Alan Brinkley: Bush on the Couch ... He Misunderstands History





[Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of History, Columbia University.]

Despite the tepid signs of conciliation in the State of the Union, what is striking about Bush today is how little impact his problems appear to have had on him. To all appearances, he seems still to believe that he is a great world leader engaged in the historic task of leading a reluctant nation into a necessary new relationship with the world. (“I must tell you,” he said in a recent press conference, “I’m sleeping a lot better than people would assume.”) In some perverse way, it appears, the very fact of his unpopularity is evidence to him of his own strength.

Other presidents have demonstrated a similar rigidity. Andrew Jackson was famously stubborn and ran tremendous political (and financial) risks in taking on powerful opponents like the National Bank. Woodrow Wilson refused to compromise with his adversaries on the League of Nations. Ronald Reagan could not bring himself to acknowledge error or responsibility in the aftermath of Iran/contra.

But none of these examples is really comparable to Bush’s current situation. Jackson took on the bank from a position of enormous political strength and, for better or worse, won. Wilson dug in his heels on the League only after suffering a debilitating stroke. Reagan was, many believe, already impaired by the time of Iran/contra and apparently unable to understand the controversies swirling around him.

Bush, by contrast, is relatively young, in apparently good health, and surrounded by capable people sympathetic to him—among them his own father—who are willing and able to help him rescue his presidency from its present self-defeating course. He has a modest prepresidential reputation of having the ability to work effectively across party and ideological lines. But as those who believe that he is following a wise course shrink to an almost insignificant remnant, as the very architects of the policies he now defends repudiate their own work, as the political cost of his current path becomes increasingly apparent to almost any sentient person, Bush—who may still have time to redeem at least some part of his legacy—still appears to be oblivious both to the downward spiral of his presidency and to his own likely place in history.



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