, get Kyoto passed and fatal dithering in Rwanda and Bosnia – plus it's arguable that others deserve the credit for such achievements ending the Cold War and keeping the economy ticking over.

But for now I'll stick to Eisenhower and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom instigated policies which have pissed substantially in the soup of posterity.

In the case of Eisenhower, his bid to take to the heat out of the Cold War (which evokes wistful comparisons to today's hands-on school of Republican foreign policy), involved some pretty questionable tactics. Under him, the CIA developed the practice of covert operations – events such as the overthrow of Mossadeq (look how well Iran has turned out since the Shah got back into power); of Lumumba (ditto with Congo); plus the organisation of the Bay of Pigs operation, a fiasco which Kennedy didn't have the confidence to veto (I don't need to labour the point, do I?). The problem is, this policy trend continued throughout the Cold War (hello, Dr Kissinger) – nor has it entirely gone away – and has left a legacy of mistrust, if not hatred, of America in large chunks of the world, plus an institutionalised and cynical fondness for house-trained tyrants and fanatics and under-hand, morally questionable actions. The current utter fucked-up-ness of the Middle East is just one of many consequences of this.

As for Wilson you can sum up his presidency thusly: "only a naive white person would ever claim he was a great president". The reason is that this icon of liberalism oversaw the extension and defence of segregation at a Federal level. I won't insult your intelligence by outlining all the political and cultural implications, save to add that the federal government was one of the best means of Black advancement at the time, but I think we can agree this isn't an ideal form of liberalism?*

Worst, Wilson's greatest achievement – the League of Nations – didn't involve your actual achievement of something of lasting worth. The fact that league became a useless talking shop is partly attributable to Wilson's failure to get the US to join the damn thing. (The fact the at the end of the presidency he was utterly incapacitated, but hadn't really told anyone and was letting his wife run the show on the quiet, probably didn't help him rectify the problem.)

Racism and a totally worthless international talking shop: it's not the best of legacies, is it? For all his faults, I'd say Truman did rather better.

*NB: I know Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. (And, gosh, didn't they feel guilty about it?) We all know this isn't great, but they didn't put the clock back on this issue.

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