“In the ranks of honour”

Ron Radosh is the superb historian and author of The Rosenberg File (with Joyce Milton) and, most recently, Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left (with Allis Radosh). Radosh now presides over his own aptly titled Pajamas Media blog Ron Radosh. In his post “Will Bush-bashing end?,” he takes up the question of President Bush’s reputation in history:

Speaking about this himself, the President told an interviewer that he would like to be known “as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace,” and as a person “who first and foremost, did not sell his soul to accommodate the political process.” He would like to be known as a leader who “rallied people to help their neighbor, that led an effort to help relieve HIV/AIDS and malaria on places like the continent of Africa; that helped elderly people get their prescription drugs and Medicare as part of the basic package.”

Whether or not Bush’s hopes are fulfilled will only be told by future historians. Today’s academy has already reached its own judgment. A year or so ago, the eminent historian Sean Wilentz wrote a cover story for Rolling Stone, in which he called Bush “the worst President in all American history.” Most of his colleagues readily agreed with his call.

Bush and his defenders have good reason to be angry at Wilentz’s premature verdict….

After weighing the possibilities in a spirit of fair-mindedness, Radosh concludes: “Check back with me in a decade.”

As David Reynolds demonstrates throughout In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, the question of reputation was one that preoccupied Winston Churchill. In chapter 4 of the book, Reynolds draws attention to “perhaps the most moving speech of [Churchill’s] long career.” It is Churchill’s tribute to Neville Chamberlain delivered in Parliament on November 12, 1940. Chamberlain had died three days earlier after a painful battle with cancer.

“Rarely had a man’s reputation been so dramatically transformed,” Reynolds writes, “lauded as peacemaker by delirious crowds on his return from Munich in September 1938, Chamberlain was now reviled as architect of appeasement.” As Reynolds puts it, “Churchill reminded a packed, hushed House of the vicissitudes of fame.” Churchill said on the occasion:

In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this?

Churchill provided the answer to his own question:

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

Radosh correctly recognizes that it is premature to render the verdict of history on President Bush. Bush’s claimed accomplishments remind conservatives of the reasons for their own ambivalence about him. But there can be little doubt, as John O’Sullivan recently argued before a National Review audience, that in Churchill’s terms he marches “in the ranks of honour.”

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