Saturday, July 23, 2005

On idealizing presidents

No president has been as idealized as much as Ronald Reagan, though his policies were evil through and through. He is idealized because (a) a lot of Americans really liked his evil policies, and (b) he talked about God this and God that. George W. Bush is pretty much Son of Reagan, but without the glibness or the fake wisdom. Like Reagan, he supports the oppression of women, gays, people of color, and the poor. Like Reagan, he never met a corporation that did anything wrong. And like Reagan, he is willing to murder countless people on behalf of an imperialistic goal.

Now that he is out of office and has been replaced by the worst president in history, Clinton is idealized by a lot of people, too. There is no doubt that Clinton did a lot of good things when he was president, and unfortunately, many of them are considered insignificant because they were done on behalf of women, consumers, and families, the people the Republican Party pretends to defend, but actually holds in contempt.

On the other hand, Clinton littered his presidency with disruptions and disturbances because of his undisciplined personal life. He betrayed the gay community with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," betrayed his old friend Lani Guenier, betrayed Joycelyn Elders, and betrayed all women in his failure to defend Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood when they were held to a standard different from the standard for male candidates for the Cabinet. His reversal on the landmine ban and his failure to help prevent the genocide in Rwanda disappointed and enraged those who care about human rights. Clinton's better-than-average effort against the increase of terrorism, however, has been hidden by the shadow of the scandals that surrounded him.

Though there was undoubedly a vast, right-wing conspiracy against Clinton, he brought much of his scandal-ridden reputation upon himself.

Then there is Jimmy Carter, whom most people think of as an ineffective president, though he accomplished many things for which he is never given credit: the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal treaties, the Egypt-Israel treaty, the Salt II treaty, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Carter also championed human rights, increased environmental protection and created a comprehensive energy program.

Carter's civil rights black mark comes for his betrayal of the women's movement. Though he appeared to be an enthusiastic supporter of feminism and the ERA, he backed away from the movement when he thought it could cause him political problems. In a particularly nasty and self-serving turn, Carter removed Bella Abzug from her post as chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women when she pointed out that his administration had cut funding for women's programs. As Gloria Steinem said in the documentary about Shirley Chisholm, "Everyone thinks of Carter as being benign; he wasn't so benign back then." There is no doubt in my mind that Carter's failure to utilize his bully pulpit is one of the main reasons the ERA was not ratified.

History does not necessarily right the misperceptions we have of presidents. Carter will probably always be known as "weak" and as a supporter of women's rights, though, ultimately, he was neither. Clinton will perhaps never be acknowledged for the things he did to help people survive the ravages of health care, insurance, child custody disputes, and pension tampering. And both Reagan and W. Bush will live on in history as men with "big ideas" who defined their respective eras.


Good points. But I guess it also depends on who's writing the history.

By Blogger BlondebutBright, at 9:17 AM  

And who's reading it. There have always been incisive histories written of presidents, but they are not the ones that become the "popular" history, which is why textbooks are so full of misinformation.

By Blogger Diane, at 11:02 AM  

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