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Ron Radosh: Bush’s Legacy in History and the Press

As George W. Bush leaves office, more articles have been appearing on the issue of his legacy. Journalism, of course, is known as the first draft of history, and the consensus has been offered: Bush was the worst President in American history. This assessment began a few years ago, when he was less than half through his second term, and was begun by Princeton University’s eminent historian, Sean Wilentz, who wrote two different cover stories for Rolling Stone arguing his case.

Most recently, Time columnist Joe Klein, in a particularly nasty and vitriolic [1] article, argued that torture and related “war crimes” is “the real Bush legacy.” As Klein sees it, the treatment of enemy prisoners in wartime- those of al-Qaeda and the Taliban-was not only “callous and despicable,” but “stands at the heart of the national embarrassment that was his residency.”Klein is perhaps the strongest example of a partisan journalist whose left- leaning bias color his ability to objectively evaluate the record of the outgoing administration.

In an evaluation from the other side, Jay Lefkowitz, [2] writing in Commentary, shows that Bush, “despite the absence of any tangible political benefit to himself or his party,” created the most effective and expensive American project to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, and that he did so “at the risk of a costly break with one of his core constituencies.” Lefkowitz provides the details in his article. But unlike Klein, he says it will be years or decades before any consensus can emerge about the Bush presidency.

But now, some liberal journalists are stepping back and although they have been strong opponents of Bush’s policies, have belatedly acknowledged that there were times even Bush did the right thing. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Peter Beinart, formerly editor of The New Republic and now a fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, [3] writes, “It is no longer a close call. President Bush was right about the surge.” In fact, Beinart concludes: Bush’s “decision to increase America’s troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour.” “It would have been far easier to do the opposite,” and Bush “endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated.” Beinart concludes, “He was not only right; he was courageous.” (my emphasis.)

Beinart calls on Democrats to publicly acknowledge this for their own future credibility. It is dangerous, he cautions, for young Democrats to believe that “the right is always wrong.” In fact, he notes, during the Persian Gulf war of Bush 41, Congressional Democrats opposed it and Congressional Republicans supported it, and the “the Republicans were proven right.” On welfare reform, he also adds, liberals predicted disaster, and “disaster didn’t happen.” Today, “liberal self-confidence is sky-high,” and it is too easy for his side to fall into sneeringly dismissing all conservative critics. “No one political party, or ideological perspective,” he concludes, “has a monopoly on wisdom.”

Beinart’s view seems to be in line with the apparent pragmatism and centrism of the incoming Obama Administration. Faulting the Bush administration for not taking liberal critics seriously on issues like regulation and unfettered American might, Beinart seems to be making a case for listening to all arguments, and for putting ideology aside.

Complementing Beinart is the Post’s own [4] editorial, “Mr. Bush Exits.” Although the WP editors fault Bush with his erroneous post-invasion policies, Guantanamo and with the policy of torture, they give credit to Bush when credit is due. In Iraq, they write “there is a decent chance of a reasonably pro-American incipient democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. This would be a major accomplishment, and one that would cast the invasion, the failure of the early years of occupation and the painful loss of more than 4,000 American lives and many more Iraqi lives in a different light than the one in which they are seen by most Americans now. It would also vindicate his unpopular decision to stabilize Iraq with more U.S. troops rather than abandon it to civil war and possible genocide-an instance in which Mr. Bush’s self-assurance and steadfastness paid off.”(my emphasis.)

On the issue of AIDS in Africa and his insistence that tyrannies must move towards democracy, their editorial continues, George W. Bush “put the United States firmly on the side of democracy and freedom, arguing, correctly, that the transformation of dictatorial regimes is, in the long run, necessary to peace and security.” The editors fault him for not always living up to his own standards, and not moving quickly enough against the Putin’s government’s drift to authoritarianism. And when Obama moves to close Guantanamo, they caution, he will find that it is not so simple a matter, since a “significant number of those detained there would try to attack America if released.”

That some liberal sources of opinion have, in the very last days of the Bush Administration, tried to make a more balanced assessment is cause for hope. As a historian, I believe that any final judgment about the Bush years must be put off for at least a minimum of ten years, when we can see how things work out in the future, and more records of the administration are made available. Indeed, it is foolish for historians to echo commentators who make firm statements about how history has proved Bush to be evil incarnate. Similarly, I think it foolish for conservative historians to issue contrary assessments. Let history have its say, when time passes and the passions of the moment subside.
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