The Magazine

The Sixth Year Slump

Bush may be down, but don't count him out.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Mayer and McManus were hardly alone. In a collection of essays called The Reagan Legacy, also published in 1988, David Ignatius of the Washington Post would call Reagan a failure, a sheep in wolf's clothing, a Rambo afraid of the dark. "During the Reagan years, America often displayed a reality of weakness," he argued. "The rhetorical assertion that 'America is back' was accompanied in practice by an actual foreign policy that was often vacillating, ill-planned, and poorly executed. . . . The military build-up of Reagan's first term was immensely costly, poorly managed, and added only marginally to America's military readiness." His speeches were unduly bellicose; his diplomacy, when he used it at all, was lacking in nuance, and made Carter look masterful. "Foreign policy during the Reagan years was largely a holding action. . . . Because he concentrated so much on image . . . Reagan leaves behind an array of unresolved substantive problems." Ground was lost most in the Cold War, vis-à-vis a revitalized Soviet Union, in which a dynamic Mikhail Gorbachev was poised to run rings around the "stodgy" American leadership. The biggest chore facing Reagan's successor would be to "find a stable relationship with the new Soviet leadership," no easy chore in view of the harm done by Reagan's malfeasance and the "skillful and potentially dangerous" nature of the resourceful and wily foe.

With this sorry record, it was really no wonder Reagan was also politically spent. "As a commanding political force, Ronald Reagan was unmade," said McManus and Mayer. "When GOP voters were asked if they would vote for Reagan again, only 40 percent said yes." Polls taken that spring showed that most voters wanted the next president to "set the nation on a new direction"--a "blunt rejection" of Reagan's agenda, and surely of Reagan himself. Yet in November 1988, Reagan's vice president beat Democrat Michael Dukakis by a seven-point margin. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, taking with it the Communist empire. In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, and the formidable Gorbachev was a frightened man in captivity. Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas lost in a free election to a center-right party, and El Salvador stabilized. When Reagan died in 2004, he would be eulogized as the liberator of Eastern Europe and Central America, and one of the most important leaders this country has seen.

There are myriad reasons second-term leaders tend to have oversized woes. There is the hubris that comes with reelection, the brain drain and fatigue that develop through long years in power, the scandals that come up as the in-party gives way to greed and temptation, the familiarity that breeds irritation, which now and then turns to contempt. The president's personal traits might have lost their appeal, and now seem annoying. His accent grates on those who don't share it. His rhetorical tricks have been used just a little too often. His ideas, which seemed promising, have not brought nirvana, and their downside is visible. The laws of unintended consequences have begun to kick in.

With all this, there also are reasons those who judge presidencies too early may falter: They don't know the whole story; they don't know the backstory; and they don't have the perspective that only time brings. If a week is a lifetime in politics, then six months or two years are an age. In mid-1988, no one could know that Reagan's last term would end on an upswing, one that would open the way for all that came after. In 1939, no one could know that Roosevelt, who seemed a spent force on his domestic agenda, would be ranked when he died, with Lincoln and Washington, as one of the great presidents of all time.

The backstory refers to the evidence that emerges years later, sometimes to surprising effect. The opinion held by some that Eisenhower and Reagan were dim bulbs used by others did not survive the release of their own private papers, which showed them as neither as warm nor as dim as their detractors assumed. Described as an "amiable dunce" by Clark Clifford (who was lucky to end his life in disgrace and not in prison), Reagan emerged as a distant man and a disciplined intellect, who over decades had refined the ideas that led him to revive the economy, put the skids under the Soviet Union, and transform the domestic political landscape in ways no one before him had dreamed.

Ike would also emerge as a leader who hid a cool and shrewd nature behind a bland affect and affable smile. "The Eisenhower of the declassified record was president," says Fred Greenstein, who has written of him as a "hidden hand" leader. "He was a keen political operator who engaged in the kinds of persuasion and bargaining many believed he left to subordinates," outsourcing controversy to aides (such as Vice President Nixon), keeping his image unsullied, and his poll numbers up. In 1958--in 1988--no one knew that Eisenhower and Reagan would emerge in their own words as shrewd and articulate. And no one could dream that Truman and Reagan, considered as being in over their heads by the glitterati of their respective eras, would be recognized years after it ended as the two men who won the Cold War.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, later on, with the end of the Soviet Union, the presidencies of Truman and Reagan would fall into place at the two ends of a policy arc stretching over four decades, reaching from the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine in a speech of March l2, 1947, to Reagan's last meeting with Gorbachev, imposing order on events that had seemed random actions, connecting events that had seemed unrelated, or even had seemed to lack sense. As these presidential reputations rose, they pulled up behind them the lifetime achievements of Eisenhower and Kennedy, who, in the years before they were president, had been early, stalwart, and farsighted backers of Truman's containment policy and of the Marshall Plan. Reagan's and Kennedy's speeches were seen as intemperate, until they became inspirational. Before the Wall fell, Truman and Kennedy were seen in some quarters as prophets of overreach, goading the country into imperial folly in Asia and elsewhere. After it fell, they were seen as farsighted; the losses in Asia as road bumps in an overall grander design.

To report in the day is to walk in the woods, and to see each tree clearly, but to have little sense of the shape of the forest. To write in retrospect from the long view of history is to look at the woods from above, where the trees and their leaves all lose definition, but the lay of the land becomes evident. With George W. Bush, we are still very much in the forest, hacking our way through the day-to-day undergrowth. Final words at this point are not wise.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of the forthcoming Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families (Wiley).