The Test of Time

What do fifteen of the smartest people in the room—presidential scholars, best-selling biographers, and White House veterans of both parties—think history will say about the legacy of George W. Bush? And is there anything he can still do to change it?
Illustration by Christoph Niemann

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY

President Bush has hopes of being seen as Harry Truman. Truman has become the patron saint of failed presidents, because he left office with a 27 percent approval rating and people were saying, “To err is Truman,” yet look at what he did: the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the Truman Doctrine. The difference is that Harry Truman actually won a war, World War II, while Bush is losing one in Iraq. Bush is like a poker player who bet all his chips on Iraq, and it hasn’t come out the way he wanted.

They’re talking about building his presidential library at Southern Methodist University, and what they should do is say, “Look, after 9/11 he grabbed the bullhorn and said, ‘I’m going to protect America,’ and on his watch America was not attacked again.” The problem is that the bullhorn moment gets obfuscated and loses some of its grit, because the other sound bites that are going to be remembered are “Mission accomplished” and “Wanted: Dead or alive.”

Iraq is going to be known as Mr. Bush’s war. It was a war of choice. Other presidents have had wars of choice. James K. Polk had a war of choice. He decided he wanted the Southwest and declared war on a false pretext. He sent Zachary Taylor over the border to egg on the Mexicans, because Mexico wouldn’t sell modern-day California, New Mexico, and Arizona, and Polk said, “Okay, we’ll go to war.” But Polk is considered a near-great president because he won the Mexican War. William McKinley had a war of choice. In the Spanish-American War, half the country was outraged at him. A group of anti-imperialists, including Mark Twain and William James, were saying this is insane, but McKinley won the war in six months. Both wars were American victories. Bush’s problem is that his war, so far, is a loss. That is one thing Americans won’t stomach. It’s not a matter of there being a false pretext for the war. Polk made a pretext of Mexicans coming across the border. McKinley made a pretext out of the Maine’s being blown up by Spain when it was really an onboard fire. You can have a phony pretext for war, but you’ve got to win. By not winning in Iraq, President Bush has very little legacy to stand on.

There was also a meanness of spirit that started coming out. This was not somebody who was in any way healing the nation or trying to

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