How Presidents Are Viewed by History

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Barack Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney would deserve to be part of the American canon even if the president — his voice crackling in emotion and devotion — hadn’t broken into his own rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a rhetorical gesture with no equal since Lyndon B. Johnson used the phrase “We shall overcome” in a speech before a joint session of Congress a half-century ago this year.

The overtones of the Obama speech still are resonating far beyond the College of Charleston, where the president spoke of righteousness and redemption, mission and mercy. Your children and your children’s children will hear and read that speech, along with John Kennedy’s inaugural address, Johnson’s civil-rights speech and Ronald Reagan’s “tear-down-this-wall” speech in the divided city of Berlin.

By that time, Mr. Obama’s place in history will be sealed, or at least evident, but at this juncture — with less than a quarter of his presidency remaining — it cannot be clear how he will be seen. Will he be regarded as a feckless chief executive with no discernible strategy for fighting terrorism or negotiating with nuclear Iran? Or as a visionary who won a massive overhaul of American health care and presided over great strides in ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation?

Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower — even boozy Ulysses Grant and quiet Calvin Coolidge — are regarded quite differently today than at the end of their presidencies.

The latter four, especially, have grown in public estimation far beyond any contemporary expectation. Where are all those people today — many are still alive — who were “mild about Harry,” or who insisted that “to err is Truman”?

And so tucked into the president’s eulogy to Rev. Pinckney — perhaps you noticed it, too — was a comment about the South Carolina state senator and pastor that could not have been a casual aside. It was the president’s assessment of Rev. Pinckney as a good man, and, reading the excerpt that follows, it may be hard to repress the notion that the president was thinking, too, about his own hard passage:

What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized — after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man.

The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose sad fate it was to deliver too many eulogies, used to say that the challenge in that sorrowful art form was to talk about the person who had died, not the person who remained alive to offer the final tributes. By that he meant that a eulogy should not be studded with personal recollections (“I remember when the two of us …”) but instead be full of personal assessments (“She was a ‘woman of valor’ who …”).

But Mr. Obama’s comment wasn’t so much one of self-indulgence as it was of self-examination, and in any case the full extent of it occupied but 32 words in a eulogy of about 3,062 words — a bit more than 1 percent. And it was in an unrecognized but unavoidable tradition, that of top American political figures using eulogies to muse about their own destiny, and their own legacy.

Former Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole of Kansas eulogized Richard M. Nixon at the 37th president’s funeral as a man who was “strong, brave, unafraid of controversy, unyielding in his convictions,” an unmistakable echo of his own view of his life (nearly left for dead on an Italian hillside in the last days of World War II) and career (as an opponent of excessive spending and an advocate for the rights of the disabled).

President Bill Clinton eulogized another onetime Senate majority leader, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, by saying, in an inescapably clear allusion to his own presidential conduct (an affair with an intern in the Oval Office): “Maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done, and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people.”

A good person. The American writer Flannery O’Connor, born about 100 miles from the church tragedy that prompted Mr. Obama’s eulogy, published a collection of short stories called “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” only six years before Mr. Obama was born.

The stories are rooted in the South, and perhaps Mr. Obama has read them. But he surely understands the title of the book, which takes its name from the best-known O’Connor story.

Presidents under siege, and all of them are under siege at least part of the time, often take comfort in the notion that history will redeem them, perhaps not for their policy choices but surely for their character.

George W. Bush, reviled for his twin wars and the economic disaster of 2008, certainly feels that way, and in a revealing passage in a revealing new book about his own spiritual journey, to be published in September, the former NBC newsman David Gregory writes of the president he often tormented: “Watching his faith in action influenced my own process of change.”

So did Richard M. Nixon, the subject of two new biographies this summer. In one of them, “Being Nixon,” Evan Thomas ends his book this way: “Nixon was no saint. But the fears and insecurities that led him into sinfulness also gave him the drive to push past self-doubt, to pretend to be cheerful, to dare to be brave, to see, often though sadly not always, the light in the dark.”

David Eisenhower, grandson to one president and son-in-law to another, said that presidents look at their jobs, and their lives, in much the same way Mr. Obama characterized Rev. Pinckney, through the prism of whether they show the attributes of a “good man,” though some future presidents surely will be women.

“That is the way presidents look at things,” said Mr. Eisenhower, who observed that in his father-in-law, Mr. Nixon. “They are elevated because they have something to contribute. Presidents want to be ‘good,’ but that’s not a fixed concept. Character has a lot of ingredients; some are emphasized in some presidents, and some are emphasized in others. And presidents also want to be special.”

Many of them have been, one way or another: special people, facing special challenges. The challenge, as Mr. Nixon once explained to his son-in-law, is to assure that the special characteristics meet the special circumstances. 

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

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