Monday, November 28, 2011

Zombie Presidents

Ross Douthat spent his Sunday column in the New York Times going after the Cult of the Kennedy presidency, declaring that even though he believes that John F. Kennedy was lousy president, he had the good fortune to die tragically so that he could be enshrined on the Mount Olympus of American history.

In reality, the kindest interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as “incomplete.” The harsher view would deem him a near disaster — ineffective in domestic policy, evasive on civil rights and a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward. (And the latter judgment doesn’t even take account of the medical problems that arguably made him unfit for the presidency, or the adulteries that eclipsed Bill Clinton’s for sheer recklessness.)

I think history has acknowledged that JFK’s presidency did have its problems; even those of us that admired him for his ideals (and were only children at the time) know that his legacy has been framed by his murder. What’s more interesting is that when it comes to mythologizing presidents, Ronald Reagan didn’t even have to die in office for his legacy to be turned into the Greatest Presidency in the History of the Universe by the Republicans.

Mr. Reagan wasn’t even dead before the movement began to name something in every county in America for him, from a school to a septic system, and all a presidential candidate had to do was invoke his name at every stop to get the audience to swoon like Justin Bieber fans. This is despite the fact that in the current climate in the GOP, Mr. Reagan and his record of tax hikes and his willingness to compromise with the Democrats in Congress couldn’t get him into the 2012 primaries ahead of Gary Johnson. And what Mr. Douthat says about JFK — “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement” — is applicable to the Reagan legacy as well.

And that’s how a lot of people will choose the next one.