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History’s Winners

October 3, 2000

As the title of my new book, Hustler: The Clinton Legacy, suggests, I don’t take the idea of a presidential “legacy” very seriously. I don’t think the designers of the Constitution envisioned presidents as “national leaders” or would have idolized “great presidents.” They neither thought nor spoke in such terms.

To them a president was to be an “executive” — a mere executor of the laws made by the people’s representatives. That doesn’t leave much room for “greatness” as we think of it. Jefferson’s tomb doesn’t even mention his presidency among the three chief accomplishments of his life, though his purchase of the Louisiana Territory was one of this country’s truly formative events.

Presidents should be good, not “great.” That is, they should do their prescribed executive duties humbly and be content with that. A good president, when he has finished his job, should be pretty much forgotten, like Millard Fillmore.

Poor Bill Clinton will be remembered. He has been more celebrity than executive, with more publicity than dignity. His “legacy” will be a record of moral and ethical squalor, culminating in impeachment, with his acquittal due to a remarkable erosion of public standards of conduct. He hoped to achieve something that would upstage his notoriety in the pages of History, but it appears that that’s past praying for.

Of course History is fickle. Polls of historians usually rate Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt our two “greatest” presidents; but we needn’t take this verdict as the last word. It should give us pause that Lincoln and Roosevelt presided over our two most disastrous wars, and more Americans died during their administrations than during any others.

In fact a strong case can be made that both Lincoln and Roosevelt deserved to be impeached. Both trangressed the Constitution they were sworn to uphold in order to prosecute their wars, committing massive violations of civil liberties.

[Breaker quote: The 
propaganda of the victors]Dissenters who had broken no laws were arbitrarily arrested on Lincoln’s orders. He even wrote an order for the arrest of the Chief Justice of the United States, Roger Taney, who had ruled unconstitutional his suspension of the right of habeas corpus; and if that order had been served, Lincoln might indeed have been impeached. He did arrest many Maryland legislators who opposed his war against the South; so much for “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” He also shut down many newspapers that opposed the war.

Roosevelt secretly violated the Neutrality Act in order to help the British in their war with Germany. He constantly lied to the American public about his intentions, insisting that he was trying to keep this country out of war. Once the United States got into the war, he incarcerated American citizens of Japanese ancestry, an act even J. Edgar Hoover opposed as unconstitutional. Roosevelt had already shown his contempt for the Constitution in many ways, such as his attempt to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court; even his fellow Democrats were shocked by that proposal, which would have destroyed the independence of the judicial branch of the federal government.

But fate has been kind to these high-handed presidents. They enjoyed popular support during wartime, and they won their wars, even if the cost to the country was disproportionate to any good achieved. The Confederacy, Japan, and Germany were so bitterly hated that anything done to defeat them was excused.

And still is. It’s often said that History is the propaganda of the victors. That is true in more than the obvious sense. Even when the blatant atrocity stories told (and often exaggerated or invented) are discounted, historians usually adopt the perspective of the winning side. Most historians accept the egalitarian ideologies of Lincoln and Roosevelt, as well as their drive to centralize power; so these victorious presidents are judged by their own standards. The alternative philosophies of their opponents have been forgotten, without having been refuted.

You might say that the propaganda of the victors is in our bones. It’s now hard for us to understand why anyone in their own day could oppose them. We are all taught from the cradle that they were right. We have to make a difficult mental adjustment to see the past any other way.

Bill Clinton should be so lucky.

Joseph Sobran

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