The NYT reports on President George W. Bush's trip through Liberia, at the end of a surprisingly triumphant progress through Africa. With GWB's successor already in view -- it will probably be one of three people too well known to mention here -- mental comparisons are already possible. How will history regard George W. Bush?
I think it will treat him better than Bill Clinton because history assigns values based on effects -- and I'm guessing many of these will be surprisingly good. The soundbite, which reigns supreme in the 24-hour news cycle has less effect upon the real course of events than decisions which affect demography, geopolitics and basic culture. When time clears soundbite noise away the underlying signal emerges more clearly.
And George Bush has certainly made his mark on history; whether for good or ill we still don't know for sure. His decisions are still playing out and the events engendered won't finish running their course for decades. Some, like Ronald Reagan's decision to support the muj to fight the Soviets may have unexpectedly bad consequences we can only guess at. Others, like many of Reagan's, will seem inspired in retrospect. How the ledger will look in two decades is still uncertain. But one thing is sure, there'll be numbers at the bottom of the page.
What of Bill Clinton? He was by many measures a far more talented and articulate politician than GWB. Yet there was a curious nothingness about the man, a deficiency he was adept at concealing by a superabundance of words; chumminess; a seeming to be in motion. But when the buzz died down you found yourself alone in the theater, wondering at what you had just seen.
a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I think the central problem that Bill Clinton's biographers must grapple with is how so much talent could become (in my mind at least) so inconsequential. The corresponding problem for GWB biographers will be almost the reverse. If the challenge with Clinton is to find the deeds beyond the man the problem with GWB is to discover the man behind the deeds. Bill Clinton is almost the friend you don't want to have; a man about who you know more than you care to. Before Bill Clinton even begins to speak everyone knows it will be about himself.
But who was GWB? And why is he remembered so well in Africa? He said so little really. Or maybe I just haven't been listening.