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Bush the Great?

In his recent piece in the New York Times Stanley Fish ("George Bush:  The Comeback Kid") entered into the debate on the legacy of George W. Bush.  What will be Bush’s place in the pantheon of presidents?   As should be expected at the end of a two-term president who did not want to play “small ball” but whose policies seem to be ending in failure, the current trend has been to judge Bush as the worst president.  A small group, including Fish, argues that, for a variety of reasons, Bush will not occupy the bottom rung of presidential pecking order.

In short, Fish argues that once Bush leaves office, and leaves behind the liabilities of his policy failures, at least some portion of the population will develop affection and “a little nostalgia” for Bush.  Once he has shed the responsibilities of the presidency “we’ll be free to like him.”  The ability to like a president is often discounted but not unimportant.  However, one should not over-estimate it.  Warren G. Harding’s ambition was to be the best loved president, something that was hailed by the press and the public alike in the wake of Woodrow Wilson’s cold intellectualism.  The love of the public didn’t sustain Harding’s reputation much past his death in office; under the weight of scandals his reputation sank like a rock.  Ultimately, the much less likeable Wilson’s reputation rose as the affable Harding’s reputation fell.

Policy and personality play a role in presidential reputations, but modern presidential reputations are the product of several factors.  The modern post-presidency is, like the presidency, an institution more than a single individual.  A presidential legacy can be built on the person’s personality (Bush’s likability as a good-ol’-boy) but that message will be crafted by the former president and a cadre of aides and fellow travelers.  They will have access to enormous resources at the presidential library, part of our ever expanding system of ongoing commemoration that goes well beyond the marble monuments of old.  In think tanks and universities across the country intellectuals associated with Bush policies will be crafting monographs, presenting papers, and writing scholarly articles arguing that Bush’s policies were a success or, at least, not as bad as they seemed.  Pundits and partisans will present those conclusions on TV, talk radio, blogs, and in newspaper editorials. 

Ironically, Bush’s legacy will in part depend on what the next president does.  If a president Obama or McCain crafts democracy in Iraq, brings peace in the Middle East, rebuilds New Orleans, or reforms our financial institutions to creating a lasting prosperity, then some will surely argue that part of the success lies with Bush.  Indeed, historians have argued that the seeds of the New Deal can be found in the policies of Herbert Hoover, in the process raising his historical stock.  They trace Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II foreign policy back to the influences of Woodrow Wilson.   

Much of this debate will be fueled by the availability of presidential papers.  While the public has little concern for the fate of executive memos and such, they are the DNA of history that can spark the revision (or at least the evolution) of Bush’s reputation.  This is very much the case with Truman and Eisenhower.    That the Bush presidency is being debated means that it has relevancy and supporters as well as detractors.

Fish could be right.  In an age when we treat our leaders, including past presidents, more like celebrities than policy makers, Bush might be able to charm the nation (again).   This, however, will only be the tip of the reputational iceberg.   We should not assume that those around him will not have an agenda.  Lasting presidential legacies are about what we want for our nation.  Nostalgic discussions of  the good ol’ days of good ol’ W will surely become discussions of why Katrina wasn’t really Bush’s fault, why preemptive war  worked, why the Freedom Agenda was a noble idea, and so forth and so on.  Otherwise Bush’s ultimate fate is obscurity.  We should not forget that legacy debates are presidential politics of a different form.     

Related Links

  • Bush: Worst President?