Presidential History

Bush's Legacy Tour

How will history judge America's 43rd president?

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As he prepares to head back to the ranch come January 20, President Bush has embarked on a sort of "Legacy Tour," granting 10 interviews in recent weeks. When asked how his presidency will be remembered, Bush typically insists that "history" will be the judge. He's right—and right as well that historians may be kinder to him than his current, abysmal approval ratings would suggest. But that says less about Bush's success than it does about the perverse standards by which historians evaluate presidents. Judging by the perennial presidential ranking polls, historians reward presidents who dream big and dare great things—even when they leave wreckage in their wake. Odd as it may seem, given the manifest failures of his administration, George W. Bush has a fighting chance at presidential greatness.

John Yoo, the author of the administration's infamous "torture memos," has remarked that, "The greatest presidents are those who exercise executive power most aggressively." Most of the scholars who rank the presidents aren't particularly fond of Yoo or the president he served, but it's hard to see what legitimate grounds they'd have for disagreeing with his assessment. Indeed, more than five decades worth of academic surveys make it plain that the scholarly arbiters of presidential greatness reward presidents who expand their power. Some of them even admit it: In a 2003 article entitled "Reflections of a Presidency Rater," Barnard political scientist Richard Pious wrote that when he fills out presidential surveys, he downgrades those who "left the presidential office weaker than when they entered"—which is a strange position to take, unless one believes that there has never been a time in American history when the presidency has been too strong.

That perspective is all too common, unfortunately. How else to explain the fact that in virtually every scholarly poll, activist presidents dominate, and warrior presidents like James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman make the top 10? Polk's major distinction is an unconstitutionally begun war of conquest; Wilson, reelected because "he kept us out of war," radically expanded government power and brought us into a war most historians view as pointless carnage; Truman launched our first major undeclared war and was rebuked by the Supreme Court for claiming that his powers as commander in chief allowed him to seize American companies.

In the presidential rankings game, "doing no harm" gets you nowhere; it might even cost you points. Last year, US News did a cover story on "America's Ten Worst Presidents," where they averaged the results of a number of scholarly polls. William Henry Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration, made the bottom 10.

Is it any wonder, then, that presidents, who walk the halls with the portraits of past greats, sometimes long for an enormous crisis in which to prove themselves? More than once, Bill Clinton worried that the placidity of the '90s might hurt his legacy. "It's hard," he complained in 1999, "when you're not threatened by a foreign enemy to whip people up to a fever pitch of common, intense, sustained, disciplined endeavor." According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., JFK, who had hired Schlesinger as an aide (perhaps to get a head start in the race for historians' favor) once observed that war "made it easier for a president to achieve greatness." Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan says he'd heard Bush remark that, "only a wartime president is likely to achieve greatness…. In Iraq, Bush saw his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness."

But something's gone wrong when a president's worth is measured not by how much harm he avoided, but by how skillfully he capitalized on crises in order to spur revolutionary change. If presidents are too quick to embrace war, if they find themselves drawn toward sweeping theories of executive power and an exalted, quasi-religious view of their station, perhaps that's because the people who fill out their report cards reward such behavior.

That's something to consider as Barack Obama takes office amid an atmosphere of crisis at home and abroad. If history teaches us anything, it's that the Audacity of Hope can all too often lead to the Arrogance of Power.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008).

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  1. History is all about narrative, and, unsurprisingly, big dreams and big disasters are a good story.

  2. history will be the judge

    Indeed, some of the “worst” presidents of the last half of the 20th century (Truman, LBJ, Nixon, Carter) have had their legacies rehabilitated over time. And some of the century’s “best” have had their statues tarnished (TR, Wilson, FDR, JFK). 20 years is the minimal wait. 30 is better. 100 provides a nice objective cushion.

  3. True, Ed. Grover Cleveland used to be considered a great President.

  4. Bush has to avoid going to prison either here or abroad before he can work on image rehabilitation.

    I have to admit that I am shocked – shocked – by the absence of pre-emptive pardons for Bush administration figures. He let those lying Border Patrol thugs off the hook, but hasn’t done anything to insulate his own people from their many crimes. I guess he has a few hours left, but it’s looking unlikely.

    He must really trust Obama to let sleeping dogs lie [and to bomb Iran].

  5. Polk’s major distinction is an unconstitutionally begun war of conquest;

    Whoa, as a Polk fan I must disagree with a portion of Mr Healy’s characterization . While many of the actions, esp by Gen Zack Taylor, prior to the Thorton affair were indeed provocative, the real fighting started in earnest only after a joint resolution of congress declaring war – totally up to the constitutional mustard. And there was an offer to buy out the disputed territory as well as Nueva Mexico and Alta California, albeit a lowball offer that Mexico was in no position to accept due to political instability.

    If Polk was a real warmonger, he would have also heeded calls for the the 54-40 or fight, rather than the compromise that ensued. He also tried to buy Cuba but was rejected (to be fair, domestic opposition in the North would have likely torpedoed this even if Spain would have been more amenable)

    And remember, Polk lowered taxes (tariffs) and left after a single term.

  6. What was wrong with Grover Cleveland? He was one of the best Presidents of all, together with Coolidge.

  7. Polk…left after a single term.

    Many non-historians* refer to this as his greatest virtue.

    *See They Might Be Giants’ quirky historical tune.

  8. I have to admit that I am shocked – shocked – by the absence of pre-emptive pardons for Bush administration figures. He let those lying Border Patrol thugs off the hook, but hasn’t done anything to insulate his own people from their many crimes. I guess he has a few hours left, but it’s looking unlikely.

    If this is still true in eighteen hours, I’ll be floored.

  9. Historians will be ever kinder to Bush for the same reason they have been to Nixon, even after Watergate. Like Nixon, he was villified in spite of the fact he essentially carried out Democratic domestic politics. And like Nixon, the vitriol, reserved for any Republican president, was passed on to a foreign war that the Democrats were also guilty in setting into motion, in the service of a foreign policy of empire that the Democrats support. They’ll be too busy hating the current Republican president, probably for much of the same, to waste any time on dead ones.

  10. Short-term popular history is written in the press. Long-term popualr history is written in the academia.

  11. The thing that will help Bush most, is all of the left wing crazy fail that will come from Obama.

    Many people will look back and think that the right wing crazy of Cheney/Bush wasn’t so bad after all. At least they weren’t commies.

  12. Short-term popular history is written in the press

    And the pop-culture equivalent of the press: the blogs.
    Come on, you know it’s true: we’re all crackpots.

  13. Come on, you know it’s true: we’re all crackpots.

    I’d rather be a crackpot than a shill…

  14. Crackpot I am. Extremist as well, if moderation is what either of the two parties are selling.

  15. “He let those lying Border Patrol thugs off the hook,”

    not really. he commuted the remainder of their sentences. they already served several years, and he waited until the very end to free them. they are also convicted felons still, since he didn’t pardon them.

    the bulk of their (iho unjust) sentence was due to them being convicted of using a firearm in the commission of a crime, and many dems and repubs alike thought the 10 and 11 yr sentences excessive.

  16. Out with the old statist, big-government Republican… and in with the new statist, bigger-government Democrat.

    While we’re at it, the new national catchphrase has swerved from “Yes We Can” to “Only Government Can”. Individualism and free markets, RIP 2009.

    And Bush had to fuck it up ONE more time on his way out, by only *commuting* the Ramos/Compean sentences. What the fuck good did THAT do, George? Why no pardons for these two men?

    Oh, well… let’s forget the past, and start working on forgetting the next four years as the days go buy.

  17. “If this is still true in eighteen hours, I’ll be floored.”

    prepare to be floored. Bush ain’t going to pardon anyone he doesn’t feel committed a crime. And he thinks that about a TON of people the mouth breathing lefties are swarming to try and prosecute. It’s all crap. was anyone frothing at the mouth to prosecute clinton for war crimes in somalia, or whatever the fuck else they hated about him? Nope. Because ex-presidents don’t get prosecuted by the incoming president. Its bad form. If Obama breaks this tradition, he will be the most classless partisan hack that ever got elected – and it will taint his presidency on day one. He won’t.

  18. I’d rather be a crackpot than a shill

    And I’d rather be a hammer than a snail.
    Still, a hammer is just a blunt object, like so many of the commenters here (and elsewhere).

  19. Oh, and I predict Bush Nostalgia in 2 years tops. I refuse to defend my prediction logically. I simply offer it up to the crowd. If anyone wants to take the other side, I’ll offer that if I’m wrong I’ll assume the “crow eating dumbass” moniker for a week.

  20. Many people will look back and think that the right wing crazy of Cheney/Bush wasn’t so bad after all. At least they weren’t commies.

    I’ve been afraid of that since Obama won the nomination.

  21. If Obama breaks this tradition, he will be the most classless partisan hack that ever got elected – and it will taint his presidency on day one. He won’t.

    It would also set a precedent that I think we’d all live to regret. Because, if it’s done once it would likely become standard practice somewhere down the road.

    There are cases in history, for example the Ottomans. When a new ruler came to the throne, it was standard practice that they would immediately strangle all their brothers. To insure they would not later attempt to take the throne themselves.

    Then again, a new Ottoman didn’t come to the throne unless the old one was already dead.

    And then again, if you wanted to winnow down the field of rotten politicians in this country, the old Ottoman practice might not be a bad idea.

  22. “Like Nixon, he was villified in spite of the fact he essentially carried out Democratic domestic politics. And like Nixon, the vitriol, reserved for any Republican president, was passed on to a foreign war that the Democrats were also guilty in setting into motion, in the service of a foreign policy of empire that the Democrats support.”

    This I don’t get. What Democratic domestic policies has Bush advanced? He appointed pro-life, religious conservatives to the supreme court. He stonewalled energy conservation and environmental controls for 7 years. He wrecked the budget surplus with a series of tax cuts that were not Democratic priorities…

    And do you really call Bush’s foreign policy a Democratic policy? Remember, whatever Clinton thought of Saddam Husein, he didn’t start a war against him. Republicans, on the other hand, spent the entire Clinton years lamenting the fact that Bush I didn’t “finish it off.” Among Republicans to this very day, there are a majority who still think that starting that war was a good idea, if only we would have committed even more resources to it.

  23. Didn’t the Bushes fuck with education when reagan ran against federal involvement? Didn’t they increase discretionary spending via medicare plan d or something?

    Anyways, I’ll take Obama’s communism if it means don’t bomb the shit out of innocent countries. Fuck economic minutae, I’m one of those nutters who’s more concerned with bombing the shit out of people, which I stand against.

    Not that Obama is a pacifist or anything.

  24. frank, good luck with not bombing dudes. I put the over-under on Obama’s first order as CinC to drop bombs at 18 months. Unless you one stand against bombing the shit out of people unless there is a really good leftist reason – in which case you’ll probably have dreamed up a perfectly rational sounding exception by then.

  25. I mean, he’s got some shit to deal with in Afghanistan and Iraq. (and Pakistan now, I guess)

    I just think until he invades a whole other country for no reason like Bush, Bush takes the cake for suckage.

    But yeah, something tells me Obama is gonna get super tough on Afghanistan/Pakistan just to appear tough in the public’s eye. I’m not trying to justifty as right, just saying.

  26. It is one thing to achieve a legacy through handling of a war. It is completely different to start a war in order to try and achieve some kind of legacy. That kind of recklessness we can do without.

  27. He’ll be remembered as a pious sack of dog shit. Why is this even being debated? He was and is dog shit. All this squabbling over the minutiae over the past 8 years is just policy wonks and ideologues holding their noses to hide the stench of the dog shit.

  28. He let those lying Border Patrol thugs off the hook

    You are an ignorant fuckhead. The only liars there were the drug running scumbag (who should have been shot in the head instead of the ass) along with Sutton and his posse of political persecutors, some of whom later admitted under oath they shat out false information on the case. Seriously, fuck you, your mother and other zombies who think like you. And fuck Bush for waiting until the last minute to return those border agents to their families. Fuck you.

  29. Fuck you, W.

    Compean ADMITTED IN AN INTERNAL BORDER PATROL INVESTIGATION that he lied.

    Let me break it down very, very simply for you:

    1. They fired their weapons in the course of their job.

    2. They didn’t report it.

    3. They tried to conceal it.

    On that basis alone, they deserved to go to prison. Forget the rest of it [shooting an unarmed guy in the back, shooting to stop someone from fleeing instead of to protect themselves, etc.] It doesn’t really matter if every lie they told at their trial was true – it’s absolutely beyond dispute even by them that they fired their weapons and then concealed it.

    I have absolutely no sympathy for a cop who fires his weapon and then lies about it. Period. No matter what reason they think they have or what sob story they want to tell. If you do that, have fun in prison, bitch.

  30. BUSH WAS AN IMBECILE AND WILL ALWAYS BE AN IMBECILE

  31. Especially since the REAL REASON worthless cunts like you stick up for these criminal thugs is because you think the Border Patrol’s job should be to shoot unarmed people at the border. I guess if you want criminal thugs employed as Border Patrol agents, it’s a little upsetting to you when an agent gets in trouble for being a criminal thug.

    Guess what: it is not the job of the Border Patrol to function as snipers to take out Mexicans. Even drug-smuggling Mexicans. No matter how much you want it to be their job. And you can stamp your little feet in frustration about it all you want.

  32. You should read the “tributes” the have up at NRO. I don’t understand how they can be so intentionally ignorant.

  33. BUSH WAS AN IMBECILE AND WILL ALWAYS BE AN IMBECILE< AS WELL AS THE IMBECILICE PEOPLE WHO VOTED FOR HIM

  34. Bush’s biggest scandal, and legacy, will actually be proven to be his treasonous actions against his own country in causing WMDs to be dropped on his own citizens.

    It’s beyond ironic that while Bush was spinning massive lies about Saddam building WMDs that never really existed, that Bush himself (and his political and Wall Street crooks) were really building financial WMDs (as Buffett called hedge funds and derivatives) which turned out to be what the US was actually blown up by – and which did much, much more to destroy America and the American people’s security.

    If “Job One” (as Ford Motors used to say) for a President and Commander in Chief is to “protect and defend America and the American people” (as Bush often bragged) then he has failed ‘Job One’ completely and miserably — “Mission Accomplished” POTUS #1 Con – you used war as a distraction allowing your own country to be blown up by WMDs that your own ‘smash and grab’ team built and set off in the heart of Wall Street.

    As George Akerlof, economics Nobel laureate, presciently warned in 2001, “this is not normal government policy, but rather a form of looting.”

    And as I have posted to the Times since 2002, “Bush has been consciously carrying out the ‘Ripper Doctrine’ (named for General Ripper in the film “Dr. Strangelove”) but Ripper is actually a more sympathetic character in that the nuclear war he tried to launch was at least not to cover-up the treasonous looting of his own Air Base.”
    – Alan MacDonald

  35. It seems strange that Mr Healy fails to mention president Abraham Lincoln who by any measure would would rank as the greatest and most successful usurpher of centralized political power. Bearing in mind that most Americans today (including Obama himself)consider Lincoln as the greatest president that ever lived, proves Mr. Healy’s basic thesis about as well as it could ever be proven.

  36. I’m confused… Frank – how can you reconcile your first position “Obama is better cause he won’t be bombing as many people or start wars with other countries for no reason like Bush did”, with the second statement you make “He’s gonna have to deal with Pakistan”……….

    Honestly… I don’t get this, you think “economic minutiae” isn’t really worth caring about when it is likely to do far greater damage when you realize that there will be no decrease in spending on any front of an Obama administration from various military actions & wars around the world to enormous domestic spending and from all I’ve heard it’s just likely to increase in the coming months.

    It seems as if from a policy stand point Obama is poised to just do exactly what Bush did, except people will like him better for it…. Meh.

  37. Consider who won and who lost.

    Social Security recipent – largest cost of living adjustment ever. Big Winner.

    Pre Bush Federal government employee – 8yrs of pension enhancement, while private sector workers fall down the ladder. huge winner.

    Bush era federal govenrment worker – civil service job, likely not to be as good in the future, possible layoff reduction in benefits. winner.

    Private sector employee – IRA and home gone. big loser.

    State and local employees – This is a tuffy. I say win or even big win, but the collapse of Vallejo Ca may indicate that the bloom is off the state/local civil service business.

    If this is a democracy then more people did welll than poorly.

    The people who did well will remember this time nostagically as the good old days. The others will be regarded as sorelosers, homeless, mentally disturbed, ect.

  38. I liked Bush’s farewell speech – not the parts where he was lying and making excuses for himself, but the part where he said “Goodbye”.

    Bush was our worst president since Woodrow Wilson, who got us into even bigger wars, violated freedoms of speech and assembly even more aggressively, got the Income Tax passed, and had post-WWI Germany treated in ways that led to its economic collapse and the rise of Hitler.

    For Worst President Ever, I’d call it a joint effort between Jefferson Davis and Lincoln, who got the nation split apart over slavery, and started a war to take back the South over nationalism. Greatest and Worst aren’t directly opposites – Lincoln was both, though Davis only gets to be worst.

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