I spent spring break completing revisions to the chapter on George W. Bush in the presidential anthology Public Pillars/Private Lives.
Thee volume, attempts to give a balanced history and assessment of modern presidents since FDR. A new edition, including the assessment of the second Bush term plus a chapter on the 2008 election comes out this spring. Here’s a taste:
From the Conclusion of the chapter on George W. Bush:
Bush’s legacy will be judged ultimately by two things. First, would his aggressive, unilateral foreign policy–the boldest assertion of American power since Reagan, certainly, and perhaps even Teddy Roosevelt a century before–be judged to have ultimately improved America’s global power, position and security? Or would future historians looks back at the Bush Doctrine and its unprecedented pursuit of Pax Americana as the critical moment when hubris and strategic overreach resulted in the slipping of US hegemony and the rise of new global powers destined to make the 21st Century the Chinese or Indian—and not yet another American—Century? Second, would Bush’s economic legacy be a continued protection and preservation of the pro-business and laissez faire policies of the Reagan Revolution? Or would the worst economic downturn in generations result in a public repudiation of the laissez faire policies that had dominated US policy for the previous generation?
Was Vice President Richard Cheney, undoubtedly the most powerful occupant of the office in history, too powerful, too much of a Svengali, too much the unaccountable puppetmaster? Had his rigorous pursuit of governmental privatization resulting in the unprecedented rise of the use of unaccountable outside contractors irredeemably obliterated the line between public and private sector? Had Bush, through his unrelenting drive for unrestrained executive privilege and power, resurrected the ghost of the Nixonian Imperial Presidency with long-term—and potentially dangerous—implications for American constitutional balance? Had the administration’s embracing of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—which had, according to international institutions and human rights groups, many foreign governments and even previous American standards, crossed the line into torture—irreparably eroded US’ global image and influence as to offset any strategic gains from such tactics? Had the Bush administration’s aggressions in the War on Terror crossed the lines into war crimes? So dramatic, ultimately, was the Bush presidency that such issues—each critical in their own right—pale in comparison with his legacy of war and economic collapse.
Bush’s legacy might ultimately, therefore, hang on the consonant “D.” Would the economic crises left in Bush’s wake be labeled a “Depression” by future historians, the worst economic crisis in a century? If so, Bush’s fate may well be to be remembered as a 21st century Herbert Hoover. If the economic events of 2008 are eventually, though, seen as a recession—a particularly bad one, no doubt, but one of a number of such bumps in the road to greater national prosperity—Bush may end up being seen as a Jimmy Carter or a G.H.W. Bush, a president who had the misfortune to see the economy hit a snag on their watch but, otherwise, had some significant victories to look back on. That George W. Bush might, though, one day be reconsidered and recast in the light of a modern-day Harry Truman—someone who left office underappreciated and unpopular but whom, in the hindsight of history, would see his reputation and legacy restored–seems unlikely, claims and protests of President Bush to the contrary. When Harry Truman left office in January, 1953, the unpopular Korean war that began on his watch would be over inside of six months. Gains in income, standard of living, education and home ownership were the greatest during any presidency of American history. Unemployment had been all but banished as eleven million new jobs were created. Social security benefits had doubled. Wages—including the minimum wage—increased across the board. Millions of returning veterans had gone to university under the GI Bill (an extension of which for Iraqi and Afghani war veterans Bush himself had opposed as costing too much.) The country was set to move through a decade that would later be named the Fabulous Fifties and Harry Truman would be seen as one of its creators.
Such was not to the case at the exit of George Walker Bush. 43rd president of the United States, from the national political stage. In a highly publicized poll of over a hundred historians conducted in April, 2008, sixty-one percent of the professional historians rated Bush as the worst president in history; ninety-eight percent rated his Presidency a failure. The public was no less severe in its final judgment, awarding him the lowest outgoing approval ratings in modern history—the exact inverse of the valediction his predecessor received. His own political party seemed to go out of its way to repudiate him throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, with not one contender to replace him as GOP standard bearer invoking the name “Bush” in their campaign. Each claimed to be, in their own way, Reagan men. Bush was further repudiated at his party’s summer nominating convention where he was allowed to attend only as a ghostly video image on a screen, so loathe had his party become at being seen actually physically associating with the man they had raucously re-nominated four years before. Bush suffered indignity even in the quality of the indignities heaped upon him in his final months in office. Richard Nixon, resigning in disgrace, went on to see operas written about the drama that was the man. Indeed, as Bush packed up his personal effects in the White House the movie dramatization of the Frost-Nixon interviews was playing to rave reviews. Nixon got operas and academy award nominations. George W. Bush satirical-comedy: Will Ferrell, his dumb-meets-dumber television doppelganger, playing him viscerally on Broadway in “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush.” For his legacy to recover from such an immediate and harsh historical judgment seems dubious. Then again, that the prodigal son of a prominent New England family might rebrand himself a son of the Texas south, might overcome his hellion youth to become an icon of solid family values, might overcome his personal and familial penchant for political loss to become the most successful Republican politician in a generation, was dubiousness incarnate. Dubya made a career of accomplishing the dubious. His final hope was that he might do the same with history’s perception of his presidential legacy.