Bush Bids for Greatness, on the Right Side of History

RICHARD REEVES

October 03, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON. — Washington--George Bush looks to be on his way to being remembered as a great president. He is in control and thinking big. Which leaves us, particularly folks like me who don't particularly like him, pondering an embarrassing question or two: Whatever happened to George Bush, the wimp with no vision? Was that the same guy?

Presidents are remembered for the big ones one, two or three big decisions. We don't pay these guys by the hour. No one remembers, or cares, whether Abraham Lincoln balanced the budget or whether Franklin Roosevelt increased wheat subsidies.

The great ones are remembered for choosing the right side of history. The first step in doing that is an instinct for what is primary, for what will last, for seeing what around them will be considered historical. The smart ones understand they can greatly influence that future appreciation.

Presidents rarely control events, but they usually have the power to be the principal influence on how events are perceived. They can rarely shape history, but they can shape the remembering and writing of history.

The best example of that kind of great and smart politician was not a president, though he was half-American. Winston Churchill made the history and then wrote it himself. Few people have that range of talents, but presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon tried to approximate it by taping their presidencies or important parts of them.

Kennedy's tapes of meetings concerning the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and his telephone calls during the civil rights revolution that began, for him at least, the year before were meant to provide the raw material of the memoirs he planned to write with Theodore Sorensen.

As for Mr. Nixon, it did not work out as he planned it, but he was taping everything for the same reason. President Eisenhower, before them, kept the kind of diary that almost all military men do as their first line of historical defense.

Mr. Bush seems to understand both history and the powers of the presidency. For better and for worse, I doubt anyone will long remember the Gulf War of 1991, or the fact that Mr. Bush callously and calculatingly chose to ignore the most obvious victims of the free-market capitalism he worships.

The shifting sands of the Middle East will quickly cover over the glory and gore of famous victories. And if in fact it turns out that the United States of America is in terminal economic decline which I doubt very much no one is going to blame one lonely little guy who happened to be in the White House for four or eight years.

The big one is the end of nuclear confrontation. Some may like to think that George Bush is nothing more than the right guy in the right place at the right time. There is some of that, but it seems clear to me that this president knows what he is doing.

He proved that again last Friday night by quickly tacking together a dramatic speech announcing the beginning of the dismantling of the legions of nuclear arms the United States has assembled and aimed for more than 40 years of cold war.

His historical timing seems perfect. Again, no one is going to remember the numbers. They are going to remember the initiative.

I am astounded that his loyal opposition, the Democrats in Congress, caught flat-footed one more time, could think only to say nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah claiming one more time that all this was going to happen anyway no matter what George Bush did.

Really? Well, if they knew all along, why didn't they make enough noise, for the purpose of the 1992 election if not history, to put the president in the position of appearing to respond to their initiatives, rather than their now responding to his? And if they knew this kind of disarmament was inevitable, why are they not welcoming Mr. Bush to the right side and sharing in the credit for what are sure to be great and historic events?

If the pushing back of the hands of the doomsday clock, from a few minutes before the midnight of cremation, is actually happening, then what we are seeing and hearing and now doing is beyond politics. The Democrats should get on the glory train that George Bush is driving into history.

That was what Clement Attlee and the Labor Party did as Churchill was making history in World War II. The war ended all hailed Churchill and British voters in 1945, fed up with sacrifice and the royalist economics of the Conservatives, voted Labor. It made Churchill mad as hell, but it gave him more time to write the history immortalizing himself.

George Bush may not be immortal, but he is going to be remembered for a long time if he can continue to understand the difference between history and politics and the political uses of history-making and has opponents who just don't get it.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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