Friday, January 2, 2009

Going Down in History

The first person whose historical reputation I knew about, though person is used somewhat advisedly in this case, was, of course, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, whose reward for sleigh-pulling above and beyond the call of duty, was, as you no doubt know, the promise and the assurance that he will “go down in history.” The song, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” was written in 1949 by Johnny Marks—who by the way, was one of the many Jewish composers who in mid-century wrote popular Christmas songs—encapsulates a fairly typical view of history, history as a reward for the doers of good and meritorious deeds. Unfortunately, history is generally sort of boring, long lists of people who did their jobs well, acknowledged in testimonials, and then, usually forgotten. There are other views of history. Historical fame is not always limited to the competent and the good-hearted. Great villains have at least as much historical fame as great heroes. Hitler has “gone down in history” as much as Churchill, Stalin as much as Roosevelt. The unknown person who is known to history as “Jack the Ripper” is vastly more famous than all of the detectives in Scotland Yard who endeavored to catch him. And this is to speak only of popular notions of fame, which is largely limited to name recognition, beyond which there is the deliberation of scholars, who weigh reputations carefully on history’s scale, revising received notions, and offering their considered judgments.

All of this is prompted by the recent flurry of articles on the Bush and his expiring administration, and on precisely where and how they will “go down in history.” Bush has passed the first test. He will surely, unlike the vast majority of us, be remembered. His fame will last more than 15 minutes, and it seems to me he will be remembered for a very consequential eight years, perhaps the most action-packed and significant presidency since that of Lyndon Johnson, or perhaps even FDR. Very important things happened during Bush’s years in office. Unfortunately, they were almost all terrible things, and Bush will be blamed for most of them. A century from now, schoolchildren will recite the deeds of the 43rd president, and they will no doubt remember as well the four disasters that will characterize his presidency: 1) 9/11 2) the invasion of Iraq, and all that entailed 3) his response to Hurricane Katrina and 4) the economic collapse of the final months of his presidency.

Nothing will change the popular impression of the Bush presidency, but revisionists will no doubt try to revise this standard view, in the usual way, by placing the blame elsewhere--Bush’s faults were really just a continuation of Clinton’s, or the fault of Alan Greenspan, or hostile, anti-Bush crazed Democrats, maenads and harpies who never got over Bush’s smashing electoral victory in Florida, or in the case of Katrina, the fault of the weather—or by trying to find ambiguities where none exists—that somehow the US “won” the war in Iraq, or that by starting wars all over the world and clamping down on civil liberties, Bush somehow prevented another 9/11, a counterfactual parading as an accomplishment.

This doesn’t interest me too much. Bush was surely one of the worst presidents in American history, with a combination of the less admirable qualities of James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and James K. Polk. But the interesting question is really not was he a good president or a bad president, but what kind of bad president was he? Was his a normal terribleness, or was it in its own way, transcendent, like the 0-16 Detroit Lions? Was he so bad that people not only rejected him, but everything he stood for, and anyone like him, his predecessors and would-be successors alike? I think so. Bush is not only a terrible president himself, but he diminishes his models as well, in particular Reagan and Daddy Bush. His rottenness will mark the end of an era of Republican ascendancy, whose supposed achievements, foreign and domestic, are now exposed as the over-inflated hollow shells they were. So let Bush go down in history as a cautionary tale, a counter-example, a black hole. He’s no Rudolph.

No comments: