The roots of the word legacy are two-fold but have the idea of “appointment” in common. In one sense the Latin verb legere means “to appoint by a last will”; the other is to “appoint an agent,” therefore, say, an ambassador. In both senses some actual person does something; the person makes his or her will known. A last will and testament typically disposes of accumulated wealth. And one meaning of legacy, sure enough, is that something more or less substantial is left behind. Property has this tangibility, as does money when things are working properly. Brigitte and I lived through a time, the mid 1940s, when German money, the Reichsmark, lost all value. In those days a “legacy,” even of millions of RMs, was quite worthless—except as kindling. If someone without property leaves a will, it is worth just about the same as RM 1000 was in 1945. From this meaning centered on hard wealth, our media have fashioned legacies—which every President supposedly spends a lot of time worrying about, especially in a second term. These political legacies, however, are strictly speaking quite insubstantial; they are collective memories of an administration. Being insubstantial, they may be shaped. Therefore I get images, thinking about this, of huge, vague statues of thought being hammered, chiseled, and otherwise shaped by op-ed columnists. One such attempt is in today’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd doing a little shaping of Lyndon Johnson’s “legacy.”
This last sense of legacy is a long ways from its original meaning—either as an act of appointment or as of something left behind. All the action is by others—all of them looking back. They cannot in the least change what the past has claimed and therefore is now fossilizing. They engage in interpretation and valuation—the intended purpose of which is to shape something equally amorphous: today’s public opinion.
It occurs to me quite often how paradoxical our times are. We seem to live in a materialistic era in which determinism rules, yet our thoughts are always travelling in clouds of thought and feeling most ephemeral. The real power in the United States resides in the legislative branch. Some would add that it is in the hands of those who influence the legislators rather than those who elect them. Okay. I won’t argue the point either way. But since the legislative branch is a large number of people—one might call it an abstraction, being a collective—no one bothers about the legacy of the Congress. It is a sort of fluid permanence, so where would you put down the markers? The President, who is by constitutional wording an executor of the Congressional will, is, however, deemed to have genuine power. But no amount of political science can absolutely prove that the achievements of a President were singularly personal.
What we might be engaging in these days, learning how to shape legacies, is preparing for the day when, following the curve of history, we shall actually be ruled by a single individual. Then legacies will have become just a little more substantial. We know Nero’s legacy rather well, for instance. He fiddled while Rome burned. Now if I managed to acquire, quietly, the actual fiddle Nero used, together with unquestionably solid documentation of its provenance, then I too would have acquired a genuine legacy, the kind you can take to the bank and leave to your offspring in a last will and testament.