Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:17 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:17 | SYDNEY

No drama Obama


Sam Roggeveen


30 October 2008 15:21

Great op-ed by Daniel Finkelstein in today's Australian. The theme:

Last week Times Online sent me a list of the 42 US presidents and asked me to rank them. What seemed initially to be an annoying distraction quickly became a minor obsession and, as it made this transition, I began to realise that we make systematic errors in assessing history, and that one of them is to favour big ideas and great acts over quiet moderation.

Amen. That's precisely why I hope Barack 'no drama' Obama wins next Tuesday, because on the evidence available, he's more likely than Senator McCain to return American foreign policy to something approaching modesty. Finkelstein continues:

We are in love with historical figures who triumph in military conflict, die violently, take brave last stands, announce sweeping reform, stride the world stage. But what about those people who govern quietly and competently? Those whose citizens live in peace and don't have to die in wars and win triumphs? What about those who proceed through compromise and consensus, avoiding the showdowns?

On those grounds, Finkelstein names the 'low temperature' presidency of James Monroe as his greatest. For similar reasons, I have previously nominated Dwight Eisenhower as one of my most admired presidents, since he presided over eight years of international peace, a feat unmatched by any other twentieth century president.

But Eisenhower's term also illustrates the limitations of 'masterly inactivity'. It has been said of Barack Obama that, although his politics are liberal (in the American sense of that term), he has a conservative temperament. Eisenhower certainly had such a temperament — cautious, respectful of tradition, sceptical of abstract reasoning — and although that helped keep the world at peace in tumultuous times, it also hindered Eisenhower's ability to see the possibility and necessity for change. As Eisenhower's biographer, Stephen Ambrose, notes:

The most basic, telling and realistic criticism of of the Eisenhower Presidency is not what he did, but what he did not do. His two terms were the time of the great postponement. This was obviously true of race relations and progress toward the desegregation of American life; it was equally true of such urban problems as the growth of slums, pollution, the loss of the tax base, a decent education for all, care for elderly, the helpless, the unemployed.

to paraphrase William F Buckley, conservatives are very good at standing athwart history and yelling 'Stop!' But it's worth remembering that many of the great social advances made by the West in the twentieth century have come from the left.