Gradually that most coveted and potent of accolades was subliminally bestowed and Richard Nixon died an ‘elder statesman’ in 1994.
No two former political leaders since have been as divisive as Tony Blair and George W Bush and they remain enveloped with distrust and the bloody ramifications of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have yet to achieve such a universal condemnation for reckless wars and trampled civil liberties.
Time does a remarkable thing to those that held power. Whether you used it for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sometimes seems irrelevant. After a while, you’re among the precious few considered to be an ‘expert’, ‘senior’ and one of those who ‘really know what it was like’.
Controversial decisions are overlooked – if not forgiven – and excused as part of the job.
President Bush has been doing the US talk show circuit of late. The questions are banal, the topics whimsical and all indulge his folksy charm and self-deprecation.
Compared to Trump, Bush looks warm and sincere – and more presidential now than he did in his two terms.
During the EU referendum, Blair was treated as a seasoned, moderate and pragmatic voice. Now with the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn complete, Blair’s press coverage is filled with deferential undertones harkening back to better days for the country and Labour.
But, for all the expertise Blair and Bush might exude, they’re not soothsayers. And there is a degree of irony, given they were a significant catalyst for the problems they’ve returned to preach on. Corbyn was a backlash against centrist Blairism, Trump a blunt retort to decades of two-party nepotism and hypocrisy.
So what to do with a problem called Tony? Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell called for jail time. David Owen, the former foreign secretary, suggested charging Blair with contempt of Parliament.
The release of the Chilcot report in 2016 made it clear there’s an official catalogue of errors to be addressed from the Iraq War.
After nearly 17 years, it’s time to think seriously about a mechanism for accountability after a leader has stepped down. How else could they ever be taken seriously again, if indeed they should be at all?
There’s little precedent for where we’re at now. Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned over the Suez Crisis and was elevated to the House of Lords (despite the confirmation he knew he was lying to the House of Commons).
President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon was latterly called an act of political courage which allowed the US to heal. Save for public humiliation, Nixon never answered for his policies and illegalities.
Modern history needs a line drawn under it because trial by tweet is cancerous for a democracy. We need to settle the Blair issue once and for all. With Brexit and a Labour leadership contest putting Blair back in the public eye, a definitive answer on his legacy and reputation is required.
Do we want to see a former prime minister put in irons 13 years after he left office? Do we indulge our collective amnesia and follow Ford in the name of statesmanship? Without accountability, how else will history be learned?
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. He regularly writes about politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism, and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart