When five members of the United States Supreme Court selected the president of the United States in 2000, it didn’t even come close to setting a record. We tend to forget that Jerry Ford was never selected by the voters to be president and he was, in fact, picked by one man, Richard Nixon, a man who was a crook and who resigned in disgrace. Jerry Ford related that when he went to the White House to be informed of Nixon’s decision to resign, that Nixon told him “I know you’ll do a good job. You have the background, the training. You are capable. You have the experience of political management, all the other things that go with the job. So I feel certain the country will be in good hands.” You can find that quote in, amongst other places, James Cannon’s outstanding new history of Gerald Ford called Gerald R. Ford; an Honorable Life.
We’ve discussed presidential ranking by historians on this blog before, but I’ve been astonished by the number of historians in the past five years who have put George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford at the very top of the list of the best presidents in America’s history. On domestic policy, Johnson also rates very highly, as does Eisenhower. Reagan and FDR have not fared so well lately. The general consensus of this generation of historians seems to be that the best presidents, systemically, are those who understand the science of political compromise, and who found a way to work with Congress, the opposing political party and the permanent government, to chart a centrist course. Those who have been flashy and prominent trend toward divisive. As Richard Reeve famously said, we do better with Fords than Lincolns. Say what you want about Lincoln and the evils of slavery, his refusal to negotiate with the Democrats resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000,000 Americans and 100 years of divisiveness and distress that has never really healed.
There is a growing perception amongst historians that the United States will never have another great president–that the elections have become much of a popularity contest, and that the characteristics which make for a great president are not the characteristics that make for a great Internet-era campaign. There is something be said for the fact that Obama is a novelty candidate, elected twice by the same percentage of people who can’t pass a basic reading comprehension test, who calim to spend at least three hours per day on Twitter and Facebook and who say that their top television preference is reality television shows. Someone told me yesterday that there is a reality-based television show based on the family life of California lawyer Robert Kardashian, and that this programme is the top choice of 75% of the folks who said they voted for Obama twice.
I’m preparing reviews for a few of the new presidential histories, particularly the books coming out in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I’ve interviewed most of the historians for the reviews. I’ve taken the opportunity to ask some of the top historians about their take on Obama. (James Cannon died in 2011, so I didn’t speak with him, which I consider a great loss) The general consensus is that Obama’s refusal to negotiate, and his insistence on ramming through his health plan on a party line vote as part of a reconciliation demonstrates a lack of the basic requirements of political sophistication that Nixon identified to Ford. It may not be that Obama was too young, but rather than he had a tendency to quit jobs when the going got tough, such he was never forged in fire, never understood the political process, still doesn’t. It’s not Obama’s job to ram his agenda through Congress for the good of his party, but to represent the country as a whole, even those who did not vote for him. As one historian said, it’s not cowardice to make a law that every citizen feels good about, or hates universally. It is cowardice to inflame a sizable percentage of the American populace and then act indifferent.”
If Obama is the new norm, we’re in deep trouble as a society.