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.
A more plausible explanation rests not on the presidents but on our expectations of them. Starting in the 1960s, several developments uncorked a new cynicism toward presidents. Television -- combined with a newly populist style among politicians -- made these once-august figures seem all too human and familiar. With Watergate and the Vietnam War, journalists and the public felt freer to serve up sharp, even vitriolic criticism of the president. And the era’s general skepticism toward authority made questioning and mocking our leaders seem as American as the Kentucky Derby.
In this environment, scholars began to wonder if the popular expectations of the office had simply become too great for anyone to fulfill. The federal government now promised Americans a great deal -- from vast social programs to consumer and workplace protections to an expanding litany of rights. The president, who embodies the government, was held responsible for delivering more and more: a bountiful economy and efficient services, moral vision and practical policy solutions, ethical leadership and national security without foreign entanglements. The room for error shrank.
But if presidents suffered under burdensome expectations, ex-presidents were another story. The contempt for the individual in the White House obscured an ongoing reverence for the presidential office. Americans have continued to indulge our leaders’ posh inaugurations, resplendent mansion and exorbitantly expensive private plane.
We like to imagine former presidents as belonging to an elite club of veteran wise men. Having earned their battle stars and scars, we figure, they now deserve a certain respect. “Saturday Night Live” has even had a running animated bit called the “X-Presidents,” which imagines the former chiefs as a gang of superheroes -- parodic, but also paying homage to the special role these men hold in public life. Ex-presidents, freed of the demands placed on sitting leaders, can enjoy esteem from citizens while steering clear of controversial topics (Jimmy Carter, take note!) that bring on sniping.
That doesn’t mean we should view the upward revisions of ex-presidents’ reputations as correct, or final. Our encomiums to former officeholders often reflect nothing more than sentimentalism. We forget the errors of judgment or wrongheaded ideological choices for which we once rightly excoriated them. The appraisal rendered on a president’s death is no more reliable than the one delivered during his tenure. Often the post-mortem boom fades: After a brief rise at the time of his death, for instance, Nixon’s popularity, as tracked by Gallup, sank back to abysmal levels.
For many months now, George W. Bush has been speaking about Harry Truman -- another president, maligned in his own time, whom history has come to treat more charitably for sticking to his guns in the early years of a long, global conflict. And although this comparison strikes most historians of the Cold War as strained, it’s perhaps conceivable that someday Bush’s successful steps in the war on terrorism will come to be seen as justifying his wrongs.
A more likely outcome, though, is that he’ll follow in the steps of Lyndon Johnson -- who also failed to end a degenerating war despite mounting popular discontent. For all his achievements, LBJ has emerged as the only postwar president (besides Nixon) who has failed to benefit from the ratings bounce that death or retirement brings.
History delivers few final verdicts. What’s important is to maintain a humility about those judgments we offer. When presidents make news for heading up disaster-relief efforts or chairing commissions or being laid to rest, we should bear in mind that some of those whom we consider heroes may soon be remembered as rogues, some sinners as saints, and some men of decency as nullities who just happened to briefly hold the most powerful office in the world.