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Presidents Spin Their Tales, but History Gets Last Word

Building a legacy is a tricky and energetically pursued business.

June 23, 2004|Evan Cornog | Evan Cornog, an associate dean at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of "The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success From George Washington to George W. Bush," which will be published next month by Penguin Press.

Presidents love their legacies. They start planning them long before they leave office -- sometimes before they even enter it. They dream in advance of their places in history, and they scheme to make sure that their own versions of events are the ones that prevail.

This month, the legacies of the two two-term presidents of the post-Ike era are being zealously cultivated -- Ronald Reagan's through the ceremonies and obsequies of his funeral and Bill Clinton's with the publication of his tell-some memoir, "My Life." Reagan and Clinton are certainly the most gifted presidential storytellers of the last half a century, and having proved tremendously successful at advancing their own story lines while in the White House, they naturally continued to do so after leaving office.

This concern with legacies is as old as the presidency itself. George Washington sought to shape the politics of his time, and to justify his own conduct in office, with his farewell address in 1796, in which he vigorously defended his foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson was an assiduous publicist on behalf of his own reputation, instructing posterity on the three accomplishments that he most wished to be remembered for -- writing the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founding the University of Virginia -- none of which, as it happens, took place while he was in the White House. He even designed his own tombstone.

In part, presidents do this because devising stories about themselves is what they have been doing all their lives. These carefully crafted presidential narratives are (and have been throughout history) crucial to their political success, and candidates and campaigns have long understood the power of such stories, whether presented in expansive form (as in a campaign biography or a post-presidency memoir) or condensed into a symbol or phrase: the "Log Cabin" of William Henry Harrison, the "Big Stick" of Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan's "Morning in America."

When Jefferson's autobiography was published after his death, John Quincy Adams, the son of the man Jefferson drove from office in 1800, wrote a scathing assessment in his diary. He concluded that Jefferson's memoir evidenced "a memory so pandering to the will that in deceiving others he seems to have begun by deceiving himself."

Jefferson was initially quite successful at crafting his own posthumous reputation; yet the passing decades have turned in directions he would never have expected and have left his reputation both greater, and far less, than he could possibly have anticipated. Certainly none of his august contemporaries would have thought that two centuries after his presidency Jefferson's reputation would have been compromised so greatly by his affair with his slave, Sally Hemings.

Presidential memoirs are usually less instructive for any new factual revelations they may contain than for what they show about the anxieties that gnaw at ex-presidents, the flavor of their vanities. Lyndon B. Johnson, in his memoir, "The Vantage Point," tried to persuade the reader that he had never planned to seek reelection in 1968 and that anyone who thinks the Tet offensive and the insurgent candidacy of Eugene McCarthy had anything to do with his retirement is completely mistaken.

Dwight D. Eisenhower took great pains in his memoirs to stress how reluctant he had been to seek the presidency and insisted that it was only after being shown a film of enthusiastic supporters at a New York draft-Ike rally that he consented. Ike wanted to show that he was obedient to the popular will, LBJ that he was superior to it.

Yet reading these memoirs today, one is most struck by how much attention they give to matters now largely forgotten. Similarly, history will take from the careers of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton very different lessons than they themselves have drawn.

As we read Clinton's memoirs today, we cannot know what aspects of his administration will seem most germane 20 or 50 or 100 years from now. It may be that future scholars will care most about how he dealt with China and will find blunders or profoundly important successes in areas we ignore today; or they may find that the world would be a far different place in 2050 had Clinton responded more vigorously to the AIDS crisis in Africa.

We cannot foresee, and neither can he. Presidents can only shape their legacies according to the concerns of the present. But it is the concerns of the future that will deliver the ultimate verdict.

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