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In Retrospect

I was having a conversation this afternoon about the tendency of liberal intellectuals to bash Republican presidents and then later discover that they had hidden virtues and were, in fact, much better than today's GOP scumbag. This tendency is probably most pronounced with regard to presidents Eisenhower and H.W. Bush, and then to a lesser extent with Nixon and Reagan while as far as I can tell Gerald Ford has generally failed to inspire strong feelings one way or the other. Upon further reflection, you see something rather similar with conservative intellectuals. Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy most notably all turn out to have hidden virtues that their conservative contemporaries were totally unaware of. Franklin Roosevelt is a more complicated but generally similar case. Certainly, almost no one on the mainstream right would today unleash the sort of vitriol against him that was commonplace at the time. Bill Clinton is probably too contemporary for this phenomenon to have worked its way through, but we're seeing the early signs of it already. Jimmy Carter is a partial exception, but that's a special case since rarely does a president leave office so unloved by everyone.

I have some vague speculations as to what might account for this but, frankly, I find it a bit puzzling. Some of the retrospective endorsements (in both directions) strike me as pretty unjustifiable. My strong suspicion, however, is that especially now that he's won his second term, something similar will happen with the current president Bush. It's a disquieting thought, since I'm pretty damn sure I'm not mistaken in my belief that he is, in fact, a fantastically bad president. I resolve, however, to put some time into writing up a list of the good things I think he's done (there are several) for the sake of posterity in case I find myself sometime in the 2040s needing to talk about how badly wrong I had things back in my early 20s.

UPDATE: For example, while I'm by no means a supporter of the president's agenda (see above remarks on the Social Security scam, assorted commentary on foreign policy, etc.) I would be willing to bet Professor B. and her commenters a non-trivial sum of money that the United States does not, in fact, go Fascist as a result of George W. Bush's tenure in office. Not that I haven't thought these thoughts myself! If you're clever and well-informed about fascism (especially its more minor variants in Vichy, Francoist Spain, Peronist Argentina, etc.) you really can spot a lot of parallels. I've been known to play this game from time to time and may do so again in the past. But honestly, this is not a very productive way of understanding the situation and seems to confound fascism's core evils with its incidental attributes. I'm an atheist and Stalin was an atheist; we both think Mikhail Bulgakov is a brilliant writer with some mistaken political views; neither of us are great admirers of Leon Trotsky; we're both hostile to ethnic separatist movements; we believe in single-provider national health insurance plans; you could go on like this, but it doesn't make me a Stalinist.

February 3, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I'll start:

Those diesel regs are a good move.

Afghanistan has worked out okay.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 3, 2005 8:36:02 PM

We always find the strength, said La Rochefoucauld, to bear the misfortunes of others. And we usually see the merits of enemies who are safely dead or at least out of power.

Barry Goldwater looks pretty good in hindsight, and even Nixon had the decency to resign. I have fond feelings for the right-wing loonies I fought a quarter-century ago as a suburban Vancouver school trustee.

Meanwhile the monstrously right-wing Conrad Black has published an admiring biography of FDR (and plundered his own company of millions to pay for FDR's papers). And longtime liberals now look at Woodrow Wilson and wish to God he'd stayed at Princeton instead of fomenting stupid ideas about national self-determination.

If it's any consolation, Matthew, future conservatives will look back on Bush Jr. the way serious left-wingers look back on Stalin as a promoter of "progressive" ideas.

Posted by: Crawford Kilian | Feb 3, 2005 8:41:41 PM

Conservative intellectuals?

Posted by: pablo | Feb 3, 2005 8:46:44 PM

"Bill Clinton is probably too contemporary for this phenomenon to have worked its way through, but we're seeing the early signs of it already."

I don't think it's too early. While Clinton was hated by conservatives during his Presidency, and still despised by many, you already hear some singing the praises of welfare reform, cutting the capital gains tax, and his plans to partially privatize Social Security.

I think what it comes down to is a lot of people define right and wrong, good and bad, as Republican or Democrat. Politicians play off this to get votes but after enough years go by, and you don't have the partisan agitators screaming in your ears, people look back at things more objectively.

Posted by: Peter | Feb 3, 2005 8:47:30 PM

It's always possible to look better in retrospect, when you're followed by worse.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 3, 2005 8:57:26 PM

>Afghanistan has worked out okay.

Not really. Everywhere outside Kabul is ruled by
warlords, heroin production is booming, and the
Taliban are still at large. It only looks good
compared to Iraq ...

On the general point, nobody has a good word for
the presidencies of Ulysses S Grant, Calvin Coolidge,
Herbert Hoover, or more recently Ford and Carter
(though Grant and Hoover were great men before
the presidency, and Carter after his term).
If anything good has happened under Bush, it was
an accident and the person responsible has been
fired.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Feb 3, 2005 8:59:11 PM

Consider, by way of comparison, how Billy Graham seemed like the worst possible kind of religous conservative, until Jerry Falwell came around, who seemed unbeatable in his awfulness until Pat Robertson made a serious run at the Presidency...and, now, how about that Dobson guy, who announces just what he expects the President of the United States to do for him?

Shorter this-comment: what Brett just said.

Posted by: DonBoy | Feb 3, 2005 9:02:03 PM

Pablo beat me to it ... that was an oxymoron.

Posted by: poputonian | Feb 3, 2005 9:04:47 PM

"Everywhere outside Kabul is ruled by
warlords, heroin production is booming, and the
Taliban are still at large."

eh. The Afghan Arabs, while not captured in toto, are toast. The Taliban was never the reason we went in there, and in any case it is marginalized. Now I'd like us to wax Hekmatyar and Haqqani and the LeT boys and implement an effective, careful crop substitution program, but the bottom line is that Karzai is reasonably popular, the people aren't generally oppressed as badly, and the U.S. isn't sending home large numbers of coffins.

Hence, "okay."

Posted by: praktike | Feb 3, 2005 9:06:09 PM

"Afghanistan has worked out okay."
Not really.

It's that soft bigotry of low expectations again. Compared to Iraq, Afghanistan is a rose garden.


Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | Feb 3, 2005 9:18:01 PM

What will happen is that as 2008 approaches, and Gingrich makes a run at the presidency, Bush will start to look good in comparison and we will regret not having him around anymore.

Posted by: Bob H | Feb 3, 2005 9:18:12 PM

No, I don't think you're mistaken about Bush, Matt. It seemed to me that too many intellectual conservatives agreed.

The problem is that intelligence doesn't mean power. Money does.

Posted by: fling93 | Feb 3, 2005 9:20:00 PM

Interesting post, Matthew.

There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is, I think, the whole 'uncertainty of the present' psychological factor. Right now, we can't know the future. We don't know what's coming down the road. It could be good, it could be bad. Some (like myself) worry about Bush's policies, and what they'll mean for the future. Others, such as most conservatives, aren't so worried. This is how it's been, in some form or another, since time began.

No one knows what the future will bring, or how our leaders will shape it. Heck, since the future is a blank slate right now (i.e. it hasn't happened yet), we don't even know if there will be a future. Luckily, humanity has always had a future thus far, and therefore a past to look back upon. With this, we breathe a sigh of relief, and realize that the things turned out ok (sometimes), despite what our fears and uncertainties were for the future.

That's what I'm hoping with Bush. I'm a liberal Democrat who doesn't like the GOP, the current political tensions, and most of the president's stances on the issues. I worry about what the future will be like. I would love it if, in 10, 20 or 30 years, things were ok, and I could like back and say, "Y'know, we made it through 8 years of Bush ok. He wasn't my favorite, but the country and the world made it through ok."

I think that's what you're describing, when people look back at most presidents and have a little less vitriol regarding them.

Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Feb 3, 2005 9:20:22 PM


Oh, and let us praise those Nazis who just adored art and little children and puppy dogs.

And did I mention the mass murderer who washed his hands afterward just like Mum said he should?

Virtues are hierarchical; they do not, of course, cancel "sins" or redeem the "sinner."

Posted by: Blue Iris | Feb 3, 2005 9:23:12 PM

Even the most disgusting liberals are starting to realize they were wrong about the Soviets. He saved us from a threat the Left wouldn't even acknowledge.

Posted by: Al | Feb 3, 2005 9:26:53 PM

Maybe I'm not part of the mainstream right, but even when he was in office I thought Clinton was pretty good with the exception of his health care plan and I still think FDR is the single most vile politician in American history.

I can understand why social conservatives tend to look back fondly on liberals of earlier eras. The whole country moves pretty consistently lefward over time on social issues. That doesn't explain why liberals look back fondly on earlier conservative politicians though.

Posted by: Xavier | Feb 3, 2005 9:32:49 PM

Matthew wrote, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy most notably all turn out to have hidden virtues that their conservative contemporaries were totally unaware of.

Woodrow Wilson? Hidden virtue? You mean, like introducing Jim Crow to the Federal workforce?

Posted by: liberal | Feb 3, 2005 9:32:53 PM

Stalker al?

Posted by: This site | Feb 3, 2005 9:33:33 PM

He saved us from a threat the Left wouldn't even acknowledge.

Huh? It's not unreasonable to credit Stalin with defeating Hitler, but one doubts that's what you meant.

Posted by: bad Jim | Feb 3, 2005 9:34:42 PM

Matt,
Man, you don't have to wait until 2040 to talk about how wrongly you got (some) things. What was up with that prediction about an Allawi sweep? If the numbers keep up -- and the exile votes are startling in the lopsided advantage going to Sistani's list, while the polls seem to be running at about 56 to 60 percent for the list -- your going out on the limb prediction is going down.

What will the American news media do? The vote was simple -- a resounding vote of thanks by grateful Iraqis for all our help in liberating them, and a special plea to Allawi to sell the oil fields off, sooner than later, to American companies. Now it looks like the news media is going to have to do a little gymnastics to make the vote fit the narrative.

Posted by: roger | Feb 3, 2005 9:41:31 PM

I'll do what everybody else should do, and ignore Roger.

Instead I'll ask: Matt, the assumption here seems to be that you'll be right then about being mistaken now. But how do you know you're not right now, and will be mistaken then?

I think people abandon their passionately held youthful beliefs to the supposed mellow wisdom of age too easily.

Posted by: Realish | Feb 3, 2005 9:44:32 PM

"I think people abandon their passionately held youthful beliefs to the supposed mellow wisdom of age too easily."

Yeah, I've noticed that too.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 3, 2005 10:04:42 PM

Me too. Et me.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 3, 2005 10:15:31 PM

No doubt there are a number of reasons for the phenomenon you describe Matt. But surely one of them is that the the victors write history. So, no matter how shitty some leaders's plans, if he wins the day politically and carries out his shitty plans, then the people of the future, who have become accustomed to living in his shit, will have gotten used to it and, perversely, won't think it's so shitty anymore. They might actually thank him for it.

If President X filled in the Grand Canyon with cement, and engraved his own profile on the surface along with the logos of all the fortune 500 companies who financed his campaign, Americans 50 years later would say: "Hey good old X wasn't so bad. After all, he's the guy who built the Great Canyon 500 Monument!"

That's why it's a mistake to "let history judge". History is to some extent a stooge of the scoundrels and butchers who make it, and is no more competent to judge than are we, who are stuck here in the present where we can really see what's going on. Once a cause is lost, even a great and noble one, few historians are going to buck the opinions of their contemporaries and show admiration for it. History conforms.

Surely if the Nazis had prevailed in the 40's, the young liberals of Hitler's time would now be aging, reconstructed fascists sitting around saying: "You know Hitler was a better leader than I gave him credit for at the time. After all, he defeated the Evil Anglo-American Empire and eliminated the global Judeo-liberal threat. I was wrong to fight him with so much hate and bitterness"

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Feb 3, 2005 10:38:15 PM

I find that Nixon improves in retrospect, not because I've changed my mind about anything he did, but only because he was followed by worse presidents and worse congresses.

Posted by: bad Jim | Feb 3, 2005 10:41:40 PM

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