Raising the dead presidents

It's never too late to revise a reputation—even for Ulee or Cal.

As the economy booms, morals decline, and the presidency becomes mired in scandal, these times call for a man like . . . Calvin Coolidge?

Coolidge has been popping up recently as the latest "It" ex-president. He's the subject of a major conference at the Kennedy Library, is a frequent point of reference for conservative columnists like Robert Novak, and is portrayed in a new biography by Robert H. Ferrell, The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge.

The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge

by Robert H. Ferrell

(University Press of Kansas, $29.95)

Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President

by Geoffrey Perret (Random House, $35)

President Grant Reconsidered

by Frank Scaturro

(University Press of America, $40)

Nixon in Winter

by Monica Crowley (Random House, $30)

The old wisdom, of course, holds that Silent Cal was a stiff prig who did nothing to prevent the stock market speculation that led to the crash and the Great Depression. But conservatives see a cooler Cal: an upright New Englander who stood in stark contrast to Jazz Age excess; a proto supply-sider who lowered taxes and balanced the budget. Ferrell argues that Coolidge was both more cunning and more canny than we've been led to believe.

Welcome to the latest in presidential resurrection, when historians and partisans seek to burnish the reputation of a past president as if fitting him out for the fifth spot on Mount Rushmore. It's a popular sport these days, especially because the stakes are higher. Today's presidential biographers (among them Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and Michael Beschloss) have joined the punditocracy and perform presidential autopsies nightly on PBS and the networks. Historians today have clout. They not only shape the past, but the present—and nothing one-ups your fellow pundits like a new take on an old administration.

Take the scholarly exhumation of Ulysses S. Grant, frequently voted among the worst of our presidents. At a time when the presidential pantheon is filled with Democratic giants (Jefferson, Wilson, F.D.R., J.F.K.), finding a Republican progressive role model is a way to suggest that the GOP isn't simply at its best when standing pat. Grant's administration has often been cited as among the most scandal-ridden, but two new books argue that he presided over an agenda that was in the progressive tradition of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. In Geoffrey Perret's Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President and Frank Scaturro's President Grant Reconsidered, the general emerges as a leader whose scandals never touched him personally, who restored the post­Civil War economy, was the father of civil service reform, and was the only president of his time to use federal power to enforce Reconstruction and civil rights for African Americans. If Grant had succeeded in the latter, the segregated South might never have happened.

These historical judgments are highly political, and no one knew that better than Richard Nixon, who described his own post-Watergate retirement as his "last campaign." He had some help, including a young intern named Monica. No, not that Monica: Monica Crowley, a young grad student who was Nixon's foreign-policy aide from 1990 until his death in 1994. She has published two books, the newest being Nixon in Winter, in which she plays Madame Blavatsky and channels the spirit of Dick during his last years. She took extensive notes of every conversation with the understanding that one day she would publish Nixon's final thoughts on China, Watergate, and politics. Nixon understood that there's no better posthumous spinmeister than one's self, and this book gives new meaning to the term "spinning in his grave." One's place in history is, after all, too important to leave to the historians.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow