Some interesting observations from history teacher/blogger Betsy Newmark on the passing of President Gerald Ford reminded me just how differently things are often viewed through the lens of history.
Newmark wrote, “All those crediting Ford today for healing and bringing the nation together after Nixon's resignation are discounting the tremendous, burning anger there was in the country after the pardon. Democrats in Congress even held hearings to see if there had been some sort of a quid pro quo between Ford and Nixon. The goodwill that Ford had earned with his graceful ascension after Nixon almost immediately dissipated. Fortunately for Mr. Ford, he lived long enough to see the verdict of history come around to think that he probably made the right decision to spare the country months of seeing Nixon on trial. “
It is quite common that actions are viewed much differently decades later than they were by those during the times in which they occurred. Those Americans witnessing the passing of Ronald Reagan, who were not old enough to have personal memories of his presidency would have trouble reconciling the commentary by many at that time to the comments made when he died. Some of those who regarded Reagan as a warmonger, twenty years later lauded his optimism. Many of the same people who criticized Reagan during his presidency for referring to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” and for taking a hard line against communism, later credited him (if reluctantly) for the role he played in the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall.
Just as opinions of Reagan’s presidency changed in the short twenty years after he left office, Betsy Newmark notes the way memories have faded of the atmosphere present at the time of Ford’s presidency just over a quarter of a century ago. “The obituaries extolling Ford's ability to unify the country overlook the atmosphere at the time, especially the bitterness after the Nixon pardon. It was not a time of unity in Washington as the Congress overrode 12 of Ford's vetoes. Congress refused to send aid to South Vietnam as North Vietnam violated the Peace Accords and invaded the South forcing the U.S. to evacuate and finally abandon the South. Untold thousands in South Vietnam and Cambodia died as a result.”
Sometimes, as with Reagan’s strategy in the Cold War, the result of a particular policy or strategy that is not realized until years later changes opinions. Other times I believe it is just easier for those who might have been invested politically, and even emotionally, to see things objectively after the passage of time, when their political fortunes are no longer wrapped up in the success or defeat of an opposing politician or party.
I can’t help but wonder how differently more recent presidencies will be seen when viewed through the lens of history. While some will point to specific acts taken by President Jimmy Carter while in office to try to shed more favorable light on his presidency, most Democrats look instead to things he has done after leaving office. For many years, his work for charitable causes like Habitat for Humanity helped to rehabilitate his overall legacy. His recent highly partisan criticism of a sitting president, and some controversial statements regarding Israel and the Palestinians that have led even former supporters to label him as a terrorist apologist threaten to undo the image of model former president that a very friendly media have spun for him.
So far, Bill Clinton’s presidential legacy doesn’t seem all that much different than when he left office. A presidency known for small proposals and big scandals only appears more so. Small proposals like school uniforms have been largely forgotten. The less than adequate measures against the threat of global terrorism have taken their place. Scandals like Whitewater, FBI filegate and “Monica” continued as Clinton left office with his choice of pardons granted, and exist even to this day in former Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s classified document theft. It is possible that the Clinton presidency will be viewed differently after the passage of more time. It seems more likely though that the Clinton legacy will be changed more by the things that he does in is post-presidency, such as his efforts in the global fight against HIV-AIDS, or by his ability or inability to help elect his wife to the office he once held.
What will be really interesting is to see how George W. Bush’s presidency will be viewed decades from now. Assessments then will be influenced less by those who have emotions and political fortunes invested and more by the course of world events, how trends emerge and develop, and how they are seen to have been a result of Bush policies. Whether history’s view of the current president is favorable or not, I think it is safe to assume it will be different than the prevailing current assessments. Time has a way of putting things into perspective.