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 be bipartisan. He became a stubborn ideologue. Stubbornness is a positive quality of presidential leadership—if you’re right about what you’re stubborn about. What he can salvage for a legacy is that after 9/11 America was not attacked, that he won two elections, that he helped bring about a return of the conservative movement, that he had two U.S. Supreme Court nominees confirmed. But he will be judged harshly for his inaction after Hurricane Katrina. For five long days after the storm, he did not visit Louisiana or Mississippi. He did an Air Force One flyover instead of putting boots on the ground. He failed to inspire the nation.

I’m editing Ronald Reagan’s diaries right now for a book. Nancy Reagan gave them to me, and they’re extraordinary. When terrorists blew up the Marine barracks in Lebanon, Reagan was frustrated and furious, as Bush was after 9/11. But he didn’t stick us in a war in the Middle East with no exit.

Douglas Brinkley is the director of the Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization and a professor of history at Tulane University, in New Orleans.

ROBERT CARO

Presidents are very competitive people: All their lives they’ve been running for something. When you get to be president and you’re in your second term, there’s nothing left to run for except your legacy, your place in history. That’s what President Bush is running for now. And in my opinion, at this moment, he’s losing.

I am constantly asked to compare him with Lyndon Johnson. But with Lyndon Johnson the scale has two sides—actually, with Lyndon Johnson, it has probably thirty sides. Certainly on one side you have his mighty domestic achievements: the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 and the war on poverty. On the other side you have Vietnam. You have a balance. So far, I do not see any comparable domestic accomplishments in George Bush’s presidency. As of now, Iraq is going to be his legacy. All the weight is on the foreign policy half of the scale.

What I want to say next is something I know may turn out to be wrong, because if there is one thing I’ve learned in doing research on Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, it is that so many things we thought were true at the time turn out, when we finally have the documents and the minutes of meetings to study, to have a different explanation. When future historians are evaluating the Bush presidency, they will certainly have a lot of information that historians do not have today. But, having said that, I am unable as of now to escape the feeling that George Bush has done what is, for a president, a very dangerous thing. He has surrounded himself with people who have the same way of looking at the world as he does. He has surrounded himself with people who tell him only what he wants to hear.

That’s very comforting when you lie awake during the night, but the greatest presidents have been distinguished by a different characteristic: They take care to listen to all sides. John F. Kennedy had a foreign policy disaster with the Bay of Pigs. What he learned from that is, you have to listen to other sides besides the CIA’s and the military’s, and he made sure, in every instance after that, that he did—most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s quite dramatic to read the two volumes of transcripts of the tapes of the deliberations in Kennedy’s Cabinet Room

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