It’s “legacy” time for Barack Obama – the usual cascade of end-of-term predictions and projections that usher presidents out.
Sorry, but this speculative ritual partakes of the fallacy that depicts passing political events as “a first rough draft of history” or “history in the making.” Those journalistic cliches entirely misconceive the historical enterprise. They are flattering in a way to those of us who practice the journalistic craft. But to paraphrase the chief justice who once boasted that “the law is what the judges say it is” history will consist of what trained historians say it is. And it will change, constantly. As the distinguished historian John Lukacs has said, “history is revision,” the endless rethinking of the past.
That history is unstable and unpredictable ought to be obvious these days, since every day’s news brings an attack by some “revisionist” on someone’s hero. Who would have thought half a century ago that the demigod Thomas Jefferson, author of the world-shaping Declaration of Independence, third president, and architect of Monticello, would now be routinely depicted as the mischievous father of children by his child-slave Sally Hemings? That the evidence has been twisted by these revisionists is beside the point. Tainted “proof” always plays a role in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of the past.
If one of our reporters, seeking Christopher Columbus’s “legacy,” had witnessed his 1492 landfall in the Western Hemisphere, what headline would he have written? Perhaps “Columbus Lays an Egg” with an accompanying story that told, with a laugh, how this daffy mariner had sailed confidently for Japan without imagining that another continent and even broader ocean lay between him and the trade routes he sought?
But with this preface, back to President Obama.
In one of the inventive evaluations of the Obama legacy, my erudite colleague George Will writes that Obama’s paramount blunder was to sentimentalize international tensions and try to squeeze the rambunctious present into a Wilsonian dreamland – an aspiration doomed because nations have conflicting aims and interests. But such, says Will, is the destiny of “progressives” who labor under the guidance of John Locke. And for every Will, there is a sympathetic assessor who predicts that Obama may turn out to have been the best president ever.
As usual, I find myself caught in the punditorial crossfire. For me, the significance of Obama’s two terms (which I welcomed) lies in a cultural- historical ambit that no non-southerner is likely to grasp. It has little to do with Obama’s foreign policy (which reflected the imperatives of his reckless predecessor) or even his health care program, like them or not. Will’s admired president, Ronald Reagan, was heard to say that he hadn’t known there was a problem of race in America. And sometimes this astonishing profession of ignorance seemed plausible. He journeyed to deepest Mississippi to announce his candidacy for president – Neshoba County, site of the brutal assassination of three young civil rights workers, slain and buried in an earthen dam in the so-called “Mississippi summer” of the 1960s. No southern candidate for president – certainly no sensitive or plausible one – could made such a blunder.
The “legacy” of the Obama presidency is uniquely visible at the end of his term: He shattered a mold no southerner of my generation, to say nothing of earlier ones, imagined would be broken only 54 years after the end of Jim Crow law.
To be sure, Obama’s identity has little in common (complexion aside) with that of other politicians of color. For once, this is an instance in which circumstance – Obama’s half-Kenyan parentage, persistently falsified by his mendacious successor – does not alter the case. The most forbidding of all barriers in our political culture has been surmounted. For those of southern white lineage (in my case, with Confederate warriors in the family tree) this has been a glorious “legacy” in a sense that no Yankee will ever grasp.
Even if Obama’s presidency had been the failure relentlessly portrayed and promoted by his Republican detractors – which it assuredly is not – future historians would find it immeasurably significant.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.