Rupert Cornwell: History has been kind to US presidents

A presidency, more than a monarch's reign, becomes shorthand for a part of the country's past
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Love or loathe the US, who could not feel goose bumps as the majestic strains of America the Beautiful wafted through the National Cathedral yesterday? America does its state occasions magnificently, with a perfect mixture of pomp, emotion and the informality that befits a republic. And no occasion is done better than a President's funeral.

For foreigners the ritual can be a little mystifying, and never more so than yesterday. This after all was Gerald Ford, the 38th President whose stumbles were fodder for a thousand comedians, the man of whom one of his predecessors, Lyndon Johnson, remarked that "he had played football too long without a helmet".

Yet shortly before 10am yesterday, the cathedral accorded him the signal honour of sending 38 long, slow chimes pealing out across the city, as the cortege made its way from the US Capitol, where Ford's body had lain in state. And when it arrived at the cathedral, anyone who mattered in the past 30 years of American policymaking - Presidents, cabinet secretaries, generals and high functionaries - was there to see him off.

Such is what an American president, any American president, represents. He is not just a head of government, limited to a maximum of two four-year terms, but he is head of state as well. He is party politician, yet above party. More fundamentally still, he is history.

A Presidency, more than a monarch's reign or the mightiest prime ministership, becomes shorthand for a segment of his country's past. And as Ford's experience proves, and George W Bush must fervently hope, that history is a work in progress, long after the man himself has left the Oval Office.

History's judgement has been kind to recent presidents - in part of course because Bush's own dismal standing has automatically revalued the reputations of his predecessors. Take Ronald Reagan, whose stock has risen steadily since he left office. By the time he died in 2004, some of the same historians who had once criticised him as a senile idiot were ranking him as a "near-great" president, who had defeated Communism and restored the country's belief in itself. Or consider the first President Bush, seen as an out-of-touch, country-club patrician when he lost the 1992 election, but who is now much admired for his deft handling of the break-up of the former Soviet Union - and who now looks a genius for his decision not to go all the way to Baghdad after driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.

Bill Clinton too is basking in a rosy glow - in part because of the daily more glaring contrast with his successor, but also because his eight years in office are now acquiring the lustre of an economic golden age. A certain Monica is more or less forgotten, as is his dithering over Rwanda and Bosnia.

Even Jimmy Carter is looked upon more favourably, despite the fact that "malaise" was the watchword of a presidency that ended in the ignominy of the Tehran hostage crisis. To be sure, Carter has been helped by the activism since leaving office that has some calling him "the best ex-President in history". But unlike people, history finds it hard to bear grudges for ever.

And now Gerald Ford. There is of course the de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (never speak ill of the dead) factor - especially strong in this case, given Ford's popularity among the press. But Ford may have been the nicest man among recent presidents, an individual with no side, who could truly say he did not have enemies, only adversaries.

Ford's performance inside the White House is also being reappraised. By most yardsticks his was a pretty insignificant presidency. It lasted just 29 months, a period that most notably encompassed the abject end to the Vietnam War, and saw a significant decline in the power of the office, as Congress re-asserted itself after Richard Nixon's imperial presidency ended in the disgrace of Watergate.

Yet on the decision which probably cost Ford victory in 1976 - the unconditional pardon he extended to Nixon - history's judgement has reversed itself. At the time two-thirds of Americans reviled him for letting a crook off scot free. Today 60 per cent believe in hindsight Ford did the right thing, sparing the country the anguish of a criminal trial of a president. As he prayed for a former president yesterday, George W Bush was surely begging the Almighty to arrange something similar for himself, as his approval ratings sink to almost Nixonian levels.

Alas, such revisions require years. Bush's immediate destiny is measured in days. The same Capitol where Ford's body lay in state will be under the command of Democrats when the new Congress convenes tomorrow. This alone implies a downsizing of the latest, post-9/11 version of the imperial presidency - which, ironically, has been largely constructed by two veterans of the Ford administration, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld was thrown to the wolves after the Republicans' mid-term rout, while Cheney, he of the scowl frozen permanently to his face, has become the emblem of everything many Americans (and much of the rest of the world), can't abide about this administration.

A week or so thereafter, Bush will be announcing his much heralded new strategy for Iraq, the war that will define his Presidency and which may already have destroyed it. It can have been no comfort to him yesterday that Ford, in interviews with The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward only made public now, believed the 2003 invasion was a mistake.

But if mistake it was, it cannot now be undone, only mitigated. The signs are that Bush wants to send yet more troops. But half his own party, let alone the Democrats, oppose the idea. Add to that the hearings on the war planned by Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and scheduled to start next week, and this diminished President will be called to account as never before. If he plays his hand poorly, he could be abandoned even by his own party.

For a while yesterday such bleak thoughts receded. Great state occasions transcend daily political warfare. A country was bidding its final farewell to a man who embodied a fragment of its history - and the makers of three decades of that history packed the pews to see him off.

As no other places, great cathedrals impart a sense of humankind's ultimate insignificance. Yesterday, however fleetingly, bitter rivals and enemies were merely adversaries, capable of making common cause: "We are all God's children," George Bush senior said in his eulogy. Today, for Republicans and Democrats, for his son, and for those bidding to succeed him, regular combat resumes.