Nick Kristof Misfires (a little) on Presidential Experience


nixon lbj.JPGOne of the few things that would depress me more than Bill Kristol getting a regular column in the New York Times would be Nicholas Kristof or Paul Krugman giving up theirs. Luckily, I don’t think that will happen.
That’s a friendly preamble to a point I want to pick with Kristof about an otherwise good column today, “Hillary, Barack, Experience.” He writes:

Alternatively, look at the five presidents since 1900 with perhaps the most political experience when taking office: William McKinley, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. They had great technical skills — but not one was among our very greatest presidents.

Assessing the greatest and worst presidents is a process fraught with problems and subjective bias, but still. . .I’m not sure that some on this list aren’t some of America’s greatest presidents considering the challenges of their times.
Since 1900, FDR gets the most applause for stewarding the nation — and frankly, much of the world — through an extraordinary period of crisis. But he was monarchial in Bush/Cheney ways as well — and it was because of FDR that national security leaders like James Forrestal and others worked to craft and pass the National Security Act of 1947 — in order to prevent the total usurpation of power by other presidents who may not be as generally benign or as intelligent as FDR was. FDR accumulated so much power that some of America’s post-WWII national security “founders” worried about what would happen if a powerful but dumb president came into office. Their nightmare may finally have been realized in the presidency of George W. Bush.
But was FDR among the greatest presidents? Probably — but there were problems. Truman oversaw a dramatic era of global institution building and laid the contours of containment policy — and for that he was great. But he also dropped the atomic bomb — which both blurs and secures his legacy. Eisenhower knocked back the crazies in his own party who wanted to engage in a set of nuclear conflicts and embraced containment of Soviet ambitions over war. I think Eisenhower deserves more credit for his leadership and steady hand than he is often given credit for.
But to Kristof’s list, I won’t debate McKinley as I’m not a studied authority on his presidency. But I think Nixon must rank among one of the greatest foreign policy leaders in American history, his presidency blurred of course and denigrated by Watergate and his ethical darkness in American politics. But on one level, Nixon’s experience was extraordinarily important in the judgment calls he made on China and the Soviet Union. I think we need someone like Nixon (in the foreign policy sense) back in the White House today.
Likewise, while Gerald Ford was not a sizzler — his contacts with Congress, his understanding of the office of the president, and his humble approach to the job were exactly what was needed in the post-Watergate crisis of the nation in which Nixon’s missteps (and crimes) had harmed the presidency.
And frankly, I think that George H.W. Bush’s good sense managing the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, overseeing German reunification, and applying a limited deployment of power in the Middle East against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait without a full invasion of that country get him positive points. His son, our current President, fails on nearly ever score of comparison with the administration of the elder Bush. For more on why George H.W. Bush ranks so highly on national security decision-making when compared to both Bush 43 and to Bill Clinton, read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s excellent Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower.
I won’t get into the LBJ debate deeply here as there has been enough out in public recently about LBJ and Martin Luther King after the spat between Obama and Hillary Clinton camps on who did more to usher in civil rights legislation. But clearly LBJ’s dramatic political personality and experience helped usher in substantial Great Society legislation and programs — including landmark civil rights legislation in collaboration with the organic and compelling surge orchestrated by Martin Luther King. LBJ moved the nation and I can’t believe that his experience was a non-issue.
In any case, George W. Bush does rank in my view as one of the worst presidents not only of the century — but in American history — but I wouldn’t make the same case that the presidents highlighted by Nick Kristoff didn’t achieve some impressive results in their time — that would have been less imaginable without the relationships and experience that they had previously amassed.
— Steve Clemons


13 comments on “Nick Kristof Misfires (a little) on Presidential Experience

  1. Joe says:

    I think Ford’s foreign policy achievements are underappreciated — the Helsinki Accords (initiated under Ford and later signed by Carter) that really focused the internal opposition to communism are right up there with the Carter-Reagan military build up and the Soviet economic problems following the collapse in oil prices that, collectively, explain the end of the Cold War and the break up of the USSR.


  2. Ajaz Haque says:

    I agree with Steve that Kennedy started the initial commitment in Vietnam followed by a massive escalation by LBJ and Nixon.
    There is also no doubt that LBJ’s sincere domestic policies and initiatives are paying dividends today when a black man can run for President and be supported by majority white males.


  3. Carroll says:

    I agree on Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush Sr…and I do think LBJ deserves a lot of credit on civil rights.


  4. susan says:

    Steve writes:
    “…while Gerald Ford was not a sizzler — his contacts with Congress, his understanding of the office of the president, and his humble approach to the job were exactly what was needed in the post-Watergate crisis of the nation…”
    Since Ford’s death much has been made of this humble man who helped heal a wounded nation. That sentiment is utter nonsense. The pardon was sprung on the public, and it was wildly controversial. The New York Times got it exactly right when it wrote: “the nation is strong enough to endure almost anything but burying the truth.”
    Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a mistake and had far-reaching effects for many years to come. It attempted to lay the Watergate affair to rest, when it was far from finished. Many important persons directly related to the case were able to avoid all prosecution. These politicians left Watergate with the knowledge that their crimes would go unpunished, and used that knowledge to perpetuate further dishonesties. “Evidence on tapes that have come out since Nixon’s death show how people like Ron Ziegler and Alexander Haig should have been among those indicted” (Woodward 97). Ron Ziegler was the White House press secretary. During his term as press secretary, Ziegler knowingly told many lies to the American public. However, he was never indicted for any of his misdeeds. One of Nixon’s top aides and Chief of Staff Alexander Haig also left Watergate unscathed. In 1974, as many of Nixon’s top aides either resigned or were fired, Haig remained. Later he served in the Ford adminstration. Ziegler and Haig were never mentioned in the FBI file on the investigation and never really faced any sort of legal action. Furthermore, Haig was able to maintain his political career, later serving as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, and even running for the Republican presidential nomination.
    As to the far-reaching effects:
    Re: What The Media Have Not Said Upon Ford’s Passing.
    Dean Lawrence R. Velvel (University of MA School of Law)
    January 2, 2007
    “…Ford’s horrid act of making plain that evil men would not be punished has repercussions even as I sit writing this. Knowing there will be no punishment, not only have our top officials committed indubitable crimes in Iraq and throughout the world in connection with their so-called war on terror, but one is hard pressed to doubt that, notwithstanding the electoral verdict of November 7th, George Bush will soon be sending more troops to Iraq, probably tens of thousands more. This will not be a crime because Congress passed on authorization of war which allows it, but it will nonetheless be a truly terrible thing to do. But what will stop the true believer, the pretender-in-chief, the man who gets his orders from a higher father than his earth bound father? He knows that, as the Nixon pardon shows, and as also shown by the failure to prosecute Johnson or Nixon or Rusk or McNamara or Kissinger or Bush himself or Cheney, etc, there is no true price, and certainly no criminal price, to be paid for anything he does. If you ask me, the price that we as a people have been and will continue to pay, at least in part because of the pardon, far exceeds any supposed, and heavily nonexistent, benefit from it.”


  5. Kathleen says:

    Is it just me or is anyone else groaning at the so-called news? Hell, in 04, every time Al Gore sighed in the debates, so did I, including rolling my eyes and pounding the table.
    I agrtee with you, POA on how we got here from there… re Iraq and also Iran. First we did Iran, then Iraq-Iran, then Iran-Contra, now Iraq-Iran again, and if the same players have their way, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Israel-Lebanon-Palestine, wherever boosts the sale of arms.
    Being left of left, the Clintons always looked conservative to me and schmoozing the Bushes and The Gipper hits my gag button.
    So now I’m torn between loyalty to Kucinich and appreciation to him for giving expresion to the the issues I feel are most important, like impeachment, and Edwards because I trust Ralph Naders’ opinion and would love to have a candidate that would make a Nader canidacy unecessary, as he said. The is a healing of the party that is long overdue.
    Still, I love the idea of a Kucinich candidacy making it legally possible to force a recount in every GD state, like NH.. it’s worth it to me to keep that option on the table, so to speak.
    Ron Paul should do the same on the Red side of aisle.


  6. Steve Clemons says:

    I concede on Vietnam — but while LBJ deserves most of the blame there, he did much admirable domestically — and of course, JFK’s fingerprints were on adviser deployments early on. Thanks for the interesting commentary from all.
    best, steve


  7. Chiaroscuro says:

    I must agree with posters above regarding the Vietnam War’s impact on any measure of presidential greatness. Our involvement in Vietnam was, until our Iraq misadventures, the biggest foreign policy debacle in American history, IMO.
    Regarding George W. Bush’s “good sense managing the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union,” I always felt that we missed some major opportunities to smooth the former SSRs’ introduction to market capitalism and representative democracy. Ideology trumped good sense and Bush applied a “tough-love” approach which, arguably, set the stage for the excesses, chaos and corruption that followed.
    More importantly, I thought we were criminally slow to push the disarming of all those nukes. Perhaps if we’d been more generous and attentive then, we wouldn’t be worrying about loose suitcase nukes now.
    Of course, I’m quite willing to believe that I’m wrong and don’t have the full story of what happened in those years, but my impression has been that Russia and the former Soviet republics paid a big price for Bush’s ideas of laissez-faire capitalism–a price that includes the return of the “strong man” with Putin.


  8. Caitlyn says:

    For most members of my generation, the Viet Nam War was one of the defining issues of American foreign policy. How, in your discussion of Kristoff’s list of factors affecting presidential greatness, did you leave Viet Nam out of the discussion? A war that generated an order of magnitude more US fatalities that the current war in Iraq certainly should register on the scale of greatness of both Johnson and Nixon.


  9. Pernicious Pavlovian says:

    George W. Bush would have to be America’s “worst president” EVER! Given the comprehensive totalitarian example of the Bush/Cheney monster, the illegal wars of naked aggression, the atrocity and genocide, the torture, the wholesale abrogation of American civil liberties, the lies, the corruption, the staggering collapse of America’s standing with the global community, and arguments for Bush being more than an incompetent idiot are weak at best. Americans are supposed to wax somehow nostalgic for the Bush regime? Not freaking likely. Miscreant murderous worm is about as complimentary as one might ‘sympathetically’ muster towards Bush.
    Sorry Steve, as far as Bush the war criminal is concerned, we must part company and opinion.


  10. drsteveb says:

    does the continuation/expansion of the Vietnam war, Cambodia, etc. count as part of Nixon foreign policy? ‘cuz those were not so good. just sayin.


  11. PissedOffAmerican says:

    So I guess we are to just discount Bush Sr’s role in setting the groundwork for the utter and complete destruction of Iraq by giving Saddam a wink and a nod on the invasion of Kuwait?
    And we are just supposed to forget the advanced Middle Eastern society that Iraq was, secular, with astounding opportunities for women, decent medical care, and unheard of educational opportunites when compared to other “arab” nations, prior to Bush’s arming Saddam with weapons of mass destruction to be used against Iran, and then giving him the “Gee we don’t care” routine when he made known his intention to invadse Kuwait?? And lets just ignore Bush Senior’s role in nurturing Al Qaeda.
    Look Steve, you cannot lament the current state of Iraq, and decry Bush Junior’s actions today without acknowledging who set the stage for this. Bush Senior had no small role in creating this mess.


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