Presidential Reputations Reconsidered

by Peter Golden


On Saturday, November 20th, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities celebrated its 30th birthday at Boston College with an afternoon symposium called U.S. Presidents in Perspective: The Shifting Fortunes of Presidential Reputations. In a series of thoughtfully designed panel discussions, a dozen luminaries from the worlds of history, journalism and academe considered what time and circumstance have done to the shared memory of America’s foremost leaders.

The stellar array of personalities taking the stage at Robsham Theater in the course of the afternoon’s three panel discussions attracted an audience of about 300, with the proceedings broadcast live on C-SPAN’s Book TV. The event was well worth observing, even if the local citizenry has recently considered all too well the reputation of our current president and found it wanting.

This served as no impediment to the first panel of the day. “The President and the Press” was the topic. On stage were Tom Wicker, former White House correspondent for the New York Times, along with Kathleen Dalton, a historian at Phillips Andover and author of an acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Also present were Jack Beatty, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, and Ellen Hume, a regular on PBS’s Washington Week in Review, who ably moderated the panel.

Wicker, with four decades of political reporting under his belt, voiced his regret about not covering the Kennedy presidency with more diligence, particularly with regard to Kennedy’s personal life and health. Beatty, a passionate critic of the war in Iraq, voiced his frustration at the inability of the public to distinguish between fact-based journalism and the spin doctoring of the White House.

The shared conclusion of the panelists is that factbased journalism in general, and objective coverage of the Presidency in particular, are both very much in decline. Replacing them are “Web bloggers” (individual commentators who maintain a running commentary on their Web sites), along with radio talk show ranters and conspicuously partisan media interests. Dalton pointed out that partisanship in the media has been pervasive since Washington’s administration, but this gave the assembled worthies little comfort.

Next up was a panel of academics led by David Gergen, one of America’s most astute political observers. Gergen spends his days at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Also featured were Susan Dunn of Williams College and the Lincoln scholar Douglas Wilson. Ronald Walters, like Gergen a political operative as well as a scholar, provided an African-American perspective.

Dunn was tart and inspiring, using the general topic of the discussion—Moral Character and the Presidency—as an inspirational lever to define the ideals of leadership, “Real change does not come out of the center,” she said, “it is the product of passion, conviction, and courage in the service of social and economic justice.”

A discussion contrasting the governance style and personality of such disparate characters as Nixon (often a closet liberal in his policy decisions), Lincoln (a skillful opportunist), both Roosevelts, and Carter led to the conclusion that Presidents tend to act out of nothing less than ruthless pragmatism. That posterity might favorably judge the reputation that arises from such contradictory impulses as opportunism and idealism comes often as a surprise.

The final panel of the afternoon showcased John Dean of Watergate fame at one end of the stage and historian David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest, at the other. Between them sat James MacGregor Burns, dean of American political scientists and originator of the concept of “transformational leadership.” Also present was Joyce Appleby, a distinguished historian and Jefferson scholar from UCLA. The topic, quite naturally, was The President and His Enemies.

Burns, a champion of democracy, veered from the published topic to voice his personal frustration at the limited turnout in the November elections. What might it take, he wondered, for Americans to shed their cynicism and lack of engagement and recognize that their feelings and opinions really do count?

Answering his own question, he volunteered that those feelings need to be brought to bear on the political process, most directly through the act of voting. Half jokingly, he called such a phenomenon “good followership” as opposed to “leadership.” It is a term worthy of consideration.

If the afternoon was long on passion, it was light on thunderclaps, with John Dean, aging gracefully and still as prep-school perfect as ever, hurling the only lightning bolts of the day. The first flash? Nixon never really had a comprehensive enemies list of his own, only a vest-pocket version.

While Nixon was a confirmed paranoid, Dean’s claim that a low-level bureaucrat, acting largely on his own and without Nixon’s direct input, drew up the full-length list came as no small surprise. The second of Dean’s assertions: objectively, President Bush is impeachable on the basis of clear misrepresentations regarding Iraq and weapons of mass destruction—a case Dean argues passionately in his best-selling book, Worse than Watergate.

Dean’s third sizzler was perhaps the least expected: Nixon, his capacity for self-pity, contempt and paranoia notwithstanding, may well be construed by history as a “closet liberal.” The evidence? His wind-down of Vietnam, rapprochement with the Chinese, and domestic policy initiatives.

It was a notion re-stated that evening by David Halberstam in an address to supporters of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, sponsor of the day’s events. In a huge banquet hall deep within one of BC’s Gothic towers, Halberstam, perhaps our preeminent critic of the Vietnam War, spoke with deep concern about Iraq, which he views as an unmitigated disaster. The audience confirmed his sentiment with loud applause.

Those of us who were witness to the day’s events shared the privilege of entering into the minds of some of the great journalists, historians and social critics of our time. For this we are indebted to the Foundation, whose contribution to the cultural and public life of the Commonwealth is immeasurable.

In closing, a brief comment about Boston College is in order. One might well expect to find events such as those I have just described held in a great university, such as BC. But one would not normally expect to discover a wide-ranging exhibition of the work of the Belgian fin de siecle painter Fernand Khnopff in the same setting. But there on display in a small but welldesigned gallery immediately adjacent to the hall where the evening portion of the symposium was held was the Khnopff exhibition.

That Boston College was able to mount an exhibit of his work that could play as well at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts speaks to its emergence as a world-class center of culture and learning.

As a setting for considering the great, near-great and infamous among our presidents, the campus of Boston College was well-nigh perfect.

Peter Golden writes about the environment, politics and technology. He can be reached at petewrites@aol.com.

©2005 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2005