There is a particularly telling moment in the PBS documentary, when, with his back to the wall, as it often was, Clinton was said to have shouted at his staff, “Tell me what to do!”
William Hazlitt, the 19th-century English literary critic and essayist, wrote, “No man is truly great who is only great in his own lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.”
Historians routinely rank the presidents, sometimes according to specific categories, such as leadership, accomplishments, and character. They tend to agree on the truly great – the indispensables of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But historians also hold subjective – and variable – views.
Perhaps there should be an edict for pollsters – and historians – that no president can be pronounced “great” until 50 years after leaving office. One school of French academics used to believe one shouldn’t even write history until a century after an event to allow for distillation of more-impartial judgments.
Often, moderns are simply too close to render reliable verdicts. In 1932, Winston Churchill, then a journalist, said of Adolf Hitler, “I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat…. [He had] a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose.”
Yes, even journalists, who take the first pass at history, can get it wrong.