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American Presidents and their Legacy
Oct 7, 2007, 10:49

American presidents begin to think about their ‘legacy’ about the time that they become ‘lame ducks.’  A lame duck is a duck that is crippled and can no longer fly.  Lame ducks become prey to predators looking for a good meal and the prospect of their demise causes them to think about their legacy.


Unfortunately, the first legacy to come to the minds of presidents since FDR and Herbert Hoover is their presidential library.  Living presidents and their immediate family tend to concentrate their efforts on building a legacy through a presidential library.  President Hoover was far-sighted and housed his library at a major research university.  President George. W. Bush intends to build his library on the campus of Southern Methodist University and dedicate it to research on freedom.


In truth, however, the real living legacy of these presidents is found in those persons they appoint to offices of trust who will continue the president’s commitment in their careers and activities after presidential service.


Today the Washington Post featured a story about departing Bush White House personnel and one virtually unknown ‘staffer,’ Meghan O'Sullivan.  Dr. O’Sullivan worked on the staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, spent some time at the Brookings Institution, and then served a year with Paul Bremer in Iraq.  Her assignment at the National Security Council made her responsible for frequently reporting to the President on Iraq. 


Dr. O’Sullivan, now age 36, will continue her career and may be expected to join a prestigious think tank, university Faculty, or another presidential administration.


That is the living legacy that Presidents can shape when they become actively engaged in choosing political appointees to serve their administrations.  In making those appointments, they tend to reward the faithful, find places for defeated politicians, pay back those who made significant donations, and place those who worked on their campaigns with very important government jobs.


Most presidents reach first into their immediate circle and their top appointments reflect their age, personal friendships and party affiliation.  Ronald Reagan, born in 1911, reached back toward the World War II generation and relied on those whose public service was shaped in Nixon and Ford Administrations and friends in his immediate circle.  Beyond that he proved indifferent and dependent on a White House staff composed of persons who did not share his political philosophy.  One story circulates that President Eisenhower and Nixon personally interviewed every sub-cabinet nominee of their administrations.  Reagan did not, either because his staff was attempting to circumvent his conservative instincts, or because he was, after an attempted assassination, profoundly injured and overly protected.  Without his active intervention in the personnel process President Reagan became captive to Nixon/Ford appointees and threw away his potential legacy of influence by advancing his enemies and denying appointments to his philosophical friends who sought positions in America's foreign policy, national security and intelligence agencies. Those conservatives he did appoint for foreign policy and national security posts, but who ran afoul of the liberal Establishment, were replaced by liberals, not traditional conservatives.


President Reagan’s neglect of the appointment process in foreign policy and national security led to the neglect of conservatives who represented the Right’s traditional fear of foreign expansionism and adventurism.  That created a vacuum into which flowed the appointment of those who came to dominate the Bush Administration’s failed foreign policy in Iraq.  Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld served liberal President Gerry Ford with distinction and a host of others associated with anti-communist liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Scoop Jackson—and later the Project for a New American Century— were promoted to foreign policy positions by President Reagan’s Office of Presidential Personnel. 


Lo and behold, they turned up again in the Bush Administration driving Bush foreign policy into an expansionist mode dedicated toward making the world safe for democracy. 


Here, for example, is a list of signatories to the Statement of Principles of the Project for a New American Century:


Elliott Abrams    Gary Bauer    William J. Bennett    Jeb Bush

Dick Cheney    Eliot A. Cohen    Midge Decter    Paula Dobriansky    


Steve Forbes  Aaron Friedberg    Francis Fukuyama    Frank Gaffney    


Fred C. Ikle   Donald Kagan    Zalmay Khalilzad    I. Lewis Libby    


Norman Podhoretz  Dan Quayle    Peter W. Rodman    Stephen P. Rosen   


Henry S. Rowen   Donald Rumsfeld    Vin Weber    George Weigel    


Paul Wolfowitz


The great unanswered question is whether the Bush Administration’s foreign policy would have been different if traditional conservatives had been advanced by President Reagan rather than former Democrats or those whose names are listed above?


In the case of President Bush’s legacy, we know the answer.  Because “W” advanced younger and talented public executives, even though they did not represent the conservative constituency that elected him, they, like Meghan O'Sullivan will continue to influence American foreign policy and contribute to the descent into death and destruction that drive nations made captive to ideological movements. 


Not unlike the French under Napoleon, America has become feared by traditional cultures as the most destructive force in the world.  Instead of being beloved as the land of decency, hope, freedom and individual liberty, America can expect to be reviled for a hundred years as an Imperial nation forcing its ideology of secular democracy on a world that wants merely to be left alone.


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