Bush In History

As George W. Bush finishes up his second term as president, some historians and political pundits have already presumed history's

As George W. Bush finishes up his second term as president, some historians and political pundits have already presumed history's judgment on that incumbent. With the publication of Bush's former press secretary, Scott McClennan's memoir those retrospective judgments have already begun. Recently a group of historians labeled Bush as the worst president in American history-pushes out Buchanan, Fillmore, Pierce, Grant, and Harding. It is too early to make such a definitive statement on Bush's role in presidential history, but I do think that one can lay out some tentative markers that will last.

First, how did a president with the highest Gallup ratings in history reach a point where he is probably on the bottom of that pool? George Bush had a reputation as governor of Texas as a conservative who worked easily with the Democrats and was remarkably well informed on educational reform. He specifically rejected the tendency of Democrat presidents to support Wilsonian intervention in foreign policy. He advocated a more modest approach to the world and opposed "nation-building" abroad… Then his vice president insisted that the Congress and even the federal courts have no authority to restrain the president on maters of national security. So this nation abandoned its precious right of habeas corpus, set up detention camps, farmed out suspects for torture in foreign countries' primitive jails, violated federal law in its surveillance of citizens' communications, and ignored the Supreme Court's restraints. The need to confront the disjointed but dangerous terrorists became a holy war with a new federal department, and the Republicans made political hay out of any one who suggested that terrorism is really more of a police problem as the IRA is for England than a full scale war across the world.

Led by Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, the GOP ran unscrupulous campaigns impugning the integrity of the opposition party, the media, and even members of the CIA. It now appears that the Administration used its press friends to blow the cover of a secret agent, an incredible happening from the son of a father who ran and respected the CIA. The paper trail leads us to Cheney and his hapless aide, Scooter Libby, but McClelland's book shows that the trail leads directly to the president himself.

Bush's popular war in Afghanistan has been followed by a second war in Iraq, a mess of our own creation from which we cannot extricate ourselves. As the timid Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell warned-you break it, you buy it. We did and we are. We have inflamed the entire Arab world including our so called allies in that part of the world. And in combinanation with our knee jerk support of Israel and Bush's lack of interest in the Palestine question until most recently, we have helped to inflame the so called Arabs in the street-a collection of young men who are unemployed, unhappy with their lot, and caught up in religious extremism.

At home, Bush has been remarkably disengaged from most issues. He flew over the worse hurricane sight imaginable in New Orleans looking down at the destruction like Zeus on Mount Olympus. Bill Clinton would have been down there the next day hugging people and filling bags with dirt on the banks of the levies. But Bush was vacationing at beautiful Crawford. He had had a tough couple of months.

When he was reelected, he announced that he had plenty of political capital to spend on his conservative changes, and he unwisely chose to hit the Democrats where that befuddled party is the strongest-Social Security. People were not willing to scrap the venerable entitlement program of FDR for chits in the stock market which came hurtling down a year ago, proving that AARP was correct. Bush actually suffered his first defeat on Social Security, and followed it up with the string of public opinion losses due to the Iraqi war.

The few talking heads loyal to Bush II have said that his historic role is dependent on if he played a true role in the democratic transformation of the autocracies in the Middle East. Those nations may indeed change governments, but one should not expect that they will result in Lockean representative institutions of toleration. Political changes in Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait have not give those people more responsive governments than the wearisome, decadent Egyptian regime. Even in Turkey one must wonder how secure the secularism of Ataturk now is. In any case, if the Middle East suddenly becomes Japan and Germany after the war, then Bush can claim some credit. Now all he can claim is blood and ashes.

Great presidents are usually great rhetoricians or great writers of public documents. I doubt if one can make that case for Bush's communications skills. Still, he was reelected president, so somebody is listening. Great and good presidents are people who have strong management skills, a sense of vision that works out and that bring out the very best in the American people.

Michael P. Riccards is Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey. Bush In History