The Corner

History V. Bush

Related to John Miller’s post below, Vincent Cannato (that old friend I mentioned last week ) is back and swinging as well amidst the Post’s bullpen of historians. Vin is the only one willing to say “wait and see” on history’s verdict about whether Bush is the worst president ever (though Michael Lind does say Bush is only the 5th worst), though he hardly sounds like he’s about to buy a lot of long term Bush bonds. I’d say Vin has it exactly right: Nobody knows. He writes:

Historical and popular judgments about presidents are always in flux. Dwight D. Eisenhower used to be considered a banal and lazy chief executive who embodied the “conformist” 1950s. Today, his reputation has improved because of more positive appraisals of his Cold War stewardship. Ronald Reagan, whom many historians dismissed as an amiable dunce, has also had his stock rise. On the flip side, Bill Clinton’s presidency looks somewhat different after Monica Lewinsky, the bursting of the dot-com bubble and 9/11 than it did in 1997.

Perhaps Bush can take solace in the case of Harry S. Truman, who was reviled at the end of his presidency, with approval numbers hovering around 30 percent. Too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, Truman was saddled with an unpopular stalemate in the Korean War and accusations of corruption at home. Many saw him as a belligerent rube, too unsophisticated for the White House.

Today, however, many historians have revised their estimate of his presidency upward. There certainly are echoes of Truman in the current carping about Bush.

And, later he adds:

What is disheartening is the tendency of many historians to rate presidents based on their support for liberal social policies. Just as frustrating is the inability to acknowledge the deep debates over law enforcement measures, such as the USA Patriot Act, enacted after 9/11. Rather than acknowledge the tough tradeoffs between security and privacy, we are left with the hyperbole that this administration is “trampling on civil liberties.” Sometimes wisely and sometimes rashly, Bush has steered the nation through the post-9/11 world. It has been an uneven trip so far, but the country has not suffered another attack in more than five years.

But I also think there’s room for Bush to be remembered very well, even as “great.” I’m not personally making that case for Bush nor am I predicting this. But it’s worth at least pondering how much events drive our understanding of the past. The war on terror and Iraq have added even more shine to Reagan’s image — for liberals — because the Gipper negotiated (“talked” to the Soviets, in the parlance of today’s ISG-fueled argy-bargy). 9/11 drained much of the historical significance from the founding of the Soviet Union, and greatly increased the importance of the founding of Saudi Arabia. 

Consider FDR. If it had not been for Pearl Harbor, my guess is that FDR’s status in the popular imagination would be at least one rank lower (how historians would see him is a different matter considering how many of them equate greatness with the passage of their preferred social policies). FDR’s — often dishonest — efforts to steer us into war, his court-packing scheme, his excesses on numerous scores, his violation of the two-term tradition, would all get more prominent treatment if it were not for the fact that “Dr. New Deal” was replaced by “Dr. Win-the-war.” Prior to Pearl Harbor, Americans were profoundly and deeply opposed to U.S. involvement in the war.

If you take the assumptions of the war on terror seriously — an existential, generational struggle, etc etc — there may well be another Pearl Harbor in our future. If that’s the case, then it’s possible Bush will look Churchillian in his steadfastness (it’s also possible he’ll be blamed).  It’s also possible, by the way, that liberals will adopt compassionate conservatism as their own, and as such Bush will look pioneering. Regardless, my point, much like Cannato’s, is that our understanding of the past depends heavily on the future.  

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