Thursday, June 10, 2004

When Reagan Left the White House, He Left the Scene

When Reagan left the White House, he left the White House. No clinging to the scene. No acting as kingmaker in the Republican Party. No taking potshots at his successors. And when he left the White House, Bush Sr. didn’t have to re-order fine china and silverware. Bush Sr. has followed largely the same course, and I am confident Bush Jr. will as well, but hopefully not for another four years.

What explains the fact that Clinton and Carter feel the need to wear out their welcome? OK, admittedly, at least Clinton wore it out for me a long time ago, so I am not without partisan bias. (Being all of eight years old when Carter took office, it took a little longer for me to be sickened by him.)

Carter’s greatest contribution to humanity was curing the “malaise” he had diagnosed his subjects with in the course of his dismal presidency by getting trounced in his re-election bid. It’s an inadvertent contribution, but is no less praiseworthy for that fact. Why not rest on his laurels and leave it at that? Clinton’s greatest contribution was easing the workload for late night comedy writers, who are usually under great stress to produce decent material. It puts him on par with O.J. Simpson, but you don’t see O.J. thinking that accomplishment worthy of having him in the public eye every second of the day.

Maybe the fact that these two guys cannot simply leave the scene is attributable to their comparative youth when they left office, but I think Bush Jr. will prove that thesis wrong. But if I am wrong, and youth is the common denominator, then I would seriously consider voting for the older candidate, or the one of more frail health, if only so that (like Reagan) they can be gone when they leave.

I think the explanation really is quite simple. Reagan and Bush know that the American people do not need them, which is a testament to their comparative humility. It is pure hubris to think oneself the “indispensable” politician in this country, as some are no doubt prone. And they have the class, wisdom, and requisite level of self-assurance to know that they themselves do not need the American people - they don’t need the validation of the chattering classes or of history. They didn’t self-consciously fret over how history would one day view them, perhaps because they know the judgment of history is the judgment of man, and whether or good or bad, it is not the judgment that ultimately matters.

It was said of Bush Jr. during the 2000 election that, in contrast to Gore, he didn’t need the presidency – life would go on for him, whereas for Gore the loss would take a far greater toll. Certainly the prediction for Gore now wrings true. He needed the presidency, much as Clinton and Carter needed the presidency, and the latter, having had it, clearly became addicted to it. There is something unseemly about the ego required to even aspire to the office, and the founding fathers used to routinely express disinterest in holding such power. Even if only feigned, their protests at least recognized the dangers inherent to vesting power in the hands of a powerful ego. Unseemly or not, the job has to be filled by someone. What is far more disturbing is the ego that not only aspires to and attains the office, but hangs on to the scene as if all hope will be lost without its presence. The self-justification is always that the country needs me, but the truer cause in the case of some is that they need the country.


Blogger John Wolfram said...

Good article! A few comments:
1. One could argue that at first, Reagan left the scene because the special prosecutors were hot on the trail of his knowledge and pre-approval of the "arms for hostages" deal with Iran-contra. One would be wrong, of course, but that "need to be invisible" for a period of years--as first enacted by TR when he adventured in Africa to allow Taft to become his own man--was driven by self-preservation, and was eventually replaced some two years later (when he was finally interviewed by the special prosecutor) by the beginnings of his disease.

2. You neglected to mention Ford. I don't know if this is on purpose or it is because most people forget about Ford (or both). In any event Ford pretty much disappeared but did reappear at the Republican national convention every now and again just to remind people to be loyal to the party. He is now the oldest living former president and is the second-longest-living president ever (or at least he will be when he turns 91 next month, surpassing John Adams). Of course he had to disappear too, because how can you stick around after you lose to Carter? Plus, there is alot of golf to be played, and hanging around D.C. does nothing to enhance your fairway play...

3. One could argue that Clinton HAS left the scene -- at least he has not been publicly criticizing the administration (or I should say I haven't seen anything to that effect -- perhaps it has happened). He is on the scene now in the same way that most Presidents are right after they get out....the book tour scene!

4. One could also argue that Bush 41 disappeared because he lost to Clinton (oh the shame!) but also because he was open to criticism for pardoning Weinberger et al, was having some health problems, and frankly was not all that interested in being elected to begin with. The press was driving him crazy. You are 100% right that Bush absolutely had no interest in controlling how people and history think of him, as evidenced by the lack of an extensive autobiography.

5. I think there are very few Presidents, even among the founders, who did not want the job (at least at the time they got it). Washington is one, and I think Ford is another. Truman too, I think. The founders never campaigned overtly for the job but they had the same human egotistical interests in the days of Jefferson as they do in the days of W. Jefferson Clinton, in my view anyway. I think it was Plato in The Republic who said that the philosopher is best suited to be king, if for nothing else because the philospher had no ambition for the job and could thus rule justly rather than self-servingly. But Plato didn't spend much time in Washington D.C., probably because he was always trying to get out of that cave with all the creepy shadowy human forms dancing on the wall...

This is kind of fun, whether or not I actually believe one word of what I just wrote! Please write more.

10:09 AM  

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