Douthat’s second good post today speaks to our presidents’ weakness for the grand gesture, the manipulation of gathering storms for historical canonization. What looks on first reading to be a defense of George W. Bush is actually a subtle condemnation of his yearning for presidential greatness and the weakness of Jon Meacham types forever in search ofChief Executives ready to lead another Greatest Generation:
All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)
But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.
I said as much a couple of months ago. But Douthat (craftily?) omits any allusion to the manipulation of intelligence and swelling of executive power that’s transpired in the adminstration of this Bush, both of which should remind him that powerful presidents are more attractive in history books than in office.