We even serve up our history lessons before they actually take place. And while it's not unusual to try and figure out the magnitude of the events we're caught up in, sometimes we can get a little ahead of ourselves.
Take the obsession over a president's "legacy," for example. It isn't really anything new. We're always trying to figure out the pecking order in our pantheon of leaders, to take an initial stab at judging records and play fun little parlor games. But isn't all the speculation mostly useless as a measure of historical judgment? Don't we need some perspective before we draw our conclusions? Apparently not, considering all the chatter about legacy, especially on the cable news channels.
We're reminded of the desire to project ourselves forward on days like today, when President Bush's forthcoming speech on Iraq is eating up the majority of airtime. We've seen the usual posturing pundits debating the differences between "surge" and "escalate" and predicting the political impact of tonight's address. We've also seen some historians pop up to talk about how this speech, and this president will go down in history.
The war in Iraq is certainly dominating the national discussion in the nation at the moment, which is entirely appropriate -- even long overdue. With Democrats in power on the Hill and firm evidence of the public's unhappiness with the war's course, tonight's speech is obviously an important news event. But the pundits may want to take the longer view.
Presidents give many speeches, some important and some rather trivial. But it is rare that any individual speech has an immediate transforming impact on the overall dynamics of the issue. Moments of great national trauma always present opportunities for presidents to flourish – FDR after Pearl Harbor, Reagan after the Challenger crash, Clinton after Oklahoma City and Bush after 9/11.
Outside of extraordinary events or the recognized historical fixtures such as inaugural addresses, few are those moments when a presidential address rises up to instant classic levels. Among the notable examples are Lyndon Johnson's 1968 address to the nation when he announced he would not run for re-election and John Kennedy's 1963 "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech at the Berlin Wall. How even those speeches will be remembered generations from now, however, is unknowable.
One presidential address that has cemented its place in history (literally) was received with almost an afterthought by many contemporaries at the time – the Gettysburg Address. As recounted so well in historical studies like Shelby Foote's Civil War narrative series, President Lincoln was almost not even present at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. And after a marathon speech delivered by orator and statesman Edward Everett, Lincoln stood and spoke for under three minutes then sat down before photographers could even get their pictures.
The reaction to the speech was decidedly mixed (if discussed at all). Famously, the Chicago Times pronounced the speech an embarrassment, saying, "the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the president." Over 143 years later, it's one of the most important speeches ever delivered in American history.
Holding up the Gettysburg Address as a warning against instant historical judgments has been done before, but it is worth remembering as we will continue to see a parade of media attempts at establishing Bush's legacy – or the place any individual speech might hold in that. I happened to overhear one presidential historian this morning on one of the cable news stations being asked for some analysis of tonight's speech and its impact on the way the president will be remembered. His basic answer as I heard it was: This president will be judged on the how successful the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are ultimately seen to have been. Sounds pretty logical to me.