Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon: Reagan's Heir ... Reaching for a Place in History





As President Bush prepares to deliver his last State of the Union address tomorrow night, a legion of pundits, politicians and, yes, historians is already assigning the 43rd president his final place in history. These commentators, and especially those who confidently assert that Bush is the "worst president in history," would do well to remember the British historian C.V. Wedgwood's observation: "History is written backward but lived forward. Those who know the end of the story can never know what it was like at the time." We all know -- or think we do -- what things are like in our union now, with an economy hitting a rough patch and a foreign war grinding on with no end in sight. But we don't know how the story will turn out.

Bush is admittedly so unpopular that even Republican presidential candidates rarely mention him, preferring instead to compare themselves to the GOP's great icon, Ronald Reagan. We both actually think that Bush bears some comparison to Reagan, at least on the home front. Even so, it's a safe bet that the Republican nominee who emerges from the present melee will not be eager to have Bush at his side during the fall campaign.

Such downturns are hardly new in U.S. history. For decades after the Great Depression, no Republican candidate wanted Herbert Hoover within hailing distance. Fifty-six years ago, few Democrats cared to share a platform with the discredited Harry S. Truman, widely seen as an ill-spoken, partisan rube who had led the nation into a needless foreign war. (Sound familiar?) Truman hit the lowest job-approval ratings in the history of the Gallup poll, including Richard M. Nixon's on the eve of his resignation.

Today, the pendulum has swung. Many historians blame Hoover's predecessors, not Hoover, for the high tariff rates and other excesses that led to the Depression. Meanwhile, historians place Truman close to the top rank of modern presidents. These reversals of historical fortune raise the question: Why is it so difficult to judge presidents, especially while they still occupy the Oval Office?

Three reasons help explain why it's folly to rate a sitting president. First, history isn't written by a single person or school of academic thought. So George W. Bush has a point when he notes, in an admittedly self-serving way, that scholars are still arguing about the first president named George. Second, we have no idea what the future holds. Voters judge their presidents -- and their presidential candidates, for that matter -- based on who (and what) has come before. A president's historical legacy, by contrast, is also dependent on who and what comes after. When Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961, for example, one of his presumed foreign policy accomplishments was the CIA-led overthrow of Iran's popular, supposedly pro-Soviet ruler and the installation of the pro-Western shah. The United States is still paying for that strategy.

Then there's the third factor: The excesses of a current president often make previously neglected characteristics in another president seem desirable. Truman's reassessment gathered steam 20 years after he left office -- just as Nixon's true character was revealed on the Watergate tapes. Nixon's scheming and manipulations made Truman's blunt style seem benign....


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