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The Seven Ages of Presidents
From the “mewling and puking” of Trump, to Obama in his prime, to the transcendent clarity of Carter.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare describes the seven ages of man, beginning with “the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” and continuing through the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the wise judge, the old man, and then “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Presidents, too, go through their own seven ages. The first is that of the aspirant, all hope and ambition, teeth and hair. Then there is the candidate on the trail, full of promises and promise, suffering (to mix Shakespeare references) the slings and arrows of campaigning and, if lucky, surviving them. Next, there is the election and the first phase of the presidency, the honeymoon. After that comes the rude awakening, the recognition of the limitations of the office and the burden of having to live up to his promises. If one is successful enough, re-election follows and the gradual climb to competency in the more complex and demanding aspects of being commander in chief, like foreign policy and national security. Then there is the escape from office and typically, for a while at least, a journey into the shadows to shape their post-presidency, write their memoirs, and christen their presidential libraries. Finally comes the post-presidency — and as they near death, sainthood or, at the very least, the expiation of sins and middle schools, airports, and highway rest stops named after them.
We have seen recently several notable examples of these phases come to life. We have a herd of aspirants seeking to make the transition into being credible candidates. We have a president ascending to the likely pinnacle of his foreign policy and national security competence. And we have the ex-president who pioneered making the modern post-presidency into a period of great accomplishment confronting his own mortality with extraordinary grace and clarity.
Of all those currently seeking the presidency in 2016, no candidacy has captured the public’s attention like that of Donald Trump. So oversized, so oozing New York brashness, and so full of hot air that he could be a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, Trump has combined the spirit of P.T. Barnum with the finesse of the WWE to capture a commanding lead in the Republican field. Like any showman, he has displayed a great sense of timing, not only in his zingers about his opponents (and, let’s face it, any subject he is asked about), but also in the launch of his candidacy. He has seized perhaps the only moment a candidacy like his could really thrive in: between the end of Jon Stewart’s tenure on the Daily Show and the beginning of the new season of Saturday Night Live. This man and his candidacy are a joke writer’s dream; in time, I am confident, it is the joke writers who will get the last laugh.
You might say I offer this view because I am a clueless elitist. I resent that. I’m from New Jersey. Where I come from, an elitist is a guy who uses brown mustard on his hot dogs. As far as being clueless goes, however, you are pointing your insult in the wrong direction. From his assertions that he would “take the oil” from the Islamic State and use it to pay American veterans, to his plan to build a wall between the United States and Mexico (and have the Mexicans pay for it), Trump has demonstrated the most stunning ignorance on foreign-policy issues of any presidential candidate in memory. And that’s saying something. Americans seem to like their presidential candidates untainted by any real experience in foreign policy. Look at the current president: Barack Obama came to the office with barely the faintest hint of foreign-policy experience. So too for five of the last six presidents, for that matter.
But even in Candidateland, where what you know matters far less than how you make the voters feel, Trump is a special case. It is not an exaggeration to say that he possesses precisely the same foreign-policy knowledge and expertise as the high school student and joke candidate who goes by the name of Deez Nuts. (One of these candidates is 15 years old. The other says he gets his knowledge of the world from watching television and, when asked to name one foreign-policy advisor he listened to, demonstrated his cluelessness by choosing possibly the most egregiously loony foreign-policy “expert” out there, former U.N. ambassador and human flamethrower John Bolton.)
Fortunately, not all candidates get to be president. Campaigns are long — and scrutiny, like ridicule on late-night comedy shows, ultimately takes its toll. We have had idiots like Trump in American politics before, and fortunately, none has ever become president of the United States. The American people — at least the majority of them, not those who vote with their spleens — take the job of picking a leader too seriously.
That does not mean that we never get bad choices or the ill-prepared in the White House. As noted earlier, Obama was exceptionally ill-prepared to be president. Not only did he lack foreign-policy experience, but he lacked vital management skills and the personality to be a great world leader — or even a particularly effective political leader on the home front. But he was smart and serious and has grown in office. Fortunately for America, he — like most commanders in chief who have served two terms — is now entering the fifth age of presidents: the one in which he achieves the pinnacle of his foreign-policy competency.
Now admittedly, “the pinnacle of Barack Obama’s foreign-policy expertise” is not a phrase that is ever likely to characterize the aspirations of future statesmen. While Obama’s domestic record includes many substantial accomplishments, he has made a dog’s breakfast of most of his forays outside U.S. borders. But 2015 will almost certainly stand out as his best year ever on the foreign-policy front — featuring the deal with Iran, Cuba normalization, a pending Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, and good progress on global climate change to be announced at a Paris summit in December. (Potential progress on a peace agreement in Colombia, where the United States is playing a modest but helpful role, is another potentially significant win.) And Obama’s second secretary of state, John Kerry, is almost certain to go down as having the most productive tenure of anyone to hold the post since James Baker.
The president, after a couple of rough years to start off his second term, is finally joining the ranks of those second-term presidents who enjoyed their best foreign-policy performances in the latter part of their presidencies. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all finished much stronger than they started on foreign policy. (For those of you who can remember back as far as the first part of this article, note that presidents who took office with some foreign-policy experience — like George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon — did better in their first terms than those who did not. Oddly enough, knowing what you are doing actually matters in the world of geopolitics — even more than your ability to, say, eat a pork-chop-on-a-stick at the Iowa State Fair.)
The president, however, must guard against legacy-itis. That is the impulse that many around him are starting to display: A few recent achievements under their belt, they think they can now run out the clock and declare victory.
Given the volatility of the global environment — from the Middle East to Ukraine, from the South China Sea to Greece, from the world’s tumbling stock markets to containing violent extremism — hitting autopilot right now and starting to put together the president’s highlight reel is inviting catastrophe. Legacies are not made during presidencies. They are made afterward, when the actions a president has taken are weighed against their historical consequences. The Iran deal, for example, is only a legacy-builder if it works: not only keeping Iran from getting the bomb, but not having destabilizing unintended consequences like tipping the balance of power in the region to a state with bad intentions.
And it’s not just achievements that shape legacies; it is errors of commission and omission. The residue of Obama’s first six years of missteps, hesitations, halfway measures, and strategic incoherence (see: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine, North Korea, the South China Sea, and South Sudan) could all flare up and make year eight a tough one. The preponderance of the Obama legacy could end up in the negative column if the president and his team are not attentive and engaged on all those fronts.
That could make for an exhausting next 16 or 17 months for the president. If he is like his predecessors, he will be relieved at least to some degree to get out of the White House and back into something akin to a private life. But thanks to Jimmy Carter more than any of his predecessors, the expectations on Obama will not entirely be lifted. Carter, through his establishment of the Carter Center and his ongoing informal diplomatic work — sometimes aggravating to sitting presidents, but always energetic and earnest — established that old presidents (unlike Douglas MacArthur’s characterization of old soldiers) don’t fade away.
Last week, in Georgia, the 90-year-old Carter announced that cancer he had been battling had spread to his brain. The dire news was met by the former president with extraordinary equanimity. In a press conference during which he cheerfully and thoughtfully answered questions, he displayed the spiritual fortitude, sense of purpose, and grace that have marked the 34 years since he left office. He joked about regrets, listed achievements, described ambitions, and spoke lovingly of his family. It was impossible to watch or listen to him and not be moved and inspired.
His presidency was more accomplished than many recall (unlike in Obama’s case, there was actually a justification for the Nobel Peace Prize he won). But Carter has also demonstrated that leaving the White House does not mean an end to relevance, achievement, or leadership. In the seventh age of his presidency, he, in fact, achieved his greatest legacy, reminding us all that it is not the institution or the trappings of office that ultimately set presidents apart — it is the quality of their character.
Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images