Now is as good a time as any to talk about “legacy” as it relates to presidents. The United States is a young country, especially when compared to the majority of our allies. Germany, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and others are centuries and centuries old. The U.S. tops out at 240 years, so we’re certainly still in a youthful stage as sovereign nations go. And speaking as a proud patriot, no other country that I can think of grew with the huge leaps and bounds of the United States. If the course we chartered were similar to, say, France’s course, 240 years in would mean we’d still be fighting off the Vandals and Visigoths.
The youthfulness of the United States allows for accurate inspections of our presidents’ legacies only because none of them are all that old. What each of their times in office has meant for the United States, all the way back to George Washington, can, for the most part, be tracked, and with veracity. And since we are only the age we are, we can discuss what our presidents have done or not done during their times in the White House without having to rely solely upon mythology, mystique or Indiana Jones-style archeology.
It’s critical to remember that the citizenry is the ultimate arbiter of presidential legacies. And maybe that’s the purest piece of our democracy. Presidents have wheedled and futzed with their public images, kissed babies until their lips fell off, and bribed and connived all over the campaign trail and even while in office. But we the people have the final say about how they’ll appear in the annals of U.S. history. Take Ulysses S. Grant, for example. I don’t know much about his presidency. But what immediately comes to mind is his habitual drinking. For better or worse, “he loved whiskey” is how Grant has been remembered.
No matter if you’re red or blue, or if the president is red or blue, most people would be quick to consider a president’s job well done if s/he spent his/her time in the Oval Office laboring honestly to uphold our country’s values. In other words, the good ones spend their time in office doing the work regardless of how they believe they appear in the eyes of the public. Not to mention how they believe they may appear in the eyes of the public 25, 50 or 100 years from now. They surrender their legacies to the populace. They allow the people to take control of how they’ll be remembered.
We’re only a month into our current president’s tenure. Obviously, he exerts as much control as is humanly possible over his own legacy. In fact, I don’t think he possesses the self-awareness to understand that his greatest demonstrable skill is as a public relations man for himself. It must have occurred to him on some level, a dim realization, maybe, that being president is hard. He started out with a bang, that flurry of executive orders, but now-a month and some change into a four-year term-he finds himself bogged down by the complicated realities of the job. And, as he is devoid of that critical trait of truly great leaders-humility-he has, in short order, returned to the only thing he knows what to do when he’s backed into a corner: celebrate himself. The ridicu-tweets, that WTF rant in front of the press last week and his recent campaign rally-though he already has the job-in Melbourne, Florida, all amount to self-aggrandizement.
It’s simply luck that wrathful self-aggrandizement can still be mistaken for tough, headstrong leadership. It will work with diminishing returns, of course. The more he presents himself to the public as an object of worship but without any real substance to his administration, the less believable he will become, even to those hardcore supporters who’d follow him to hell (where they’ll be burned to death).
The magnitude of his self-centeredness and the true confusion he feels about himself and his new job, which he quickly covers up with vitriolic windbaggery, have already cemented his legacy for all time. He wants to be remembered. Period. In any way possible. And the presidency is, for him, the latest vehicle by which he believes he’ll survive beyond the grave. But underneath all his layers is a timid kid begging the world not to forget about him.
Even if he uses the rest of his term to claw his way up to mediocrity, in 100 years, the best term for his legacy will be “bizarre.” The worst, and yet somehow most likely, long-standing imprint he’ll leave in the malleable steel of modern U.S. history is exactly that: Worst. President. Ever. Which is too bad, and more than a little ironic, because he obviously and desperately believes his legacy will be this: Best. President. Ever.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.