One 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