Presidential History

Hail the Conquering Hero

Bill Sammon's new book asks of President Bush: Great president, or the greatest president?

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Four months ago David Brooks emerged from the White House's Roosevelt Room in a daze: "It was like entering a different universe." President Bush was maybe the last man in Washington optimistic about Iraq, "energized" by the power of the presidency, as zen-like about the wisdom of General David Petraeus… well, as he used to be about General John or Abizaid and William Casey.

The diagnosis: Bush was a believer in the Great Man Theory of history, that "history is driven by the club of those in power," and that "when far-sighted leaders change laws and institutions, they have the power to transform people."

When Bush was riding a little higher, Brooks seemed to agree with this; once or twice he dipped into the sensory deprivation tank and pretended he was Bush, waving the torch of Liberty and firing the cannon of Intelligent Answers. This time he contrasted Bush's optimism and faith his own power with the admonitions of Leo Tolstoy who, in War and Peace, rebutted the idea that Napoleons and Alexanders and Bushes were grinding history's gears.

Kings are the slaves of history. History-the amorphous, unconscious life within the swarm of humanity-exploits every minute in the lives of kings as an instrument for the attainment of its own ends.

I don't know which novelist Bill Sammon takes his cues from, but I have a suggestion: Tom Clancy. Sammon, the White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner (and the Washington Times before that), has just published his fifth book on the Bush presidency, a series that began with the Michael Bay-paced At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Presidency back in 2001. And every book that followed read like a potboiler. Bob Woodward has his trenchcoated sources and his bloodless meeting recaps. Sammon doesn't need any disgruntled leakers: He has all the top-level access he needs, and in return he writes the leaders of the Bush administration like the Justice League.

How does that work in The Evangelical President? Be flexible about what you consider "action." When Dick Cheney sits for an interview with Nightline: "Having risked life and limb to visit U.S. Marines in Iraq's deadly Anbar province, the vice president was now being interrogated by a TV anchorman who openly acknowledged the news media's 'deep anti-military bias.'" When the president arrives at Camp David for a bike ride with the prime minister of Denmark: "The wash from the rotors was so powerful that the Marines and sailors standing at attention had to bow their heads and raise their gloved hands to keep their hats from blowing away." When he refuses to say, pre-midterms, that he's going to sack Rumsfeld: "Bush decided to throw himself on the political grenade and let it explode later." (Note to Sammon: If you've got a live grenade that will take three weeks to blow, you can probably find a better way of getting rid of it.)

Sammon is that vanishingly rare breed of White House reporter: He believes the president is a Great Man who (almost always) does Great Things. As he put it at a Heritage Foundation luncheon for the book, he wants to "give the guy a break" from the orc-like barrage of angry/crazy pool reporters. Sammon's discovered that the president's unpopularity can be picked up through osmosis. After he asked Bush to respond to MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" ad, and after the president pounded the question into orbit, the Washington Post's color reporter and MSNBC's star talking head Dana Milbank mocked him in prime time.

DANA MILBANK: The president looked towards the back of the room and found Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner

KEITH OLBERMANN: Is that who that was? Oh, God.

At the Heritage luncheon, Sammon laughed this off. He's been doing this for seven years: He is the man who Matt Taibbi predicted would "find a job in the next world holding a spittoon for Idi Amin." "I'm already the pariah in the White House press corps," Sammon said. "So I'm not bothered one way or the other. Don't get me started about the media."

And the non-Sammon media is part of the problem. George W. Bush is fighting to save America and democratize the Middle East and he must defeat three adversaries to do so: the terrorists, the media, and the Democrats. (Sammon doesn't address the anti-Bush domestic rebellion on the right. Ron Paul, the Cato Institute, Andrew Sullivan, et al don't make the enemies list.)

These three adversaries can't be set aside and battled one at a time. Bush's struggle is our struggle, and our road grows more treacherous whether terrorists incite a town in Iraq or an ABC reporter pelts Dick Cheney with hardballs. The rest of the press corps might blame the administration for setbacks, but their own "unrelenting criticism succeeded in turning the public against the president, whose effectiveness in prosecuting the war on terror was eroded accordingly." And if the troops lose? Kegger at Katie Couric's house! Sammon latches on to humor columnist Joel Stein's semi-serious article "Warriors and Wusses" ("I don't support the troops") as a moment when "the mask slipped and America caught a glimpse of the media's unvarnished contempt for the brave men and women who volunteered to serve in the armed forces."

Does it read like Sammon is bitter? He isn't. See, he has perspective. The measure of George W. Bush's success will not be how many news cycles he won, or how low his approval ratings are, or even whether the Iraq strategy failed for four years—as he told reporters like Bill Sammon that the confetti was getting primed for the victory parade. Bush wins if he destroys his enemies. So it's obvious: Bush is winning. Dan Rather is unemployed and insane. Tom Daschle is a visiting professor and a third-string Barack Obama advisor. Saddam Hussein and al-Zarqawi are dead—never mind whether Bush passed up a few early opportunities to skunk one of them.

This is a pretty straight application of the Great Man theory. Sammon views Bush as a history-shaping figure playing multi-board chess against a gang of rival icons. As they tumble, he succeeds. The problem is that Bush's victories on that scale haven't left the United States in a stronger position—in trade, in dollar strength, in foreign policy, in the war on terror. Bush basically concedes this on terrorism. Whenever he's asked about Osama bin Laden, he says the leader of al Qaeda is a shrinking figure, that catching him isn't a priority. Unless everything we know about terrorism is wrong, this is entirely true. Except on Sammon's scale.

Sammon started his career exposing graft and fraud in the Cuyahoga County, Ohio election board, and as mentioned above his first book was a gloves-off attack on Al Gore. Sammon's obviously not worried about protecting powerful people. What makes Bush different is, simply, his title: He's a president and it's better for the country to have a great president than a failed one. Sammon doesn't want to live in a declining country, and who can blame him? It's just that he's confused the health of the executive with the health of his country. Like Bryan Caplan wrote on the same topic, spinning off Tolstoy:

Once people accept you as a Great Man, it's easy to get them to do all sorts of things. Men will kill for you, bleed for you, and sit around doing nothing for you. There are limits, but there is tons of slack.

"Tons" is right: There's an inexhaustible amount of slack and only a little popular willingness to call the Great Man on his mistakes. The last few years have seen a pile of books reassessing the presidencies of chiefs we all once thought corrupt (Ulysses Grant) or authoritarian (John Adams). Sammon's banking on a similar re-appreciation for Bush. Fifty years on, is "Mission Accomplished" really going to loom larger than the hanging of Saddam Hussein? Will Bush be pilloried for hiring cronies and installing a sock-puppet at the Department of Justice? Or will George W. Bush be a man who stuck by his friends and led with his gut?

To hell with Tolstoy. Sammon's going to be proven right. Nobody wants to believe that they were led by incompetents who were either dragged along by history or sped the momentum of decline. They want Great Men. Sammon's just ahead of the curve in giving them one.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.

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  1. Oopsie.

  2. If Millard Fillmore had Sammon at his side ,by now Iraq would be the center of the Whig Empire

  3. Great, the more the better. I hope every passionate Iraq War supporter and George Bush booster writes a book like this.

    They make for useful vaccinations for our body politic. The more people see this sort of “thinker” yammering on about treason, da troops, and the other old saws we’ve come to know so well, and doing so as everything they stood for falling down around their ears and highlights the vast distances between their words and reality, the less likely it will be that those tactics will be to work in the future.

  4. Maybe they could sell that book at the Creation Museum.
    You could put it right next to the display of Adam getting it on with a lamb.

  5. This time, in English:

    The more people see this sort of “thinker” yammering on about treason, da troops, and the other old saws we’ve come to know so well, and doing so as everything they stood for is falling down around their ears, it will only serve to highlight the vast distances between their words and reality. The more this happens, the less likely it will be that those tactics will be effective at swaying people in the future.

  6. The delusions keep coming. This is the state of American politics and a good lesson for anybody who is incredibly incompetent. If you learn from the Bush Administration you simply never admit you mistakes, in fact it is best not to even attempt to explain things. You just tell people who disagree ‘Fuck You’ and proceed to the next unbelivable blunder…

  7. Lots of historians have noted that during the Civil War the divided political scene in the Union north was a great aid to the prosecution of the war. If things do eventually turn out well in Iraq, etc. a similar argument can also be made about our particular time of war.

  8. I think what this book shows is that there is still a sizable portion of the country(it has been falling during the past 4 years, still around 25%) which is actively living in a fantasy world. The neo-cons and the religous rightists are so wrapped in ideology/religion that they continue to feed delusion upon delusion and every time their worldview disagrees with reality they treat it as a ‘he said-she said’ situation.

  9. I think what this book shows is that there is still a sizable portion of the country(it has been falling during the past 4 years, still around 25%) which is actively living in a fantasy world.

    Nah. Its much higher than that, and it hasn’t fallen at all. Once you accept that not just neo-cons and fundies are reality-challenged, anyway.

  10. Syloson,

    I’m not sure if that is analogious. We fought our civil war. We are trying to prevent Iraq from fighting theirs.

    “””The delusions keep coming.”””

    No kidding. Bush has done much to create an all knowing government, and push human rights back to the pre-Magna Carta days, deceiving the public the whole way.

  11. “Its much higher than that, and it hasn’t fallen at all. Once you accept that not just neo-cons and fundies are reality-challenged, anyway.”

    Oh of course…but these are the people who have believed the SAME lies over and over again…I at least like people to lie to me in different ways…show me a bit of respect:)

  12. This book sounds so ridiculous i might have to pick it up

  13. The best way to get a book deal is to either become a professional contrarian or to have a niche audience that will purchase whatever you write no matter what…this author has achieved both.

  14. I love this. David, you have a great sense of humor.

  15. GWB is the best president we’ve ever had. He must have copied most of his policy from Clinton, the previous best president we ever had. I’ve heard the next one is going to be really great.

  16. Adams and Grant may have a new coat of varnish, but Jackson and FDR have certainly collected some extra detritus in the past 10 years, and Johnson’s rep just keeps getting worse and worse.

    While there will always be those who are inclined towards a James Lipton-esque rimjob of their ideological heroes, I’m not so sure about the future of W’s legacy outside of the Archie Bunker crowd.

    “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.”

  17. If GWB turns out to be the GOP’s undertaker, who knows, perhaps history will be kind to him.

  18. Bush’s legacy? It will rank somewhere between James Buchannan and Chester A. Arthur.

    In 100 years, he’ll be best remembered for being the son of Geroge H.W. Bush, and standing on some ruble. That will be about all.

  19. I wish I was as optimistic, Cesar.

    I fear he will turn out to be of much greater consequence than that.

  20. Good article dave.

  21. I hate how all GW can argue on is the premise for why we are at war and why we should still be there. I belive most Americans would follow with his thinking if given the chance to do so. But his incompetence did not allow sane people to stay on the Bush Train to Obscurity. If this war was waged properly Americans would still support the reasons for being there (and there are reasons are people.) Don’t forget, other countries did help us with our Civil War too.

  22. George Bush will not be judged a great man by future generations. He is dumb, and he surrounds himself with yes men, and cronies and the children of cronies. He is uninteresting.

    My guess is that Rove, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld will be much more interesting topics for historians.

    The whole notion of “great man” turns my stomach. Presidents, like CEOs, are all “great men” in their own minds. In reality, they are narcisists verging on sociopathy, and no more capable than any other group randomly selected from amongst the general population of average intelligence citizens.

  23. Actually he doesn’t surround himself with yes men, he is the yes man. That’s why I must agree Rove and company will be much more interesting for historians. They are the ones that made the crappy decisions.

    I think the country would actually be worse if we followed any original ideas that came from Bush’s head, because to date no ideas have ever been his.

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