Live Q&A with Julian E. Zelizer

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the editor of "The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment" (Princeton, 2010).

This real-time Q&A with Julian E. Zelizer took place between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. Eastern on November 18, 2010 on HNN's Ning Network.

Does the American civic religion necessitate lauding popular ex-presidents?

Yes, there is some of that.  Part of it is our civic culture.  Another part is that once in office, presidents learn just how difficult it is to move institutions and public policy.  I don't think the praise is always about liking a president, but certainly more of an appreciation of the tremendous difficulties posed by the political process (from the legislative process to the media).  So there is something of a sobering effect once in office

Are you seeing a slight difference in the way scholars or the public is seeing President Bush now?

Not yet.  But I do think the shift to the right by the Tea Party has at least caused a conversation about Bush's idea of compassionate conservatism, immigration policies, etc., which do seem much more moderate compared to current Republicans. E.J. Dionne touches on this in his November 18 op-ed in the Washington Post.

I also think that we are starting to see discussions about how Obama is living with many of Bush's policies—from counterterrorism to taxation—which gives a better sense of what kind of impact Bush had as well as some of the limits of partisan divisions, despite all the campaign rhetoric.

Again, this is something historians know all about.  Presidents inherit the policies of those who came before them and rarely dismantle that much.  But I think some expected something different in 2008

Was that because Obama cast himself as the millennial candidate?  Or perhaps because academics saw Obama as one of their own?

A little of both.  President Obama launched a pretty bold campaign which promised to transform American politics and avoid the kind of compromise for which Clinton was known.

At the same time, many academics were sympathetic to Obama and unhappy with Bush, so they were hoping for something pretty bold.  I think the combination of the two resulted in some scholars forgetting the difficulties he would encounter

If you could meet with President Bush, what two questions would you ask him?

 The first would be to understand why he didn't push earlier for immigration reform, and the consequences he felt that had for the party.  In his memoir he admits he should have done that in 2005 before tackling Social Security.  The book provides limited details on why he made this decision.

Second, I would like to know more about why he chose to avoid winning legislative support for his counterterrorism policies early on, as Jack Goldsmith has argued would have been possible and very important.

What was Bush's greatest legislative accomplishment as president?

"Greatest" is a word I would avoid.  But in terms of legislative accomplishment that had the longest-term impact—the Patriot Act would certainly be at the top of my list.  In the long run, it began the process of reorganizing U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Tim Naftali recounts in our book that this was a slow process, and for several years Bush officials resisted abandoning Cold War institutions, but gradually they did and this was the start.  I do think we have seen huge changes in the power of the government in this area and I don't think there will be many changes in years to come.  So I think with that he recast the terms of political debate following 9/11.

What about No Child Left Behind?

That is an interesting bill.  It is really a very significant step in the expansion of federal intervention in education.  It builds on a trend of bipartisan support for federal education policies that really took off in the 1970s, as Gareth Davies argued.  It was a bill that Republicans could support on political grounds. Standards is an important theme for many Republicans, one many in the teacher's unions had opposed.  So there was a political logic to the bill, though I don't think that was the only reason Bush supported it.  I do think his interest in an overhaul of public education was a genuine policy concern for some time.

I don't know as much on the implementation, but from what I have seen I think the standards had a pretty significant impact (many say a bad impact) on schooling.

In his memoir Bush says that his father told him he had no choice but to attack Saddam once Saddam defied the UN.  This kind of thinking seems terribly shallow.  There were a hundred different alternatives to out-and-out war.

Yes, there were.  Fred Logevall has a terrific piece in our book where he compares the moment of choice in 2002/2003 to the decision to accelerate the war in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.  He shows quite clearly that the case for the war was not strong at all, and that  there was political space for a different path.

So why did Bush choose war?

Bush does concede in his memoirs that the failure to find WMDs was a huge blow to the reputation of the country and to his own reputation.  Yet he defends the overall vision of the war.

I think that the president did believe that Hussein constituted a threat. I think he, like many Democrats, were convinced by the claims about WMDs and Hussein's future designs.  But then it was about choices.  Why he chose to invest in that threat rather than in others will always remain unclear.  But based on what he knew he was persuaded by this argument, one many conservatives had been making for sometime, including Vice President Cheney.

I am not persuaded at all that "regime building" was a central motivation.

It seems to me Bush was beholden to a myth of freedom that drew him toward war.  We could as easily have gotten rid of Saddam by backing some colonel in the ranks to stage a coup.

Perhaps.  Though at the time there was probably something, in Bush's mind, to taking out the head of state himself rather than relying on a coup.  Of course, Bush's dad had relied on a coup, and that didn’t work, so I assume that shaped his strategy as well as the strategy of his advisors.

Didn't Bush seem to want to champion freedom?  See himself as its champion?  He says he was heavily influenced by that Russian Israeli's book.

He was.  That doesn't explain though why he chose certain wars over others.  There were many places where he could have pushed for "freedom" but didn't.  So while this does shape his rhetoric and his policy vision, it doesn't help us understand why focus on one place but not another.

This is not unique to Bush and is a very old question in the history of foreign policy.

Is there any evidence that Bush was distressed to learn that a majority of Americans believed Saddam was behind 9/11?

No evidence at all.  I also think that Bush somehow still saw the connection at a broad level—not in the specific, but in terms of what was bubbling up in the region.  Certainly the administration did its part to fuel that belief.

What about the charge that Bush's foreign policy was heavily influenced by his own religiosity?

I don't think religion shaped his policy choices as much as some say.  He is a religious person, and sometimes used religious rhetoric, but in some respects he was a very secular president.  I would need to see more evidence that this was what drove his choices.

Do we know if he kept a diary?

He might, though to be honest I have not heard if he did or not.

Reagan has been helped by his diary.  I find it hard to believe Bush would be if he had one.  But it might help illuminate his thinking and whether religion did play a role in his decisions.

I think it would help.  Like Reagan, Bush faces the charge that he was not intelligent and basically allowed other people to run his White House.  Based on conversations with people who worked with him (both his opponents and supporters) this is just not the case.  The diaries would be helpful and allow us to better understand what role he played in the decisions.

Is there a memoir you are particularly waiting eagerly to read?  Cheney's?  Rumsfeld's?  Rice's second volume?

If Cheney wrote an honest memoir I think it could be quite good.  He has been in politics for so long and was such a shrewd political operator, he could add a lot about what happened and why.  I doubt he will be candid, though. He never made president.  I am hoping he thinks his memoir will be his legacy as a great man, but maybe but an honest memoir would contradict his style of politics...

Were you surprised that Bush considered sacking Cheney to assert himself?

Not at all.  My guess is the charge that Cheney ran the show really bothered him and he knew it was a political liability.  I do think he might have raised the issue, more as a threat to keep Cheney in check than as a real option

Cheney's power waned in the second term—was this the result of deliberate choices on Bush's part?

Yes, it was.  Let me start by saying that Bush was still very much in charge in the first term.  I do think Cheney built support for Iraq and was its strongest champion in the White House, but Bush didn't allow him to do anything that he didn't want done.  In his second term the policy interests of Bush diverged much more with Cheney than in his first.  Bush did this as any other president would.  The lines of authority are pretty clear and Bush surrounded himself with some pretty tough advisors.

Bush also strengthened institutions—like State—that Cheney could not control.  

There is a lot of evidence the White House ignored rather strong warnings from officials inside the administration and State about what would happen in Iraq.  The Pentagon ignored these or downplayed them on purpose.

But hasn't State been largely sidelined in the war zones?

Yes, but the strategies with North Korea and Iran, for instance, were much more heavily influenced by State after 2004 than the Pentagon.

How is the historian's perspective different from the journalist's at this point?

Context.  I think the historians in the book really provide a great context—placing Bush's presidency in the context of the history of conservatism, executive power, liberalism, anti-intellectualism, and more.

Can you provide a specific example?

In my essay for the book, I look at how conservatives came to love executive power. Rather than starting with Bush and 9/11, my essay goes back to Richard Nixon's presidency, when conservatives started to use presidential power as a real weapon against Congress and liberals in key agencies.  I follow this strategy as it unfolded over the next few decades.  In doing so I put Bush into a much broader tradition of conservatism rather than making this all about him and Cheney. With that I think I must say goodbye!

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omar ibrahim baker - 11/22/2010

I find it hard to accept that all that Professor Zelizer has garnered about the Bush conquest of Iraq is what was said in this interview!

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