Perspective Is the Best Pundit

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Quarrels with the Chinese will go on. For the moment, the verdict on George W. Bush's performance in this first international test has been, on the whole, favorable. It even seemed right, an interesting self-effacement, that he did not show up to welcome the crew back to America. Neither Ronald Reagan nor Bill Clinton would have passed up such a theatrical opportunity.

Still, as Bush gained a little ground for his presidency, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times laid on with sprightly viciousness. Dowd, relentless as a chigger, mocked the White House staff for praising the President's coolness and focus in the episode.

Even for observers who know what they are talking about, it is hard to be fair to leaders while all of us grope through the fog of history.

General George C. Patton wrote in his diary, in April of 1943: "The trouble is that we lack leaders of sufficient strength of character."

Lacked leaders? Patton's leaders in 1943 were Franklin D. Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall. Winston Churchill was also on the team. Patton was a fierce field commander and an almost mystical student of military history, but headlong narcissism impaired his sight from time to time. He had trouble judging those in power over him. We all do. Either we are infuriated by people who outrank us, or we overvalue those in whom we have invested hopes. Trusting leaders involves risks, acts of faith.

Inside the territory destined to be known as the Beltway, many observers, Dowds of their day, greeted Lincoln as a knuckle-dragging simpleton from the backwoods. Descendants of such commentators viewed Truman as a dangerous mediocrity, an ex-haberdasher and party hack from the Kansas City machine. Commentary in our own time is liable to fall into the same supercilious perspective. We are all guilty, from time to time, of stupid judgments about leaders, because the outcomes are not known.

The other day, on the anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945, I drove over to Hyde Park to look, again, at Springwood, FDR's family estate on the Hudson. What impressed me was its modesty, its homeliness, even its shabbiness here and there. In the upstairs rooms, in FDR's bedroom itself, there lingers an atmosphere of haunting plainness. A bed. A few chairs. A bureau. A primitive version of a telephone hot line installed on the wall near the head of the bed. A few mementos. Down the hall is the dumbwaiter by which FDR hauled himself up and down from the first floor in his wheelchair, pulling on ropes with counterweights. I wonder what Patton would have said about leadership and character if he had seen Roosevelt hauling himself upstairs in the dumbwaiter.

Home reflects character. The Kennedys' walls and furniture gleam with the silver-framed pageant of their photogenic tribal progress. Ronald Reagan's weight room in the White House seemed wistfully egotistical, decorated on the theme of himself, with movie posters of himself and the TIME Man of the Year cover illustration of himself. Richard Nixon wanted to outfit his White House guard in elaborate Graustarkian uniforms, a tinhorn spectacle of power, but was embarrassed out of the idea. Patton, too, was a great one for designing gaudy special uniforms for himself and his troops. George C. Scott's "Patton" was Nixon's favorite movie. If Nixon could have worn a brace of ivory-handled pistols, he might have done so.

Nixon's real hero, whom he quoted on that last day in the White House, was Teddy Roosevelt. We should be grateful that the peacemaking statesman in Nixon triumphed over the ghost of TR, who said: "No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war." Presidents are as complex as the rest of us.

Several years ago while driving across Arkansas, I left the interstate to visit Hope, to see Bill Clinton's boyhood home. There I purchased a postcard that is my favorite item of presidential memorabilia. It shows Clinton's fifth grade class (little Billy unmistakable). The caption on the back reads as follows:

"As a boy, Bill was so smart that the other children used to come over to his house just to watch him think."