Raising Arizona

Janet Napolitano, Arizona's Greatest Governor.

Hmmm. Feels a bit presumptuous, like renaming Squaw Peak after a soldier who died just weeks earlier in a car accident.

But that's what a few historians and politicos are already suggesting — depending on what happens in the next four years.

Janet Napolitano. Saver of Arizona's Children. Mother of the Modern Arizona Economy.

Janet the Great. The Great Educator. If she cleaned up Arizona's wretched air, perhaps The Janetor.

She does have one big advantage. Being Arizona's best governor is a lot like winning a three-legged race at a nursing home: The competition just isn't that strong.

After all, Arizona suffered Evan Mecham and Fife Symington, just two of the lesser lights in a legacy of inadequacy dating back to the 1880s and John C. Frémont, the appointed territorial governor who spent less time in Arizona than most popes.

If Janet's legacy isn't already enough in this weak field, she still has four more years to close the gap.

Or, perhaps, drop out of the rankings altogether.

Because a lot can happen in four years. Or, as other Arizona governors have proven, a lot can not happen. And once you sign on for two terms, that first term, even as solid as Janet's was in many ways, doesn't mean much in determining your legacy.

That's especially true when a political figure's popularity is based largely on hope. In the second term, with the high hopes she has inspired in Arizonans, her legacy will either be great, or a great disappointment.

Indeed, if hope was the measure of greatness, Napolitano would already be our greatest governor.

"Especially considering she's a Democrat, I've never seen anything like the widespread support that Janet has right now from Arizonans," says Arizona State University political scientist and pollster Bruce Merrill.

Three-fourths of Arizonans have said they believe Napolitano is doing a good job. Amazingly, in Merrill's most recent poll, 45 percent of Republicans said the Democratic governor was doing a good job.

As of press time, we can only predict a landslide in this week's election.

Napolitano is creating her own political party in the center of Arizona politics, à la Bill Clinton.

"And it's beyond this sense that she's doing a good job," Merrill says. "People say they feel good about Arizona, they feel better about the state with her as governor."

And why not? She's proven to be brilliant, savvy and clever. Bolstered by a fairly strong economy, her sweeping policy initiatives have garnered some substantial results. And even when they haven't succeeded, or have been altogether forgotten, they still sounded great coming out of her mouth.

Even when she fails, her message succeeds.

Meaning she has that intangible something that all beloved executives have: that ability, like Ronald Reagan, to make people feel good about the world even if the world hasn't changed a bit.

One bit of perspective on job-performance polls, though: This month five years ago, George W. Bush's approval rating was 90 percent.

Now it's 37 percent.

And he's already beginning to show up on the bottom rung of historians' rankings of America's best and worst presidents. In 2004, 12 percent of historians surveyed already were calling him the worst president ever.

Americans will only put up with talking the talk for so long.

Bush's legacy is looking so bad that he may become known as the Arizona of American presidents.

You know, because Arizona always is on the bottom rung of rankings for just about every measure of statehood success there is.

And even after four years of seemingly inspired leadership from Janet Napolitano, Arizona still remains, well, the Andrew Johnson of American states.

In fact, Arizona still faces many of the problems it confronted a century ago: a reactionary legislature, a mountain of social ills, bad schools, bad roads, tapped-out aquifers, and a flood of immigrants looking for jobs at the bottom of the Arizona economy while a flood of emigrants leaves to find jobs at the top of another state's economy.

As any historian will tell you, what lasts of political figures are their legacies, not their poll numbers. Polls measure the Zeitgeist, the fickle mob, while legacies measure the big-ticket results as well as the moral heft of your good fights.

The great leaders plant the seeds for long-term prosperity. They increase opportunities for the widest possible swath of citizens. They protect the vulnerable, they care for the disabled, they nurture the future generations. And they build big in a way that lasts generations.

Napolitano's policies and successes in her first term suggest she's poised for greatness.

But one big personal hurdle stands in her way:

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Robert Nelson