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All our favorite presidents are dead

January 14, 2007|David Greenberg | David Greenberg, a professor of media studies and history at Rutgers University, is the author of "Nixon's Shadow," "Calvin Coolidge" and "Presidential Doodles."

WHEN Calvin Coolidge left the presidency in March 1929, having forsworn what surely would have been a reelection romp, he was basking in public adulation of a rare kind. Credited with six years of "Coolidge prosperity," praised for restoring integrity to Washington after the Teapot Dome scandal, admired for avoiding foreign wars, Silent Cal decamped to his native New England a man beloved. Back in Northampton, Mass., reporters peered in his car window, and one tried to enter his bathroom while he was showering.

Just four years later, however, when Coolidge died suddenly from a heart attack, he already seemed a relic. With the Depression and renewed European hostilities, his economic program had come to appear blinkered rather than sensible, his foreign policy self-deluding rather than statesmanlike and his hands-off governing style flaccid rather than prudent. The country had just swept Franklin Delano Roosevelt into office, a man whose ideas Coolidge had disparaged as "socialistic."

"We are in a new era," Coolidge lamented to a friend just before his death, "to which I do not belong." His public image has never recovered.

Coolidge may have been the last American president whose reputation plummeted after his term ended. The national hoopla surrounding the deaths of Richard Nixon in 1994, Ronald Reagan in 2004 and last month -- to the astonishment of historians, as well as most other Americans over 30 -- Gerald Ford suggests that nothing helps a chief executive's standing with the public so much as his demise.

After all, Ford, notwithstanding his much-celebrated Midwestern decency, will likely escape notice in the next century's history textbooks, except perhaps as the man who let Nixon go free -- an act, lest we forget, that also permitted vital "what did the president know" questions go unanswered. Nixon, for his part, was not the internationalist visionary his eulogists canonized but a mean-hearted, power-hungry lawbreaker who thought himself above the Constitution (and one whose foreign policy legacy actually remains mixed).

Reagan, though adored in certain quarters, was deeply reviled in others -- loathed as much as the current incumbent for his ultraconservatism, his simple-mindedness and his scorn for the welfare state.

Of course, we shouldn't construe the sonorous eulogies and lofty pronouncements about history's judgment of Nixon, Ford and Reagan as proof of their permanent rehabilitation. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, says a Latin proverb: Of the dead say nothing unless it is kind. Funerals aren't the time for carping -- whether to dwell on Ford's fecklessness, Reagan's callousness or Nixon's criminality.

Nonetheless, it certainly appears that leaving office does wonders for one's reputation. Bill Clinton, defying forecasts that the Monica Lewinsky scandal would shape his legacy, has seen his popularity rating rise to 70% since leaving the White House. George H.W. Bush -- turned out of office in 1992 with the lowest share of the popular vote of any incumbent since William Howard Taft -- now wins kudos from old critics who contrast his multilateralism and wartime restraint with his son's heedlessness. Even Jimmy Carter, a failed president if ever there was one, notched a Nobel Prize 20 years after leaving office -- though whether he'll recover from the self-inflicted wound of his latest book, which has been faulted for anti-Israel bias and intellectual dishonesty, remains uncertain.

Going back further, Dwight Eisenhower, once derided for blithely tolerating McCarthyism and Jim Crow, now smiles from the grave as the model of moderation. And John F. Kennedy has weathered three decades of attacks from the left and the right for sins ranging from policy blunders such as the Bay of Pigs invasion to personal failings such as lying about his medical ailments. Yet my students (born in the 1980s) still declare themselves suckers for Camelot.

Why do we venerate our former presidents so much more than our sitting ones? One argument is that when they take up humanitarian causes in their retirement, they gain respect from across the partisan divide. Bush the elder and Clinton were back in the public eye after the 2004 tsunami and again after Hurricane Katrina to raise money for the victims; Carter, for years, has built homes for the poor.

Yet this alone can't explain the trend. Ford saw retirement mainly as a chance to golf. Reagan, even before his Alzheimer's disease worsened, engaged in little public service.

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