Presidential Scorekeeping: The New Book on Paul O'Neill Is Being Marketed as a Rabid Anti-Bush Tract. but Past Attempts at Instant History Have Had Pitifully Short Half-Lives

Article excerpt

Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

In 1962, Emmet John Hughes published a memoir of the Eisenhower presidency titled "The Ordeal of Power." Hughes, a prominent journalist who had served Eisenhower as a speechwriter, admired the president as a person and for his role as the commanding general in Europe during World War II. Still, the portrait of Eisenhower was unflattering, because it depicted a leader ill suited for the White House. Eisenhower, Hughes believed, never mastered the political skills needed to create a vigorous presidency. Even now, Hughes's elegantly written book is a wonderful read. But historians generally dissent from its central conclusion. They increasingly think that Eisenhower was more politically deft than people believed and that, in his basic judgments and policies, he conducted a successful presidency. In a recent ranking by historians, conducted by C-Span, Eisenhower is listed ninth ahead of Lyndon Johnson (10), Ronald Reagan (11), John Adams (16), Bill Clinton (21) and Jimmy Carter (22).

What recalls all this is the fuss stirred by "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill," written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind. Based on extensive interviews with the former Treasury secretary, the book purports to provide an insider's view of the administration. Its revelations briefly dominated the news, because they echoed the most damaging anti-Bush views: that he's a semi-dunce bored by policy discussions ("a blind man in a room full of deaf people," says O'Neill); that the administration was dishonest because it plotted to get rid of Saddam from the start (the first National Security Council meeting focused on Iraq), and that policies are driven mostly by politics ("Reagan proved deficits don't matter," Vice President Cheney tells O'Neill).

We ought to be skeptical; that's the lesson from the past. Presidential scorekeeping is an inevitable part of politics and democracy, but when it slides into instant history--pretending to determine the character and significance of a presidency in progress or just ended--the conclusions often have pitifully short half-lives. Witness Hughes's book as a useful reminder.

Or consider Truman. In 1948, almost no one expected him to win, as David McCullough notes in his biography. A month before the vote, NEWSWEEK polled 50 top political writers. The verdict was unanimous: 50-0 against Truman. In editorials, the Los Angeles Times called him a "blunderer," and the Chicago Tribune labeled him "an incompetent." The Baltimore Sun professed affection for him but said his election "would be a tragedy for the country and the world. …