Bush the Great?





Mr. Payne is an associate professor of history at St. Bonaventure University and the author of the forthcoming book Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (Ohio University Press, 2008).

In his recent piece in the New York Times Stanley Fish ("George Bush:  The Comeback Kid") entered into the debate on the legacy of George W. Bush.  What will be Bush’s place in the pantheon of presidents?   As should be expected at the end of a two-term president who did not want to play “small ball” but whose policies seem to be ending in failure, the current trend has been to judge Bush as the worst president.  A small group, including Fish, argues that, for a variety of reasons, Bush will not occupy the bottom rung of presidential pecking order.

In short, Fish argues that once Bush leaves office, and leaves behind the liabilities of his policy failures, at least some portion of the population will develop affection and “a little nostalgia” for Bush.  Once he has shed the responsibilities of the presidency “we’ll be free to like him.”  The ability to like a president is often discounted but not unimportant.  However, one should not over-estimate it.  Warren G. Harding’s ambition was to be the best loved president, something that was hailed by the press and the public alike in the wake of Woodrow Wilson’s cold intellectualism.  The love of the public didn’t sustain Harding’s reputation much past his death in office; under the weight of scandals his reputation sank like a rock.  Ultimately, the much less likeable Wilson’s reputation rose as the affable Harding’s reputation fell.

Policy and personality play a role in presidential reputations, but modern presidential reputations are the product of several factors.  The modern post-presidency is, like the presidency, an institution more than a single individual.  A presidential legacy can be built on the person’s personality (Bush’s likability as a good-ol’-boy) but that message will be crafted by the former president and a cadre of aides and fellow travelers.  They will have access to enormous resources at the presidential library, part of our ever expanding system of ongoing commemoration that goes well beyond the marble monuments of old.  In think tanks and universities across the country intellectuals associated with Bush policies will be crafting monographs, presenting papers, and writing scholarly articles arguing that Bush’s policies were a success or, at least, not as bad as they seemed.  Pundits and partisans will present those conclusions on TV, talk radio, blogs, and in newspaper editorials. 

Ironically, Bush’s legacy will in part depend on what the next president does.  If a president Obama or McCain crafts democracy in Iraq, brings peace in the Middle East, rebuilds New Orleans, or reforms our financial institutions to creating a lasting prosperity, then some will surely argue that part of the success lies with Bush.  Indeed, historians have argued that the seeds of the New Deal can be found in the policies of Herbert Hoover, in the process raising his historical stock.  They trace Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II foreign policy back to the influences of Woodrow Wilson.   

Much of this debate will be fueled by the availability of presidential papers.  While the public has little concern for the fate of executive memos and such, they are the DNA of history that can spark the revision (or at least the evolution) of Bush’s reputation.  This is very much the case with Truman and Eisenhower.    That the Bush presidency is being debated means that it has relevancy and supporters as well as detractors.

Fish could be right.  In an age when we treat our leaders, including past presidents, more like celebrities than policy makers, Bush might be able to charm the nation (again).   This, however, will only be the tip of the reputational iceberg.   We should not assume that those around him will not have an agenda.  Lasting presidential legacies are about what we want for our nation.  Nostalgic discussions of  the good ol’ days of good ol’ W will surely become discussions of why Katrina wasn’t really Bush’s fault, why preemptive war  worked, why the Freedom Agenda was a noble idea, and so forth and so on.  Otherwise Bush’s ultimate fate is obscurity.  We should not forget that legacy debates are presidential politics of a different form.     

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    Maarja Krusten - 10/25/2008

    As a former insider, I'm interested in your comment that "the reality is that most recent presidents now have a variety of institutions that are either officially or unofficially linked to the past-president that engage in debate over the former president’s record." My guess is that you do not include the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) -- which staffs and administers the Presidential Libraries -- among the "variety of institutions" you mentioned. I'm basing my guess on the fact that NARA's role is not to "engage in debate over the former presidents's record." Rather, it is to preserve and ensure access to the disclosable portions of the record. There are many stakeholders in the process, both inside and outside the government.

    Since that is the case, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how historians can better serve NARA and advocate on its behalf. As a former insider, I find how well NARA operates is linked to the action or inaction some of the stakeholders -- the creators of records as well as its customers (scholars, journalists, etc.) Given an opportunity, what would advice would you give your fellow academics about how they could better serve as advocates on behalf of NARA's mission? That mission once was described by former U.S. Archivist John Carlin as preserving "the essential evidence" of government. I rarely see academics address that mission in tactical or strategic terms. Many factors contribute to NARA's weakness, its customers play a role here, as well.


    Phillip Gene Payne - 10/24/2008

    I'm perfectly aware of the rules governing presidential libraries. Perhaps I should have been careful to say libraries and museums, but the reality is that most recent presidents now have a variety of institutions that are either officially or unofficially linked to the past-president that engage in debate over the former president’s record. I don't say that archivist will restrict or otherwise slant access to presidential papers (although as we have seen with recent administrations there can be issues regarding the release of papers to the archives) but rather that Bush partisans, as with every president, will write histories and related pieces favorable to Bush policies. This, of course, will not preclude the writing of negative appraisals or even appraisals that fall somewhere in between. Access to the presidential papers will only facilitate the debate over Bush policies, as should be the case. My basic point stands, that the creation of a presidential legacy is a complicated and dynamic process that is often partisan and is not easily reduced to a single factor.


    Paul Kevin Davis - 10/21/2008

    It amazes me that historians are making judgements about Bush's place in history even before he's left office. I can imagine much the same comments being made in 1952 about Truman's place in history. Bush in the future could be regarded anywhere on the quality scale, but it's not anyone's place to make judgements years or decades before the effects of a public figure are known. If democracy should take hold in the Middle East, historians in 50 years won't be making the snap judgements that people are making now. Even events as recent as a decade ago show how the housing crisis didn't spring fully formed in 2008. As a history teacher I'm hesitant to make judgements on any administration later than Carter or Reagan. I don't know that I'll be able to make objective judgements on W in my teaching career, which will probably last another 20 years.


    Maarja Krusten - 10/16/2008

    Dr. Payne writes, “A presidential legacy can be built on the person’s personality (Bush’s likability as a good-ol’-boy) but that message will be crafted by the former president and a cadre of aides and fellow travelers. They will have access to enormous resources at the presidential library, part of our ever expanding system of ongoing commemoration that goes well beyond the marble monuments of old. “

    As a historian and former federal archivist (who once was employed by the National Archives to decide what the public will hear and see from President Nixon’s tapes and documents), I need to clarify what are Presidential Libraries. It is important to differentiate between a Presidential Library and an institute a former President may choose to establish. They are two entirely different things. A Presidential Library is a public sector entity guided by law. An institute is a private sector entity guided by whatever the owners and administrators (such as the officials of a former President’s private foundation) wish.

    Since the passage of the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, Presidential Libraries have been federal repositories administered and staffed by the federal government. The records in them are statutorily controlled. Their physical location largely is irrelevant. Under the PRA, President Bush’s White House records could be anywhere – on the campus of SMU, where the library will be built, at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland in the original National Archives building in Washington, DC, or in rented space owned by anyone writing for or reading HNN. Existing laws, executive orders and regulations will determine what the public will see.

    Not only will federal archivists of the type I once was determine what you will see, they will make the disclosable portions of records available to anyone who comes to the repository and is eligible for obtaining a researcher card. VIPs, former associates of a President, and writers seeking to present a positive view of a former President have no more privileged access to the records of his administration than anyone else. It doesn’t work that way. Federal disclosure occurs under a principle of release to one, release to all. Everyone sees the same material, everyone has to wait until the archivists disclose the information to them. How they view a former President has no relevance to the question of public access.

    Knowing that this is how the public disclosure process works, I do not know or understand why Dr. Payne chose to write about “a cadre of aides and fellow travelers” crafting a message. President Bush will be in the same position as his father, as Ronald Reagan, and as Bill Clinton. His records will be disclosed under the PRA, under E.O. 12958 as amended, under E.O. 13233, and other pertinent controls. As materials are released incrementally over the decades, scholars, journalists, and other members of the public will come in to the Library (or pull web posted documents off of the National Archives’ website) and use them – along with memoirs they obtain from elsewhere or oral history interviews they do with former officials -- to write about him, just as they have about other former Presidents.

    Maarja Krusten
    Historian and former National Archives' Nixon Project archivist (1976-1990)