Former Presidents We Have Known

May 07, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

It is not surprising that Richard M. Nixon, the first president to resign in disgrace, was sufficiently rehabilitated at his death two decades later that President Clinton orated respectfully at his funeral.

For one thing, Nixon worked at rehabilitation. He produced in retirement a steady stream of books and articles to establish his seriousness of thought on policy issues.

He offered quiet consultation and encouragement to any young politician of either major party willing to take him up. It was his good fortune that one, the fatherless Bill Clinton, became president and was not ashamed to speak his gratitude.

For another thing, many presidents held in low esteem upon leaving office have risen in reputation afterward. They worked at it, too.

Harry S. Truman declined to run again in 1952, when both nominees promised to clean up ''the mess in Washington,'' meaning his mess.

Yet he was barely out of office before winning the affection of the nation for pep, plain talk and having taken the United States into the Cold War against Soviet expansion.

Relentless efforts of a generation of revisionist historians to convince Americans that this had been wicked of Truman have collapsed with communism.

A Democrat, Truman rehabilitated Herbert Hoover, the Republican who was thrown out in 1932 as personally responsible for the Great Depression. In 1947, Truman appointed Hoover to head a commission to rid government of red tape and inefficiency for good. People with long memories marveled.

The first president to be rehabilitated was the second president, John Adams. He was humiliated in the election of 1800 and went back to Quincy, Massachusetts, to produce 26 years worth of sober political pronouncements and correspondence that raised his repute. School children were taught to revere him as a Founding Father, until that gender-specific term went out of fashion.

But it was his boy, John Quincy Adams, who really rehabilitated himself. Secretary of state in the Monroe administration, John Q. connived himself into the presidency after the election of 1824 was thrown into the House of Representatives. He failed to build a political base and himself retreated to Quincy in 1829.

But John Q. bounced back to serve 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, distinguishing himself as an early and principled fighter against the spread of slavery. He single-handedly undid the gag rules, by which petitions to Congress went unheard. A poor president, he was a marvelous ex-president.

Somewhat analogous was the career of William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt's chosen heir in 1908. By 1912, a disgusted Roosevelt split the Republican Party to throw him out of office. Taft retired to a useful life as professor of constitutional law at Yale University.

President Harding in 1921 appointed Taft to be chief justice of the United States, serving until 1930. Greater rehabilitation has been offered to no man.

One of the strongest chief justices and a judicial activist, Taft read free enterprise in every line of the Constitution and made the court into a ''super-legislature,'' nullifying progressive and regulatory legislation for a generation.

He built the court into a self-sufficient third branch of government in the public eye as well as the Constitution by persuading Congress to let it out of the Capitol and across the street into a marble temple of its own. He was a jurisprudential calamity whose lasting monument is the Supreme Court building.

Whatever the future assessments of Nixon's foreign and domestic policies, he will always be famous for Watergate, the attempt to steal by crime an election he was winning fairly, and for his unique resignation under fire, handing office over to the nation's only unelected vice president -- that is, for undermining faith in constitutional government.

After all, Andrew Johnson is famous as the only president to be impeached. Less well known is that ''impeached'' means merely indicted, and that Johnson was acquitted by the Senate of alleged high crimes and misdemeanors, and served out Lincoln's second term.

Johnson sought rehabilitation and was returned by Tennessee to the U.S. Senate in 1875, and died.

Posterity thought better than his contemporaries of A. Johnson, as a would-be healer of the nation's wounds after the Civil War -- until the 1960s, when it came to be appreciated that he had been on the wrong side of civil rights.

Posterity is fickle.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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