Julian Zelizer: Assessing the Bush Presidency & "Decision Points" in the Media


By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor/Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. Her blog is History Musings

This past week President George W. Bush released his highly anticipated memoirs,"Decision Points." To coincide with the release of Bush's memoirs, Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University has edited"The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment," (Princeton University Press, 2010). Zelizer's book released last month is the first scholarly work that attempts to analyze and place Bush's presidency and legacy into historical perspective. Zelizer this past week has also been the media's number one scholarly source as they attempt to put Bush's memoirs into a broader context. He has given a live chat on the Washington Post's website, has given radio interviews, was interviewed by BBC and the Danish media, been quoted on MTV, has hosted a book signing of his own book, and has analyzed Decision Points in an TV interview on PBS's Newshour.


Teaching Position: Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University, 2007-Present. Faculty Associate, Center for the Study for the Study of Democratic Politics, 2007-Present.
Area of Research: American political history
Education: Ph.D., Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University, 1996;
M.A., with four Distinctions, Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University, 1993;
B.A., Summa Cum Laude with Highest Honors in History, Brandeis University, 1991.
Major Publications: Zelizer is the author of Jimmy Carter (New York: Times Books, 2010); Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989 (Boston: Bedford, 2010); Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security--From World War II to the War on Terrorism (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Julian E. Zelizer JPGOn Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004; paperback edition 2006). The book was featured on C-SPAN's Washington Journal and Comcast's Books of Our Times. Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998; paperback edition 2000). Winner of the Organization of American Historians 2000 Ellis Hawley Prize for Best Book on the Political Economy, Politics, and Institutions of the United States and the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation's 1998 D.B. Hardeman Prize for Best Publication on Congress.
Zelizer is the editor of The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press, 2010); Co-Editor, The Constitution and Public Policy in U.S. History. Co-editor with Bruce Schulman (University Park: Penn State Press, 2009). This book was previously published as a special issue of the Journal of Policy History; Co-Editor, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s. Co-editor with Bruce Schulman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Editor, New Directions in Policy History (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2005). This book was previously published as a special issue of the Journal of Policy History. Editor, The American Congress: The Building of Democracy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004). This book was named as a 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Title. Co-Editor, The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History. Coedited with Meg Jacobs and William Novak (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
Zelizer holds editor positions, as the Co-Editor, Politics and Society in Twentieth Century America book series, Princeton University Press, 2002-Present, and is part of the Editorial Board, The Journal of Policy History, 2002-Present.
Zelizer is currently working on the following book projects: What's Good for Business. Co-Editor with Kimberly Phillips-Fein. Under contract with Oxford University Press; Building a Great Society: LBJ, Congress, and the Transformation of American Government. Under contract with Penguin Press.
Zelizer is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews; for a full listing of publications see CV
Awards: Zelizer is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Featured on Emmy Award Winner, Great Moments from the Campaign Trail, History Channel, 2008;
Member, PEN American Center, 2006-Present;
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, 2006-2007;
Named as one of the"Top Young Historians" by the History News Network, 2005;
Telly Award. The Telly Award, which is the premier award honoring outstanding cable Programs, was given to the program Books of Our Time for the episode that Focused on my book, On Capitol Hill, 2005;
The Harry Middleton Fellowship in Presidential Studies, Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, 2005;
Moody Grant, Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, 2004;
Mellon Visiting Senior Scholar, University of Cambridge, 2004;
Dirksen Congressional Center Special Projects Research Grant, 2001;
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Research Fellowship, 2000;
National Endowment for the Humanities, Summer Research Stipend Award, 2000;
Harvard University Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Goldsmith Research Award, 1999;
Dirksen Congressional Center Research Grant, 1999;
The Carl Albert Center, University of Oklahoma, Visiting Scholars Grant, 1999;
University at Albany, Support Grant for the Journal of MultiMedia History, 1999;
Student Choice Award, Enthusiasm in Teaching, University at Albany Student Association, 1999;
United University Professions Professional Development Program Grant, 1998;
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Grant, 1997;
Hagley Museum and Library, Grant-in-Aid, 1997;
Finalist, Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Field of Humanities and Fine Arts 1996 Council of Graduate Schools/University Microfilms International.
Additional Info:
Formerly Professor of History, Boston University, 2004-2007;
Faculty Associate, Center for American Political Studies, Harvard University, 2004-2007; Associate Professor, Department of Public Administration and Policy, State University of New York at Albany, 2002-2004. Joint appointment with the Department of Political Science;
Affiliated Faculty, Center of Policy Research, State University of New York at Albany, 2002- 2004;
Associate Professor, Department of History, State University of New York at Albany, 1999- 2002. Joint Appointment with Department of Public Administration and Policy, 1999-2002;
Assistant Professor, Department of History, State University of New York at Albany, 1996- 1999.
Professor Zelizer is a well-known commentator in the national and international television, radio, and print media. He was featured on a show by the History Channel, Great Moments on the Campaign Trail, which was awarded an Emmy in 2008.
He is a regular contributor to CNN.Com and Politico. He has also published articles in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The American Prospect, among many other media appearances and commentaries in print, radio, and television.


"I'm a true historian, but I never like to be confined by boundaries. I've learned from social science, political science, social history. To do it right, it has to be done without any rigid disciplinary boundaries."...

"It's nice to teach at the same institution as a parent; it doesn't happen very often. Given how small Princeton is, we already have many connections of similar friends."

"Both my parents contributed to my interest in education, creating a culture where learning and knowledge is a valuable commodity. I remember my grandfather, who also was a rabbi, used to say that being a professor and a rabbi is basically the same thing in terms of learning and teaching."...

"Political policymakers are constantly looking to questions or lessons from the past. Instead of trying to understand the last two years, let's understand the last 200 or 300 years. You can't understand what's going on today if you don't look at it historically."..."Whether you are going to work in welfare or foreign policy, it teaches you how to think about the past in ways that actually offer help as you develop proposals in the present."

"It was kind of an odd way to learn, but doing a live radio show every week was really helpful. I learned the medium quickly and became comfortable with going live on the air not really knowing what we were going to talk about.... Public intellectuals comment on issues of the day using what they study, and I think a professor can contribute to that even if it's in a sound bite. It's a different way to get my ideas out there." --

Originally published as part of Political scholar Zelizer goes beyond disciplinary, academic boundaries, News at Princeton, 3-8-08

Viviana and Julian Zelizer JPG

"What policy history does nicely is to look back to alternatives that were not taken. We can look at the New Deal to understand current economic policy. Decisions that weren’t taken might offer guidance to where we should be looking now."...

"If we look at the Jimmy Carter era, there was a sweeping set of energy policies that were discussed, from nuclear power to increased conservation – most of which were defeated. Looking back at that brings us to ideas that have currency today."...

"Most historians have not focused on public policy until recently. The history profession was much more concerned with social and political issues, not policy issues. As policy schools developed, historians were not really interested in becoming part of them."

"In the past five or six years that's started to change. A growing number of historians have become interested in the study of policy history."
"It's useful to convey the historical context in the classroom when they’re trying to understand long-term patterns, developments over decades. In dealing with a particular question of leadership or finance, it’s useful to see that issues have been playing out for a long time, to see how previous policymakers got around them – or did not get around them. It's also useful for students understand the people who have had the jobs that they want to have someday," he said.

"Many of the problems we have today are shaped by decisions that were taken years ago. We're inheriting problems of structure that were built into the legislation."

"It's kind of an open-ended question. Do they just tell stories? An interdisciplinary environment offers the chance to work together with historians, political scientists and writers. In all my classes, we read a lot of work from other disciplines. There are opportunities for exciting writing and collaboration." -- Originally published as part of WWS Increases Faculty Specializing in Policy History, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs


By Julian E. Zelizer

  • It is impossible to tell how history will judge President Bush, given that interpretations of his tenure in office will change many times and be open to ongoing debate. Some historians who have weighed in point to decisions such as the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, which stabilized conditions, as evidence of successful presidential leadership. Donald Critchlow has argued that"Bush's remaking of the Republican party was a major achievement. By strengthening party organization at the national and state levels, Bush . . . enabled the GOP to harness grassroots activism to win control of Congress and the White House." Yet a majority of professional historians (who do tend to come from the liberal side of the political spectrum) have been less sanguine. For a cover story in Rolling Stone,"The Worst President in History?," Sean Wilentz began by saying,"Bush’s presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace."

    The historians whose essays appear in this book do not attempt to resolve this debate. The chapters catalogue some of the successes of the administration, ranging from counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda between 2001 and The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment JPG 2003 through AIDS policy in Africa to the appointment of minorities to prominent government positions. They also examine some of the failures, including the damage caused by the war in Iraq, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, and the devastating collapse of financial markets following years of deregulation in the fall of 2008. Rather than speculate whether he was the worst or the best president in U.S. history, the contributors have attempted to place the Bush White House in a broader historical perspective by understanding his presidency in relationship to the conservative movement.

    The authors of the essays in this book are trying to write a first take on the history of this period, but one that builds on the rich literature on the history of conservatism in modern America. We hope the essays provoke further investigation. Since this is an early effort to write the history of the George W. Bush presidency, the work is necessarily incomplete. We do not yet have access to some archival materials that will become available in the future. Yet, in addition to the substantial documentation instantaneously available in the age of the Internet, the contributors also have the advantage of producing this interpretation at a time when the emotions and sentiment and context of President Bush’s actions are still vivid. We hope these essays offer the opening to a conversation that will continue for centuries. -- Julian E. Zelizer in"The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment"
  • Any surprises in the book?: One of the authors wrote about Bush’s Texas origins and how Bush was legitimately interested in broadening the GOP, bringing in Latinos. This was the America Bush knew in Texas, and it’s what he wanted.

    As a historian, what's your opinion of Bush?: My opinion is that he will go down as a transformative president. He was saddled with the image of an accidental president, the son of a president, someone not who’s serious. But when you start looking back at his tax policies, his war policies, his counter-terror policies, he’s enormously consequential ... Right now, as Obama is struggling with each item on his agenda, we’re starting to appreciate the scale of what happened under Bush, whether you agree or disagree with his polices. Obama is living and dealing with what a lot of Bush did. Afghanistan, Iraq, tax cuts ... a lot of Obama’s time in the White House has been defined as a response to what Bush did ... Bush was a serious political player and was not taken seriously to the mistake of many people.

    So what's going to be Bush's legacy?: He was very successful in terms of shaping public policy. He's got a pretty big record. There were failures; Iraq really didn’t work out the way he thought, and some would argue his tax polices caused the meltdown. But every president goes through tons of revisions. Truman was seen as a failure when he left office, now he's the architect of the Cold War. Reagan was seen as a bumbling figure, now he’s seen as a shrewd leader who helped end Communism ... Bush had the ability to move Washington and to move public policy, and it's hard to deny that he did that and did it dramatically.

    So. The reason for the book?: Bush still looms large. He's so polarizing, so controversial. Been a few quiet years, but people are thinking about him again. It's fun for people to look back on a period they lived through and to start to think about it as a moment in history. -- LOOK WHO'S TALKING Interview: Julian Zelizer, professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University Discussing"The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment," The Trentonian, 9-13-10
  • We hear about some of the regrets that he had about his presidency, how he handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some discussion of the WMDs that were not found in Iraq, and some acknowledgment by the president that this was, you know, unfortunate and saddened him. But, in general, this is the same President Bush who we heard when he left office. He defends much of his record, and he's pretty resolute about the decisions that he made.

    Of all the facts, this is one we didn't know about, that there was some discussion and consideration of replacing Vice President Cheney with Senator Bill Frist to be the vice presidential candidate. Part of the reason he wanted to do it was to demonstrate to the public that he was, in fact, in charge of the White House and that Vice President Cheney didn't run the show behind the scenes. So, this is a revelation. Again, it's not uncommon for people to talk about changes in the tickets behind the scenes, but it still is some news.

    I think, the more we learn from journalists and from historians about what went on in the White House, and from what we're learning about people who left the administration, most don't agree with that assessment. Whether you disagree or agree with his policies, this is someone who is intelligent and who was capable and who could be politically skillful at various times. I imagine there will be a bit of a revision, like you had with Ronald Reagan, who originally was thought to be not very intelligent, more an actor than a policy-maker. But the more we learned, we learned there was someone pretty cunning in the White House.

    I do think, like many presidents, he wants to get a first cut of the history. He knows that historians are coming. He knows that the historians are going to start investigating what went on. I think this is his effort to offer a defense and an explanation of what he did during his administration. And even on controversial issues like Iraq, where he acknowledges his regrets, he still stands by the decision. So, this is his kind of last argument before the historians start the debate.

    I would disagree only in that there really never is a final verdict. First of all, the historians have already started to write about him. And what will happen is, there will be multiple interpretations. There will be cycles of when people are negative or -- about his policies, when they see more accomplishments than we noticed at the time. You know, a president like Ronald Reagan has gone through many ups and downs in terms of how we view his character, his skills, and the record and legacy of his policies. So -- so, it's an unending debate that is about to start. And I don't think there will be any point in time where anyone issues a verdict. And I think that's a healthy way to treat a presidency. -- JULIAN ZELIZER, Editor,"The Presidency of GEORGE W. BUSH: A First Historical Assessment", in"Bush Releases Memoir: 'He Knows the Historians Are Coming'" Interview with PBS Newshour, 11-9-10 -- Mp3
  • WTop.com Interview: President Bush Offers Some Apologies, Some Regret: Julian Zelizer, Presidential Historian and Editor of,"The Presidency of George W. Bush"... - Mp3
  • Julian Zelizer: Former President George W Bush defends policies in memoirs: "Extremely difficult. There are few of these memoirs that has a big role in changing how people hink of who a president is." -- BBC, 10-9-10
  • September 11. Katrina. Iraq. These events will be forever linked with the presidency of George W. Bush. Now, with the release of his memoir,"Decision Points," the former president has the chance to defend his record and explain his actions. But as historians and the public alike look back on the Bush White House, will we be able to move past the persistent myths that endure about those tumultuous eight years?...
    1. George W. Bush was an uninformed Texas cowboy....
    2. Compassionate conservatism was just a campaign slogan....
    3. Bush committed America to nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan....
    4. Dick Cheney ran the Bush White House....
    5. Bush left conservatism in ruins.
    -- Julian Zelizer,"5 myths about George W. Bush," WaPo, 11-3-10
  • I am very much looking forward to this chat about President George W. Bush and his legacy. In several of my recent publications, including an article in the Washington Post yesterday and a new book that I edited, The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment, I have tried to move beyond some of the existing debate. Rather than answer whether Bush is the"best or worst" president or to repeat discussions about why people hated or loved him, the time has come to start understanding what actually happened when he was in office, to place these events and personalities in broader context, and to start understanding his presidency in relationship to President Obama's.
    Besides some of the more familiar issues that shaped his presidency, such as 9/11 and the war on terrorism, looking back from 2010 raises new kinds of questions that might not have been as obvious at the time that his term ended: What impact did Bush have on the conservative movement? What was the relationship between deregulation during these years and the economic collapse in 2008? How did the economic policies of the period influence economic inequality? What was the relationship between President Bush and congressional Republicans? How did Bush overcome some of the obstacles that Obama has struggled in the political process? Did the Bush Doctrine really constitute as much as a turning point in U.S. foreign policy as it seemed at the time? How do we evaluate the impact of the Surge--and what did the decision-making behind that policy tell us about how the White House worked? How did President Bush come to push for a substantial expansion of government--through TARP--in the middle of the economic crisis? What impact did the 2006 elections have on the politics of his presidency? Which policies will outlast his presidency and why?
    Obviously these are just a few questions and there are many more to discuss. But the time has come to start thinking more seriously about this two-term president and the impact that he had on the nation. It is also to start developing a more sophisticated understanding of the roots of this administration rather than writing about these years as if everything started in 2001.... - Julian Zelizer: Five myths about George W. Bush Live-Chat, WaPo, 11-8-10
  • About Julian E. Zelizer

  • "Julian is a gifted communicator who can translate his scholarship into terms accessible to journalists and the general public. He injects needed historical perspective into contemporary political debate." -- Bruce Schulman, a professor of history at Boston University
  • "An all-star cast of historians examines the perplexing presidency of George W. Bush--the 'compassionate conservative' who frequently ended up allied with the hard right, the 'uniter' who presided over one of the nation's most divisive political eras, the advocate of 'humility' on the world stage who fiercely championed unilateral presidential powers. After the journalists and pundits have had their say, the historians are here to put Bush's tumultuous tenure in historical perspective. An essential resource for anyone seeking to understand contemporary American politics." -- Jacob S. Hacker, coauthor of Winner-Take-All Politics and Off Center
  • "With clarity and precision, some of America's most prominent historians of politics, law, and international relations examine the controversial presidency of George W. Bush. Their assessments of Bush's administration are sober, rigorous, and eye-opening. Together these essays will provide a foundation for the next generation of scholarship on early twenty-first-century America." -- Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race
  • "George W. Bush once stated that 'we'll all be dead' by the time history casts its judgment on his presidency. Instead, in this engaging and timely portrait of the Bush era, eleven leading scholars assess the 'war on terror,' the resurrection of the imperial presidency, the effects of tax cuts and corporate deregulation, and other foreign and domestic policies promoted by big-government conservatism. While acknowledging the administration's political accomplishments, the contributors to this volume emphasize the ultimate failures of the Bush presidency and the conservative movement's strategies of governance." -- Matthew D. Lassiter, University of Michigan
  • "Analytically shrewd and historically rich, this harvest of a book convenes a group of leading historians to assess the country's recent past. Ranging from tax cuts to terrorism, and encompassing questions of ideology, multiculturalism, and presidential capacity, the contributions to this volume establish the scope and agenda for future studies of George W. Bush's tumultuous presidency." -- Ira Katznelson, Columbia University
  • "This impressive collection features brilliant essays by some of America's best historians on the presidency of George W. Bush. It's all here--from the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision that sealed Bush's first-term victory to the stunning financial crisis that closed his tenure in office. This stimulating and highly accessible volume is must reading for scholars, journalists, and concerned citizens." -- Eric M. Patashnik, author of Reforms at Risk
  • "This is a superb collection of essays. I am impressed with the range of issues they cover and the lucidity with which each essay illuminates a particular topic. Their interleaved and overlapping evidence reminds a general reader of the layers of meaning embedded in every political decision taken by the Bush administration--and the sometimes unfortunate consequences. This is an important and timely book." -- Alice Kessler-Harris, author of In Pursuit of Equity
  • Zelizer (history & public affairs, Princeton Univ.; Jimmy Carter) has gathered an A-list of American historians who present a detailed analysis of the presidency of George W. Bush. Each essay examines a particular facet of Bush’s two terms, including such topics as terrorism, faith-based initiatives, energy policy, education, and the war in Iraq. Most of the 12 contributions are scholarly assessments without the partisan political rhetoric found on newspaper op-ed pages or cable TV news shows. Some of the essays, particularly those on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, go over territory that will be familiar to most readers. The more interesting chapters, one by Zelizer, delve into Bush’s place in the American conservative movement. Another thought-provoking treatise is David Greenberg’s (history, journalism, & media studies, Rutgers Univ.) study of the Bush administration’s denigration of professional expertise on subjects such as global warming, judicial nominations, and evolution. VERDICT It may be too soon for many readers to consider a historical analysis of the George W. Bush presidency. But Zelizer's work provides a valuable benchmark for historians to build upon. -- Robert Bruce Slater, Stroudsburg, PA, Library Journal, Oct. 15, 2010
  • Shrub Studies: Next week, Crown Publishers will issue President George W. Bush's memoir Decision Points, covering what the former president calls"eight of the most consequential years in American history," which seems like a fair description. They were plenty consequential. To judge from the promotional video, Bush will plumb the depths of his insight that it is the role of a president to be"the decider." Again, it's hard to argue with his point -- though you have to wonder if he shouldn’t let his accumulated wisdom ripen and mellow for a while before serving it.
    Princeton University Press has already beat him into print with The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment, edited by Julian E. Zelizer, who is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. The other 10 contributors are professors of history, international relations, law, and political science, and they cover the expected bases -- the"War on Terror," the invasion of Iraq, social and economic policy, religion and race. It is a scholarly book, which means that it is bound to make everybody mad. People on the left get angry at remembering the Bush years, while those on the right grow indignant that anyone still wants to talk about them. So the notion that they were consequential is perhaps not totally uncontroversial after all.
    The contributors make three points about the Bush administration's place in the history of American conservatism that it may be timely to sum up, just now.... -- Inside Higher Ed, 11-3-10
  • Julian E. Zelizer, an academic from Princeton and political commentator for CNN and The New York Times, has endeavoured to telescope the assessment of George W. Bush's presidency. Indeed, Zelizer and his distinguished fellow contributors, all senior academics from prestigious institutions ranging from Georgetown's Michael Kazin to Brown's James T. Patterson, make a virtue of their early conclusions about the 43rd president by highlighting that this is a first historical assessment. By and large they have written a critical but penetrating analysis of the years 2001 to 2009.
    A strength of this book is that it seeks to place the Bush presidency in the context of earlier Republican administrations. There is a peculiar conservative American perspective on the exercise of presidential power and the limits that should apply to the government....
    The Bush presidency is entitled to the passage of time and the scholarship of a generation....
    Truman now rests easy; his reputation polished. For Bush, despite Zelizer's early conclusions, authoritative judgment is still some distance away. -- The Australian,"A legacy in progress," 10-9-10


    Julian Zelizer: Top Young Historian Profile, 12-4-05

    Julian Zelizer, Website, Princeton University

    The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment Edited by Julian E. Zelizer, Princeton University Press, 2010

    Examining the Bush Legacy: George W. Bush's"Decision Points" & Julian Zelizer's"The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment" By Bonnie K. Goodman, HNN, 11-8-10

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