Reputation is what matters most to major politicians. Seeking high office, they carry in their heads a league table of their colleagues. During and after leaving high office, the competitive grid lists their predecessors and successors. (Thatcher wanted to be Churchill, Reagan to be Lincoln, Major to be Thatcher with trousers and a mental safety-catch). Legislation fails or is reversed, and pigeons crap on statues, which leaves the more abstract memorial of historical ranking.
The problem is that political reputation is a vastly complicated business, as is rather sharply underlined just now by the appearance, in America and Britain respectively, of enthusiastically approving biographies of Gerald Ford and Michael Foot.
The Ford book is the most extraordinary document. If it were not so heavy, you might think it was an apparition. It is only 18 months since America's greatest living novelist, John Updike, produced a novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, in which the main comic momentum derived from the unlikeliness of an academic studying the brief and forgotten presidency. It seemed a good joke. Ford was the only man to serve as vice-president and president of the United States without having been elected to either position. Famously clumsy, he was the only commander-in-chief to bump his head on the door of the presidential helicopter and nearly fall down its steps. His popularity shot down by his pardoning of Nixon, he lost his only national election to a Georgian peanut farmer. The very concept of Ford Studies seemed a hoot.
But here we have, at 496 pages, Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment With History. The author is James Cannon, a journalist who served as an adviser to President Ford. And the book has not been reviewed in the 'Humor' sections of the American literary supplements, but respectfully, as a serious work of political scholarship. This is because Cannon has produced a model of the rehabilitative biography, the reputation resuscitator. The trick is to take each of the established negatives and polish them up as positives.
Take, for example, Ford's unfortunate tendency to attain high office without election. In Cannon's hands, we marvel at the 'destiny' that led him to be present when Nixon needed to replace someone under suspicion: first Vice-President Spiro Agnew and then himself. Also, informed that Ford rapidly restored confidence in the American political system, the reader comes to see that the significance of the 1976 election was not that Ford lost it but that it took place at all. His pardoning of Nixon is presented as a judicial nicety and necessity, thus directing attention away from Nixon's possible criminality and on to Ford's pedantic legality.
A 700-page biography of Michael Foot - which Mervyn Jones has just produced - is almost as unexpected a publication, although the exact British equivalent of Updike's title joke would be Memories of the Douglas-Home Premiership. (The obscurity of Baron Home of the Hirsel provides the most remarkable example of how someone may lead their nation and then, within their lifetime, disappear completely from the league tables of reputation).
Jones, who has the additional problem of writing about a man who never even reached the top, uses many of the same techniques as Cannon on Ford. For example, he claims that Foot saved the Labour Party, which is a fancy way of saying that the organisation still more or less stood after he had ceased to lead it. He stresses what a considerable writer and intellectual his subject was, which is a kind method of underlining his hopeless unsuitability for British politics in the Eighties. But Jones's book, like Cannon's, leaves you feeling sympathetic to the subject, which is odd because these two men seemed the epitome of scrapheap politicians.
But the healing books about them are not a statistical freak. The rehabilitative political biography is a regular occurrence. It cannot be merely the slowness of academic composition that accounts for the appearance in recent years of two Harold Wilson biographies nearly two decades after he left office, one of Edward Heath and several of Lyndon Johnson.
This is partly a publishing phenomenon and partly a cultural one. Biography increasingly sells on novelty - the new line, strange or brave ones especially welcomed. Attempted rehabilitation of a disliked or forgotten figure brings excitement to narrative; a sense of mountain climbing in the writing. Reading Cannon on Ford, you rise to the courage of the venture.
But society, too, clearly feels a combination of guilt and nostalgia towards the politicians of the Sixties and Seventies. Qualities that seemed unimpressive at the time have been exonerated by subsequent events. Harold Wilson's rise up the league table depends to some extent on his exoticism as a Labour leader who actually won elections. Revealingly, the biographers of Foot and Ford both stress that their subject's integrity remained intact; always a cunning biographical line to take with a loser, and particularly in an age contemptuous of the politicians who won.
The difficulty is that these developments distort the league table of reputation. It is as if the Pools Panel had intervened, predicting some rained-off results, except that a Pools Panel works on past form, whereas modern political biography delights in overturning it. But imagine what it must be like to be Thatcher or Nixon or Reagan or Major, furiously digging and planting your plot in the graveyard of history, only to find that someone has constructed this great stone memorial to Gerry Ford, of all people.
A politician undergoes four reputation assessments: on gaining power, during office, immediately after leaving it, and in history, with the fourth recurring. Nixon's rankings in these categories are good-poor-terrible-fair, as, for less dramatic reasons, are Edward Heath's. Reagan's and Thatcher's stand good-great-poor, with the fourth yet to come in. Major scores, so far, good-terrible.
But, after reading the Foot and Ford books, anything seems possible. Will a biographer in the early 21st century argue that Lord Major of Brixton, in an administration recently regarded as comical, actually saved the Conservative Party from disintegration over Europe? Might the Waterstone's browser in 2015 suddenly come upon a volume glowingly devoted to Jeremy Thorpe, the last Liberal to influence government policy?
Those who sought political immortality in Britain and America in the last 20 years talked a great deal about the importance of the market. How fitting that they should discover that reputation, too, should be subject to it, and that in 20 years' time the saleable line might be against them and in favour of some hated rival.Reuse content