Upon departing the office, every U.S. president leaves behind some sort of legacy, ranging from admirable to pathetic. The substance of some is such that the entire country benefits, while others appear mostly to be designed to inflate the office-holder. Some barely leave a mark on our nation's history, while others shape it for generations.
When George Washington neared the end of his second term, more than a few hoped he'd change his mind. Indeed, some hoped he'd become executive for life; and it's altogether likely that he'd have won re-election. Washington knew better.
Among his greatest gifts to America was the manner of his leaving. He understood that failing to step down would violate a key ideal of the American Revolution: that our chief executive would be neither king nor dictator. By quitting when he did, Washington established a precedent that, by consensus, lasted until Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was elected for a third, then a fourth term, partly because we were in a world war and (as the old adage has it) one does not wisely change horses in mid-stream.
But Washington's precedent survived in the form of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1951 and provided that a president could serve no more than two terms.
One can easily compile a list of admirable legacies. Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase — an astonishing deal that, in a single stroke, doubled the size of the United States. Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation when the states affected were not even part of the Union and changed the character of the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the inception of the world's first — and still finest — national park system. Dwight Eisenhower imagined, and convinced Congress to fund, the Interstate Highway System.
There are negative legacies as well. Andrew Jackson, hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, superintended the relocation of native peoples from the southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma, a forced migration rightly called “The Trail of Tears.” Richard Nixon, taking counsel of his fears rather than his faith, wrecked what could have been a brilliant career by trying to ensure re-election by shoddy manipulation and criminal conduct. Bill Clinton — the only president in recent history to shrink rather than inflate the national debt — is remembered for shoddy personal morality, not executive achievement.
These hardly exhaust the list. But they illustrate the point that presidents' legacies can influence events not just beyond their time in office but for generations.
Now, it is a truism among political scientists that presidential impact cannot truly be weighed, if ever, until years after each one leaves office. But it is a sport the pleasure of which we can never deny ourselves any more than we can stop prognosticating what kind of season the Steelers or Browns will have come fall. It's just too much fun. Besides, if we don't say it now, how can we later brag to our friends, “I told you so!?” (Unless, of course, we get it all wrong and must slink off and hide until the next inauguration. Then we can purchase new season tickets and start all over again.)
Which is why I find weighing in on the current incumbent irresistible. Whether Mr. Trump is elected for a second term remains to be seen. Which may make little difference. There is scant evidence that he'll ever change course, re-elected or not. That being so, I believe that his legacy is already clear. And I believe it will be lamentable.
The main cause is hubris. The man's perverse pride serves him badly. Anyone who thinks his brain is the smartest in the room — in the world, even — is incapable of taking advice, no matter how well-qualified. It also blinds him to his own shortcomings. And when conceit is wedded to a refusal to learn, the conclusion is forgone.
I believe that history will judge him as thinking that he could transform falsehood into truth simply by repeating it often enough; that his disregard for scientists, particularly as regards climate issues, was destructive to the future of both country and world; that he held corporate profitability to be a higher value than protecting the public's health and welfare; that his treatment of asylum-seekers, people of color and the poor was callous beyond reason; and that he thumbed his nose at established allies while engaging in the delusion that he could charm tyrants and dictators.
It will, in brief, be a depressing legacy. And he himself will be largely to blame.
Don Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.