Last year's gripping campaign and the wave of popularity behind Barack Obama have focused tremendous attention on the White House and the presidency. As the country marks Presidents Day, TIME spoke with author and historian Richard Norton Smith about America's "schizoid" relationship with its President, the lofty expectations for Obama and the way history's verdicts can shift over time. (See pictures of Barack Obama's nation of hope.)
What interests you as a historian about our new President?
There is a theory, and I think it holds some credence, that every 30 years or so America is in a regenerative mood. It shows a willingness to take a hard look at some of its accepted truths, whether it's the role of big business at the beginning of the 20th century or isolationism after World War I. You saw it with FDR in the 30s, and with Kennedy and with Reagan. I'm intrigued by the possibility that we may be embarking on another such era. It will be fascinating to see how this President puts his stamp not only on the next four or eight years, but potentially on the next generation or more.
Even before he took office, Obama was being compared to Abraham Lincoln and other historic leaders. Are those kinds of expectations fair? (see the portraits of Abraham Lincoln.)
You cannot overstate the degree to which media exaggeration has become part of the modern presidency the saturation coverage and saturation punditry. The irony is, no one in March 1933 knew FDR was going to be FDR. And Lincoln hell, his election prompted seven southern states to secede. So they both had the advantage, if you want to call it that, of being underestimated. (Read the commentary on the ghost of 1933.)
I think there is a fundamental disconnect between much of the media with its breathless and impatient coverage and most people out there. Most people are more patient and sophisticated, and appreciate that our problems have developed over a long period of time. They're realistic enough to understand that they are not going to disappear overnight.
Thanks to blanket media coverage and the long campaign, we know an awful lot about the personal lives of President Obama and his family. Could that weaken the power of an office that relies, to some degree, on mystique?
We're schizoid about this. In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, we loved it when candidate Jimmy Carter carried his own laundry, and we admired him for walking down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. Yet just a few weeks later we excoriated him for wearing a cardigan sweater and addressing us from the Oval Office on the energy crisis. There is this classic pendulum that swings back and forth. On the one hand, we want our presidents, if not necessarily to be of us, than certainly to be accessible to us. On the other hand, at various times in our history we also want to put them on a pedestal.
In a curious way, thus far I think Obama combines both qualities. I think the President was elected in no small measure because people sensed an authenticity about him and his upbringing. But at the same time, I think there is a sort of Kennedy-esque, semi-regal quality that we want to project onto the President and his entire family.
Obama is the first President to use a BlackBerry. Are you hopeful that will offer future historians a fuller written record of his presidency?
Oh no, on the contrary. Email and BlackBerrys have their own particular character of communication, which I think is very different from the interior dialogue that one conducts in the pages of a diary, or the written conversation to which one contributes when writing a letter. The culture being what it is, people don't write letters today, people don't keep diaries today. As late as Ronald Reagan, some presidents maintained a virtual diary of their presidency, which is an invaluable document to get inside their head. Those don't exist for the years since.
People close to George W. Bush say history will eventually vindicate his presidency. Could that happen?
Harry Truman is a classic example of someone who was widely scorned at the time. It took 30 years for Truman to be appreciated, as a contrast to the artifice, theatricality, and in some cases mendacity associated with the presidency during Vietnam and Watergate. All the sudden he came to be seen as the real deal.
The difficulty of assessing a president who's just left office is, in effect, he's running against himself. It's particularly true with a polarizing president it takes time for those emotions to cool. It takes time to get access to papers, it takes time for a president and his policies to be assessed against his successors, and to see how they deal with the same issues.
The old line that "history is argument without end" applies to nothing more than the assessment of presidential performance.