With the death on Monday of Boris Yeltsin, admirers of the former Russian president were quick to point fingers at the man they blame for sliming Yeltsin's historical reputation: Current Russian President Vladimir Putin. As he cemented his autocratic hold on the country, critics say, Putin sought to portray his predecessor's reign as a period of chaos and drift--a portrayal that casts the current Kremlin supremo's heavy-handed rule in an especially favorable light. "It's all part of the Putin myth," former Yeltsin aide Georgy Satarov told The Wall Street Journal. "[U]nder Yeltsin there was chaos, and Putin comes in and restores order."
You don't have to be a dictatorial Russian ruler, or even Russian, to slime your predecessor in order to puff up your own reputation. From Mikhail Gorbachev to George H.W. Bush, new leaders of all stripes have established their individual identities by recasting their theretofore revered predecessors in less-than-favorable lights. Allies of the current President Bush, in fact, have described their predecessor's era in terms starkly similar to the language Putin apparatchiks use about Yeltsin's: Undisciplined, chaotic, wasteful. To hear the current bosses tell it, honor and dignity needed to be restored in the White House and the Kremlin alike.
Of course, Bill Clinton, unlike his Russian contemporary, presided over an epic run of peace and prosperity, so rear-view slights by the Bushies did little to damage his reputation. They're illustrative all the same. Within the next couple of years, both Putin (for now, at least) and George W. Bush will have their own successors. So you'd think they'd want politically friendly successors (a certainty in Russia) to uphold their reputations. In fact, though, like-minded heirs are the ones who will have the greatest motivation to reach for the shiv.
Ironically, the best possible thing that could happen to Bush's reputation over the next decade would be for him to be succeeded by a Democrat. True, it would mean a successor whose administration blames him for nearly everything that goes wrong. But, when the successor inevitably faces a new spate of problems, the criticism will fade into the partisan mire, just like the slanders about Clintonian stemware thefts. Not so if the next president is from Bush's own tribe, as Putin was to Yeltsin. Ronald Reagan, after all, was the (admittedly unnamed and unacknowledged) subject of a memorable zinger from Bush's own father, who became president after promising a "kinder, gentler nation." On hearing the line, Nancy Reagan got the drift even if no one else did. "Kinder than whom?," she was said to have asked.
Consider yourself slimed: The Gipper may have been a GOP hero, but his former veep had his own image to craft. Would Putin's anointed successor (assuming there is one) be any different? Sure, no hopeful would dare say a bad word about the guy now. But, in the event a successor ever got a hold of legitimate presidential powers, human nature--not to mention political necessity--would demand at least a secret speech on the collected sins of dear old Vlad. No one who commands a great nation wants to be known as his predecessor's chimp.
The tactics of Bush's would-be successors are at least a little bit more transparent. Though few dare level any real criticisms against the president, the basic campaign narratives of the major GOP wannabes are all, at core, anti-Bush. McCain promises to be tougher, Giuliani more competent, Romney more Republican. Once ensconced in the Oval Office, that tendency can only get stronger. Three weeks into a Giuliani presidency, look for the leak about how the new chief executive startled military aides by asking detailed questions at a tactical briefing. "They weren't used to getting grilled like that back when Bush was in office," an anonymous source present at the session might tell The New York Times. On such things are presidential reputations built.
It must be scary to look out from the cloistered world of Bush's White House--to say nothing of Putin's Kremlin--and know that someone out there will get to shape your historical reputation aided by the very same communications apparatus you've commanded for the last eight years. Since he's polling at just 35 percent, Bush at least doesn't have as far to fall as his Russian colleague, who appears genuinely popular. But it's a pretty good bet Bush is not going to follow the Yeltsin model and retire to a dacha with a well-stocked vodka bar. The American model, by contrast, is to retire to a big suburban spread with a well-stocked book contract, and leave former aides to rebut critics in the White House.
Neither Bush nor Putin, alas, may be able to partake in a less beloved post-presidential tradition popular with predecessors like Reagan, Gorbachev, or Clinton: Traveling the globe to speechify before rich foreigners. Given the legal skirmishes over Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo--not to mention Chechnya--and the jurisdictional precedents of the Pinochet case, their lawyers may well advise them to restrict any rhetorical reputation-defending to, say, an annual Halliburton gathering in Colorado Springs or a Yukos meeting in Sverdlovsk. Still, if post-presidential life gets too lonely, I'm sure some bright young aide can set up a video conference so the pair can stare into one another's eyes, check out each other's souls, and commiserate.
By Michael Currie Schaffer