The other day Linda Douglass, the Congressional correspondent for ABC News, commented to Peter Jennings that some “conservative” Republican senators were opposed to a plan that Senate majority leader Trent Lott was canvassing to foreshorten the impeachment trial of President Clinton. “History, if not Republican voters, will judge them harshly,” the senators reportedly told him, “if they give impeachment short shrift.” The casual reference to history was significant. Our politicians and those who comment upon them these days have developed a virtual mania for history. President Clinton, several of his former aides have told us, is a great reader of history books and is preoccupied with his “legacy.” He sits around hour after hour, according to his former pollster Dick Morris, wondering what ranking he will be given among Presidents. Above Eisenhower? Below Wilson? Up there with Teddy Roosevelt? Only poll results, it appears, interest him more. It’s hard not to escape the conclusion that the judgment of history is, for him, a kind of ultimate poll, an eternal positive rating–the last, and most lasting, round of applause.
His detractors in both parties are, if anything, even more preoccupied with history. They want posterity to boo him. They want his legacy wrecked. “This guy is condemned in history for the acts he committed,” Senator Joseph Lieberman said, adding for good measure, “Impeachment puts that mark indelibly in the history books…. He’s got to be hurt personally, pained….” Senator Slade Gorton agrees: “President Clinton is whistling past the graveyard if he thinks that this is going to be forgotten during the course of the next twenty years or for that matter in the next 200 years.” “The impeachment proceedings have left Clinton’s credibility in shreds and his legacy permanently tarnished,” chimes in the Washington Post. Not even a “papal indulgence” can remove this stain, says Senator Joe Biden, a Catholic–seeming, almost, to place the judgment of history above the judgment of God Himself.
This preoccupation with history must offend the ordinary person. Most people are obliged to live out their lives without giving a thought to some “place in history.” There never was any place for them there, and there never will be. No unborn scriveners will look over their shoulders as they decide whether to be faithful to their wives or husbands, whether to stand up to the outrages of the boss or knuckle under, whether to tell the truth or lie, whether to obey the law or cut a corner. Their decisions are just as hard as those now being made by President Clinton and Trent Lott, and they make them without reference to any “legacy.” The only legacy of their actions is the consequence for themselves and those among whom they live. Can I pay the bills? Am I doing right by my children? What should I do with my life? Can I face myself in the mirror in the morning? Such are the considerations people face when they make their decisions, and that is enough.
In the public sphere, there are, it is true, some good reasons for particular confidence in the judgments of history. For one thing, we in the present may not have all the necessary information. Some Pentagon Papers may reveal that the facts were quite different from what they seemed to be. The more important and deep-rooted difficulty, however, is that a conflict of interest is built into our attempts to rate our own actions. For each generation is a judge in its own case. To judge oneself fairly is not an impossible thing, but it’s easier to judge someone else. Sometimes the excitement of the moment can even destroy the capacity for judgment. Consider, for example, the ability of the German people in the thirties to arrive at a true estimation of Hitler. Historians are still arguing about Nazism, but does anyone suppose that any future generation will look on Hitler as fondly as did the Germans who supported him and put him in power?