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Robert W. Merry explores American history “through the prism of presidential performance.”
(Page 2 of 3)
To bring it off, Merry writes, Nixon began what was “essentially a retreat, conducted under harrowing military circumstances in the country of war and ominous civic turmoil at home.” And, one might add, a turmoil that was intensified by Nixon’s opponents in both political parties. Those opponents, fiercely anti-Nixon, took every opportunity to try to discredit his attempts to bring the war under control, often undercutting intense diplomatic efforts. This opposition, viewed by Nixon as cynical and unpatriotic, activated a natural instinct to counterattack with equal ferocity, thereby helping bring on the chain of events that would cost him his presidency.
Nevertheless, despite the fierce opposition, Nixon did in fact bring the war to a successful conclusion, albeit later to be negated by Congress, and “broke America’s need to defend that vast [Asian] global perimeter.” Moreover, by “bringing China back into the world, Nixon began a process of bolstering stability throughout Asia—and in the process, diminished the threat of America being pulled into endless wars in the region.”
“This was brilliant foreign policy,” Merry writes. But in the end, “That may be the true tragedy of Richard Nixon—that his greatest achievement contained the seeds of his own destruction and set his place in history for all time.”
Perhaps. But “for all time” may be just a bit excessive, especially when dealing with Richard Nixon, who seems to be kicked around less frequently these days as an appreciation of his substantive achievements grows (especially when compared with our most recent presidents), and those Watergate offenses—and who besides Bob Woodward can remember precisely what they were?—continue to fade into insignificance.
MERRY GOES ON to discuss those presidents he calls “Leaders of Destiny”—Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt—presidents who are “revered by the electorate…. extolled by history; and are notable for changing the country’s political landscape and setting it on a new course.”
Merry believes Ronald Reagan should be included, and one day will be, as witness the book’s dust jacket, which—23 years after this magazine did so—features a Mt. Rushmore that bears his visage. But since one of his criteria is “consistently high rankings by history,” that day is still to come, most likely when the last left-leaning tenured academic is finally relegated to history’s ash heap.
As Merry writes of Reagan:
Ridiculed and dismissed by many upon his election, Reagan proved more adept than his critics anticipated or wished to acknowledge. He restored national confidence, pulled the country out of an economic morass, and unleashed forces that led to the Soviet collapse. His stock is on the rise.
In his final section, Merry discusses the recent presidents. Bill Clinton was “not a great president, but a good one, who presided over robust times and proved adept at comingling his party’s fundamental outlook with the country’s mood. Clinton lacked personal control, which led to a smarmy scandal, and he was unwilling to expend political capital on behalf of bold policymaking.”
George W. Bush failed the war test. In building a rationale for the invasion of Iraq, Bush and his advisers “crafted a war of necessity and a war of success” based on the need to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and curtail its flirtation with Islamic terrorists. However, Merry writes, “the weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist,” and the connections with terrorists couldn’t be established. The argument of necessity collapsed, and “Bush was diminished in much of public opinion for having crafted a rationale for war that was either disingenuous or carelessly flimsy (I believe the latter).”
Here again, as with LBJ, a reader might wonder just how much responsibility should be assumed by a president’s advisers. Bush seemed to have assembled a first-rate team. Whether they provided first-rate advice is another matter.
With Barack Obama, it’s too early for an assessment. But in late 2011, writes Merry, “President Obama and the country he led seemed to be in a beleaguered state”—with unemployment above 9 percent, economic growth at “negligible levels,” a jittery stock market, and a
looming financial crisis of frightening proportions. All this placed immense pressure on the president, whose job was to lead the country out of these interlocking difficulties. His ability to do so would determine his fate in November 2012. It seemed fair to say the president flubbed his midterm exam and was severely admonished by his instructor. It remained an open question whether he would get passing marks on the finals.
Merry’s assessments of our most recent presidents will be of special interest in this election year, when we might be on the verge of another of those tipping points that sharply alter the nation’s course. But his treatment of earlier presidents is also sharp and insightful.
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