"As for adopting the ways which the state has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways." ~ Henry David Thoreau
The Hand of Providence
Exclusive to STR
January 8, 2007
Presidential greatness isn't what it used to be. Once, to be called 'great,' you had to preside over some great expansion of federal power or get the country into a major war. Preferably both. Now, it seems, every President, in retrospect, turns out to be great, loved by both sides of the political spectrum.
This was brought to the forefront of my mind by the sudden apotheosis of Gerald Ford, who in death has suddenly become a brilliant statesman. For days after his death, the editorial pages of the newspapers and sites all over the Internet were full of praise for everything about his administration and personal character. He was wise, he was kind, he was bipartisan, he was a unifier. Above all, he was a great man for pardoning Richard Nixon, which saved our all-important faith in government. This was held up again and again as a great work of statesmanship, a tremendous act of personal courage, and a moving display of forgiveness and Christian charity. (Apparently, to some of these people, Christian forgiveness means letting the criminal former ruler go on his merry way while letting his coconspirators, mere commoners, rot in prison. I guess my theology is a bit rusty.)
This isn't new--even Richard Nixon got a partial rehabilitation when he died, and his reputation has further improved since. When I thought about it, this isn't as strange as it might seem. Conservatives defended him because, as their willingness to defend President Bush in spite of his domestic spending increases has reminded us, many of them will defend anyone who calls himself a Republican. Increasing numbers of liberals have to some extent made peace with him partly because Nixon was, in many ways, one of them: He continued the Great Society, instituted price and wage controls, and increased government control over the economy in other ways. Were it not for Watergate, I suspect Nixon would be a well-liked figure among modern liberals and centrists. Despite his embarrassing criminal behavior, Nixon was a good servant of statism, which is something both parties can get behind.
Still, the outpouring of adoration for Ford from the mainstream press got me thinking. The system, it seems, is perfect or nearly so. Somehow, we always manage to have exactly the right person in office at the right time. The system never fails; whatever their personal peccadilloes, in matters of statesmanship, our leaders are always great men, exactly what we needed when we needed it, even if the people are too foolish to recognize it at the time. Ford, for instance, had the vision to place Nixon above the law, thus sparing the nation the demoralizing spectacle of seeing a former president held accountable for his crimes and having their trust in the state shaken.
This adoration crosses party lines. Hence, we have such things as arch-conservative Newt Gingrich declaring Franklin Roosevelt a great president, the Democrat Harry Truman's elevation to a conservative icon, and the current bipartisan gushing over Ford. This isn't too surprising; the squabbling between the major parties is about details, not fundamental principles.
For the ruling parties, the benefits are obvious. If every president is great in retrospect, then our system of government seems infallible. No matter how bad things are now, no matter how incompetent or unjust our rulers may seem, we are encouraged to believe that it will turn out to be for the best. Sure, the system may sometimes seem unjust, oppressive, or exploitative, and our rulers may seem corrupt, venal, or immoral, but if you examine history, you'll see that in fact our leaders were always right about the big questions. Thus, confidence in the state is maintained. I have no doubt that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will be embraced by liberals and conservatives alike in a few decades.
It's not surprising that so many mainstream political commentators of both parties promote this view; they may quibble with this or that government policy, but they don't question the essential goodness of the system. Nor is it surprising that many regular people with no particular stake in maintaining the government's aura of legitimacy buy into this. It's very natural to want to believe that the world is better than it is, that our system of government is better than it is, and that things will inevitably be alright in the end.
The idea of a benevolent God used to fulfill that role for many people; now the state often serves as a substitute or supplement. It is not for nothing that some libertarians speak of 'the cult of the omnipotent state.' The idea that every president in living memory was in retrospect a great one, wise and farsighted, is that cult's vision of benevolent Providence guiding the nation. The injustices the state commits today do not occur in a vacuum; they are built on the precedents of past injustices and usurpations, acts legitimized by the glorification of the politicians who committed them. Until people start to look at rulers of the past through clear eyes, they will never understand and reject the evils of the present.