The Lessons of History
Ah, the Lessons of History! Theyre like Aesops fables, tiny narratives tagged with single, simple morals. The Lesson of Munich, the Lesson of Vietnam, the Lesson of Watergate, and so on. Politicians and pundits love em.
One of these Lessons were being reminded of by the less literate supporters of President Bush and the Iraq war is that History may someday take a kindlier view of a president who gets low approval ratings from his contemporaries. This is the Lesson of Truman. When Harry Truman left office in 1953 he was about as unpopular as Bush is today, but he is now remembered as a great (or near-great) president. So maybe future generations will look back just as fondly on Bush.
Maybe. But before we start construction on the Bush Memorial, perhaps someone will explain just what Trumans greatness (or near-greatness) consisted in. Using nuclear weapons on cities? Waging undeclared war in Korea? Trying to nationalize the steel industry?
If anything, Truman was even worse than his poll ratings suggest. He had the temperament of a vulgar dictator. His most notable achievement was his 1948 upset victory over Thomas Dewey. But how did that, or anything else he ever did, serve the public interest?
John Kennedy is another whose presidency has been endowed with a retrospective glamour unrelated to any known public benefit. Only nostalgia can account for the happy memory he has become. The most you can say for him is that he didnt do as much harm as most of our presidents.
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon also wore out their welcomes, even after landslide victories, and retired in well-earned disgrace. Few would defend them today. There is no sign that their reputations will ever be substantially repaired.
Some people believe in reincarnation, or want to, because of a pathetic inability to accept this life as the one that counts. They need to feel they will have another chance to redeem themselves.
Imagine being in Bushs place. You have deviously taken the country into a horrible war, disregarding and even despising your fathers prudence, conceding nothing to the critics who turned out to be right. You have lost the trust and respect of more than two-thirds of the American public. You have made this country feared and hated around the world.
With all that and more on your soul, wouldnt you want to cling to the hope that many years from now you will appear, not reckless and deluded, but prescient and courageous? That wise old History will reverse the verdict of todays court of public opinion and grant you a full pardon?
But this is only one more Bush fantasy. Time and again his shallow sense of history has betrayed him: in his wild charges against Saddam Hussein, in his silly prediction that democracy in Iraq would flourish and transform the entire Middle East, in his premature declaration of victory, in his incurable optimism about the wars progress its hard to think of anything hes been right about.
Meanwhile, think of his fathers anguish. After proudly seeing his son win the presidency twice, he has had to watch helplessly as the promise of glory was transformed into a historical nightmare one of the most ignominious administrations in American history.
For all his faults, the elder Bush was always wary of the pro-Israel lobby, including the Christian Right. By his lights, he put American interests first. His sons worst blunders have sprung from subservience to the neoconservatives and their dupes, who are always eager to see this country at war in the Middle East. He felt no mission to spread democracy over the earth like peanut butter or to fight the Israelis wars for them.
What must the old man feel as he sees his family name become accursed of all nations? Being a parent can be tough. Kids can give you unpleasant surprises. Usually, though, these can be coped with. If your son gets drunk and totals your new stretch limousine, well, youre not happy, but its not going into the history books. But if, say, he starts a world war, you may find yourself wishing youd put him up for adoption when you still had the chance.
Old George and Bar may be kicking themselves right now. I hope their golden years arent being spoiled by recriminations: Youre the one who wanted to keep him! Thats a low blow! I never said that! It could get ugly.
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