He is the ultimate cowboy diplomat. He is the essence of bravado and arrogance. Opponents called him a bully, and he only turned that into a joke.
He started a war with an easy opponent and made it look like a great victory. But he invaded for dubious reasons. The international community knew it and was outraged. America’s image plummeted in the world and his “reasons” for the invasion were soon utterly discredited.
His war destabilized the region and turned friends of America into bitter enemies who hated us.
He betrayed his conservative base by opening the spigots of government spending and actually increasing government regulation. Wall Street hated him.
He, self righteously, wrapped it all in his religion. At his last nominating convention, the delegates actually left the hall singing “Onward Christian Solders.”
He was Theodore Roosevelt, the fourth face on Mt. Rushmore, and he is declared by most historians to be the third greatest president in American history, only topped by Lincoln and Washington.
Now, I don’t want to get into some big argument about Theodore Roosevelt and his contrived invasion of Bolivia and the artificially created state of Panama, which we quickly recognized and protected so we could build our canal and have a powerful Navy defending us on two oceans, but I do want to point out that this hysterical rush to judgment on the legacy of George W. Bush is not intellectually sound.
In a survey of historians by George Mason University’s History New Network, eight in 10 rated the Bush presidency an “overall failure.” In a profile in Rolling Stones, Sean Wiletnz suggests he may be the worst president in American history.
Participating in a forum with other historians these days is a stifling and boring experience that borders on anti-intellectualism. The process has been hijacked by emotion and personal bias.
Most historians and public observers agree that George W. Bush will be defined by his Iraqi adventure. This, in fact, may very well be true. The problem is that we will not fully understand the geopolitical and economic success or failure of that invasion any time soon. And as far as popular opinion is concerned, a single event, for example, the capture or death of Osama bin Laden would suddenly transform George W. Bush from a stubborn, self righteous man into one of resolve and courage who believed when no one else did.
Even the election of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and the return of all U.S. troops would not guarantee that history would eventually judge the invasion of Iraq a failure. The United States may very well have to go right back into the Middle East.
The particular desperation among historians is driven by the maddening realization that George W. Bush has practically run the table on their own rules. This is no accident.
I worked for George W. Bush and reported to him directly for several years in the 1980s. Even then, he was very decisive, always thought strategically, always big picture, and he knew exactly what he needed to do and even more impressively, he had the discipline to do it. And he has shown that in his work as president. Which is forcing some historians to revaluate their own artificial rules for measuring great presidents and discovering that perhaps the templates themselves are flawed.
1. Great presidents serve as steady leaders in times of international crisis.
2. Great presidents serve in times of war.
3. At times, great presidents will hold to opinions that will be totally contrary to the general public.
4. Great presidents fundamentally change the executive branch, creating new Cabinet posts, for example.
5. Great presidents move their legislative programs through congress.
6. Great presidents are re-elected to a second term.
All carefully done, like checking off a chart that says, “brush your teeth.”
And no president, great or not, has escaped his presidency without a major scandal. And they have almost always come in the second four-year term.
The historians themselves set this last one up by appearing all over the airwaves during the second inaugural warning that it (a scandal for the second Bush term) was imminent. But the CIA Valerie Plame scandal, which most anticipated would be the big one, did not “take” as was suspected.
Even the negative examples of great presidents are working for George W. Bush. As in great presidents suspend civil liberties. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the civil war. FDR sent 100,000 Japanese Americans into detention camps during World War II. Some historians are trying to reverse this argument and use it against George W. Bush but too many of their own books make the case so it is seen as disingenuous to change the rules now.
This doesn’t mean that the historians are right about the rules.
Bush may indeed be a bad president. Perhaps their whole analysis needs a rethinking. I am only making the point here that everything they hope for is riding on Iraq and that is far more complicated than current public opinion seems to think.
Nothing George W. Bush said or did started the Islamic extremist movement. In fact, a good argument could be made that the First Gulf War, with American boots on the ground in Holy Saudi Arabia, was the original provocation. But who would fault President George H. W. Bush, whose alliance going into the First Gulf War included much of the world and was a diplomatic triumph?
And President Bill Clinton’s scandal, which historians love to say had no impact on how he ran the office of the presidency, was a confirmation to millions across the Islamic world, long offended by American Hollywood culture, that America was indeed narcissistic and a threat to their way of life.
A merchant in Tehran could take American pornography from a satellite dish and show it in a dark, smoke filled den to young Islamic men who had never seen a girl’s naked ankle before, men who prayer five times a day. When the Clinton scandal broke on front page newspapers across the Islamic world it was a confirmation that this is not fantasy, this is how these people live. And yet, who would fault President Bill Clinton? He just may be the most popular American figure in the world.
Did George W. Bush invade for family honor? Probably. Why else did he have to poll his Cabinet before going into Iraq with the question, “Is this personal?” And there was that rare momentary lapse of his famous discipline when he muttered aloud about Saddam Hussein, “This man tried to kill my father.” And yes, it is tragic that anyone’s son or daughter had to die for that. But that too will not determine his success or failure as a president.
As a person? The president obviously has deep hurts.
For when you are in his sunshine he is your bosom buddy. When you are not, he can be utterly cold, like the Azkaban guards in Harry Potter. I once sent him a birthday gift from the deep freeze, a $5,000 Mickey Mantle, 1953, Topps, baseball card, which you will probably see one day in his museum. It was a missing piece, an important one. His secretary called to make sure it was a gift. No scandal in the second term. But nobody ever said thanks. Not a word. Not a line.
His personality has hurt him with historians, the fact that he has made it clear that he doesn’t care what they think, although he does. A kinder approach might have helped. For example, Teddy Roosevelt once said that every generation of young man needs to experience a war. If Hitler had said the same thing we would be horrified but because everybody liked Theodore Roosevelt they cut him some slack. And the historians still do.
During the campaign, in one of many conversations with him that I did not record, I told then-Gov. Bush that with the turn of the millennium people were longing for greatness. They were reviewing the past centuries, talking of Elizabeth and other greats and comparing them to Clinton and Kohl and others in scandal. “To be a great person you have to do great things,” I said, “And the greatest thing that will occur in your lifetime is the cure for cancer.” He could Republicanize the issue. Bring together the resources of government to attack it. Make a “going to the moon” Kennedy speech. It fit “compassionate conservatism” and cut across all political lines. Al Gore, his opponent could only agree with the idea.
He was tired. “I’m not interested in being great, Wead,” he said. “What else?”
My wife, Myriam and I had a chuckle about the conversation that night. And she laughed, adding wryly, “Well, he probably has a much better chance of being great with that attitude than if he wanted it badly.”
The fact is, none of us will know. Of the 10 presidents from FDR to the first Bush only three still carry the reputations of their own time. Seven are now regarded better or worse than their contemporaries thought.
Historians are angry and see the president as too cocky, to sure of himself, to arrogant and dead wrong on Iraq but, in fact, every bit of it could just as equally apply to them. For good or bad, George W. Bush has forever changed the direction of history. It is too early, way too early to know what it will all mean.
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