Will George W. Bush Ever Get Historians on His Side?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Nearly 60 percent of the historians and political scientists in a 2006 Siena College survey rated George W. Bush’s presidency a failure -- an unscientific sampling that echoed public dismay over Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war. Adding insult to injury, two-thirds of the 744 respondents said he did not have a realistic chance of improving his standing.

Bush’s presidential library, being dedicated Thursday at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is the first step toward trying to prove their prediction wrong. It’s only fitting that the man who coined the word “decider” would feature a “Decision Points Theater” designed, the library website says, to “take the visitor ‘inside’ the decision-making process” as his administration dealt with the 9/11 attacks, Iraq, Katrina, and failing banks.

Visitors may come away with more appreciation for the difficult choices Bush faced, and perhaps remember what they liked about him as a man and a politician. But his place in presidential history is another matter, one judged purely on his record and legacy. And Bush is not faring well by those measures.

The former Texas governor was rated one of the nation’s five worst presidents—39th of 43—in a Siena College ranking by 238 presidential scholars in 2010. He was a marginally better 36th in a 2009 C-SPAN ranking by 64 students of the presidency.

There is precedent for presidents to rise in historic esteem, usually after someone writes a biography based on new information or fresh thinking, or weak successors make them look smart by comparison. This group is led by Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower, for instance, was No. 8 in the C-SPAN survey and No. 7 in a 2012 Newsweek ranking by 10 historians, and has been in Siena’s top 10 since 1994. Yet in 1962, 18 months after his term ended, a panel of 75 historians rated Eisenhower toward the bottom of the average/mediocre category, below even Herbert Hoover. “By and large these 12 believed in negative government, in self-subordination to legislative power,” historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote in The New York Times. “They were content to let well enough alone or, when not, were unwilling to fight for their programs or inept at doing so.”

Views of Eisenhower began to change 20 years later with the publication of The Hidden Hand Presidency, by Fred Greenstein. The Journal of Politics called it “an important corrective” to dismissive views of Eisenhower’s leadership skills. Jim Newton, author of the 2012 book Eisenhower: The White House Years, says people had the impression that Eisenhower was “captive” to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—yet declassified documents show Eisenhower was in touch with Dulles three to four times a day and very much guiding U.S. foreign policy.

“He was a much more active leader of his administration than people understood at the time,” Newton told National Journal. “People regarded him as genial and affable, a sort of grandfatherly figure. They did not appreciate what a shrewd, calculating president he was.”

Likewise, “Truman has made a huge comeback,” says Robert Dallek, who wrote a short 2008 Truman biography for a series on American presidents. Truman’s standing was substantially aided by Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking, an oral biography published in 1974, and Truman, David McCullough’s epic 1992 “valentine,” as Dallek put it in an interview (his book was one-fifth the length of McCullough’s 1,117-page opus).

Truman’s successors also contributed to recognition of his strengths. His straight-shooter quality could hardly have been a greater contrast to Richard Nixon. He also is credited with a containment policy that, except for his intervention in Korea, avoided war in the quest to defeat Communism. Instead, through the Marshall Plan and NATO, he helped Europe become a strong U.S. partner and ally.

Bush and Lyndon Johnson rejected containment when they made ill-advised decisions to pour troops into Iraq and Vietnam. That has made Truman look all the wiser, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Eisenhower's advisers repeatedly urged him to go to war or take covert action in Indochina, Germany, Iran, Guatemala and Indonesia, Newton said, but he resisted the pressure. “You can think of Eisenhower’s geopolitical military record as almost the opposite of Bush. He was extremely reluctant to commit American forces to battle,” he said. Eisenhower's legacies instead include building an interstate highway system that helped fuel the middle class and economic expansion.

It is possible that documents and archives will reveal Bush in a more positive light, but there’s no getting around the fact that his decisions on Iraq and on fiscal policy have led to huge problems. He not only committed U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 9/11, his decision to invade Iraq kicked off a 10-year war of choice that has destabilized the Middle East and drained the United States of blood, treasure, and the will to intervene abroad. He cut taxes across the board and borrowed money to pay for the wars as well as a new prescription-drug program for seniors. That led to a ballooning deficit and debt, and left the country ill-positioned to deal with the Great Recession that set in toward the end of his term.

It’s not that there weren’t accomplishments during the Bush era. He receives deserved praise for his international drive to fight AIDS, and his controversial No Child Left Behind Act institutionalized the overdue concept of accountability in U.S. education. The even more controversial legal and military methods he adopted to fight terrorists have been largely validated by the Obama administration, which has in many cases continued their use. And he was a pioneer in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, a worthy cause that has now been revived.

But all of that is overshadowed by the deficits, the economic collapse, and, above all, Iraq. “Ultimately, what will drive how he’s viewed is how the Iraq experiment turns out,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar and longtime Bush-watcher at the University of Texas-Austin. “The mismanagement of Iraq will always be there, but it will fade if Iraq turns into a flower of democracy.”

Even if that mirage becomes reality years or decades from now,  the fact that Bush chose to invade Iraq will weigh heavily on historians as they rank him against the many presidents, from John Adams (who rejected his party’s calls to declare war on France) to Truman and Eisenhower, who tried to avoid rather than start wars.

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