History Has Been Kind to US Presidents ; EDITORIAL & OPINION
Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)
Love or loathe the US, who could not feel goose bumps as the majestic strains of America the Beautiful wafted through the National Cathedral yesterday? America does its state occasions magnificently, with a perfect mixture of pomp, emotion and the informality that befits a republic. And no occasion is done better than a President's funeral.
For foreigners the ritual can be a little mystifying, and never more so than yesterday. This after all was Gerald Ford, the 38th President whose stumbles were fodder for a thousand comedians, the man of whom one of his predecessors, Lyndon Johnson, remarked that "he had played football too long without a helmet".
Yet shortly before 10am yesterday, the cathedral accorded him the signal honour of sending 38 long, slow chimes pealing out across the city, as the cortege made its way from the US Capistored tol, where Ford's body had lain in state. And when it arrived at the cathedral, anyone who mattered in the past 30 years of American policymaking - Presidents, cabinet secretaries, generals and high functionaries - was there to see him off.
Such is what an American president, any American president, represents. He is not just a head of government, limited to a maximum of two four-year terms, but he is head of state as well. He is party politician, yet above party. More fundamentally still, he is history.
A Presidency, more than a monarch's reign or the mightiest prime ministership, becomes shorthand for a segment of his country's past. And as Ford's experience proves, and George W Bush must fervently hope, that history is a work in progress, long after the man himself has left the Oval Office.
History's judgement has been kind to recent presidents - in part of course because Bush's own dismal standing has automatically revalued the reputations of his predecessors. Take Ronald Reagan, whose stock has risen steadily since he left office. By the time he died in 2004, some of the same historians who had once criticised him as a senile idiot were ranking him as a "near-great" president, who had defeated Communism and restored the country's belief in itself. Or consider the first President Bush, seen as an out-of- touch, country-club patrician when he lost the 1992 election, but who is now much admired for his deft handling of the breakup of the former Soviet Union - and who now looks a genius for his decision not to go all the way to Baghdad after driving Sad-dam Hussein from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. Bill Clinton too is basking in a rosy glow - in part because of the daily more glaring contrast with his successor, but also because his eight years in office are now acquiring the lustre of an economic golden age. A certain Monica is more or less forgotten, as is his dithering over Rwanda and Bosnia.
Even Jimmy Carter is looked upon more favourably, despite the fact that "malaise" was the watchword of a presidency that ended in the ignominy of the Tehran hostage crisis. To be sure, Carter has been helped by the activism since leaving office that has some calling him "the best ex-President in history". But unlike people, history finds it hard to bear grudges for ever.
And now Gerald Ford. There is of course the de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (never speak ill of the dead) factor - especially strong in this case, given Ford's …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: History Has Been Kind to US Presidents ; EDITORIAL & OPINION. Contributors: Cornwell, Rupert - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: January 3, 2007. Page number: 29. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.