I could only shrug my shoulders at a recent survey in which Ronald Reagan emerged as the greatest American president. Ideologies aside, anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of history has to wonder how a one-dimensional figure like Reagan, who spent most of his life as an actor or corporate spokesman, didn’t write even his own speeches, and never led his nation through a war or comparable crisis could be compared to, for example, Abraham Lincoln, who having given himself a profound, if narrow education, became a great orator, the emancipator of an entire race, and the tragic hero of a desperate civil war. The worst disaster Reagan ever faced was the loss of the 300 marines in Lebanon, a blow to his political image that he conveniently recouped three days later by invading a small and defenseless island in the Caribbean. It is difficult to imagine Reagan dealing with the costs and sorrows of an Antietem or a Gettysburg. I do give him credit for resisting the worst impulses of his right-wing advisors and allowing himself to listen to Gorbachev. But Gorbachev, after all, was the great man of the era while Reagan was never much more than a PR confection, a masterpiece of audioanimatronics even before he fetched up in Disneyland. Yet Reagan outpolled Abraham Lincoln. You might as well compare Thomas Jefferson and George Bush.
Speaking of Jefferson and Bush, there is actually a formal basis of comparison. Jefferson came into office with a minimalist view of government, but the opportunity to acquire Louisiana quickly changed his mind about what the Federal government should or should not undertake. Bush is also finding that New Orleans can make you change your tune about the proper responsibilities of the state. Supposedly a proponent of small government, Bush was heard last night trying to sound like FDR, though his version of the New Deal, supervised by fixer-in-chief, Karl Rove, is likely to come off like a botched bank robbery. Indeed, it is likely to come off as a botched bank robbery.
It should be noted, of course, that the hurricane is not the first disaster to derail Bush’s plans—9/11, the failure of the Iraq invasion, and the oil crunch kept him in Brownian motion even before his problems with Brown. Every president sooner or later finds his preconceptions defeated by events, but Bush was a hostage to fortune from the beginning. He gets blown about by every unforeseen contingency, which means he gets blown about quite a bit since he doesn’t do much foreseeing. He may be stubborn and prejudiced, but he certainly isn’t steadfast and principled. With his utter lack of substance, in fact, he might eventually be a worthy competitor to Ronald Reagan in some future greatest American poll.