October 3, 2000
title of my new book,
Hustler: The Clinton Legacy,
suggests, I dont take the idea of a presidential
legacy very seriously. I dont think the designers of
the Constitution envisioned presidents as national leaders
or would have idolized great presidents. They neither
thought nor spoke in such terms.
To them a president was to be an
executive a mere executor of the laws made by the
peoples representatives. That doesnt leave much room for
greatness as we think of it. Jeffersons tomb
doesnt even mention his presidency among the three chief
accomplishments of his life, though his purchase of the Louisiana
Territory was one of this countrys truly formative events.
Presidents should be good, not
great. That is, they should do their prescribed executive
duties humbly and be content with that. A good president, when he has
finished his job, should be pretty much forgotten, like Millard
Poor Bill Clinton will be remembered.
He has been more celebrity than executive, with more publicity than
dignity. His legacy will be a record of moral and ethical
squalor, culminating in impeachment, with his acquittal due to a
remarkable erosion of public standards of conduct. He hoped to achieve
something that would upstage his notoriety in the pages of History, but it
appears that thats past praying for.
Of course History is fickle. Polls of
historians usually rate Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt our two
greatest presidents; but we neednt take this verdict
as the last word. It should give us pause that Lincoln and Roosevelt
presided over our two most disastrous wars, and more Americans died
during their administrations than during any others.
In fact a strong case can be made that
both Lincoln and Roosevelt deserved to be impeached. Both trangressed the
Constitution they were sworn to uphold in order to prosecute their wars,
committing massive violations of civil liberties.
Dissenters who had broken no laws were arbitrarily arrested on
Lincolns orders. He even wrote an order for the arrest of the Chief
Justice of the United States, Roger Taney, who had ruled unconstitutional
his suspension of the right of habeas corpus; and if that order had been
served, Lincoln might indeed have been impeached. He did arrest many
Maryland legislators who opposed his war against the South; so much for
government of the people, by the people, for the people. He
also shut down many newspapers that opposed the war.
Roosevelt secretly violated the
Neutrality Act in order to help the British in their war with Germany. He
constantly lied to the American public about his intentions, insisting that
he was trying to keep this country out of war. Once the United States got
into the war, he incarcerated American citizens of Japanese ancestry, an
act even J. Edgar Hoover opposed as unconstitutional. Roosevelt had
already shown his contempt for the Constitution in many ways, such as his
attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court; even his fellow
Democrats were shocked by that proposal, which would have destroyed the
independence of the judicial branch of the federal government.
But fate has been kind to these
high-handed presidents. They enjoyed popular support during wartime, and
they won their wars, even if the cost to the country was disproportionate
to any good achieved. The Confederacy, Japan, and Germany were so
bitterly hated that anything done to defeat them was excused.
And still is. Its often said that
History is the propaganda of the victors. That is true in more than the
obvious sense. Even when the blatant atrocity stories told (and often
exaggerated or invented) are discounted, historians usually adopt the
perspective of the winning side. Most historians accept the egalitarian
ideologies of Lincoln and Roosevelt, as well as their drive to centralize
power; so these victorious presidents are judged by their own standards.
The alternative philosophies of their opponents have been forgotten,
without having been refuted.
You might say that the propaganda of
the victors is in our bones. Its now hard for us to understand why
anyone in their own day could oppose them. We are all taught from the
cradle that they were right. We have to make a difficult mental
adjustment to see the past any other way.
Bill Clinton should be so lucky.
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