On the eve of the dedication of his presidential library, can George W. Bush be rehabilitated?
Such things have been known to happen.
Modern scholars, for instance, consistently rate Harry S. Truman in the first rank of American presidents. But when Truman left the White House in January 1953, he was one of the least respected chief executives in history—his nearly eight years in office beset by petty scandals, a lingering war in Korea and the indelible image of a ward-heeling haberdasher unworthy of the godlike legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In February 1952, as Truman’s final year wound down, his job-approval rating was a disastrous 22 percent—just a point below Bush’s low-water mark of October 2008. But time passed, feelings warmed, and Truman’s record underwent a healing reassessment; two decades after Truman’s death, popular historian David McCullough assured the 33rd president’s elevated status with a Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling biography.
So what are the odds that some influential McCullough-like scribe will one day start a trend by favoring Dubya with a measure of compassionate revisionism?
“Not a chance,” said political scientist Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “He’s got three strikes against him, and history is not going to forgive Katrina, the Iraq War, and economic collapse. Good luck overcoming all that. Three strikes? Forget it. The best he can hope for is an average grade.”
And yet, as Dubya prepares to inaugurate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum Thursday on the Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University—with Presidents Obama, Clinton, Carter, and Bush 41 in admiring attendance, to say nothing of such White House hopefuls as his little brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—he is clearly rising in public esteem. A new Washington Post–ABC News poll indicates that almost as many Americans (47 percent) approve of Dubya’s two terms in office as disapprove (50 percent)—a seven-year high for the once-reviled 43rd president.
“Sooner or later, all former presidents become golden oldies,” Sabato explained. “I compare them to high school, right? When we were going through high school, we were miserable. But 20 or 30 years later, we think it was the peak of our existence.”
In this case, Bush’s apparent comeback is being launched a mere four years and three months after his departure, and is the culmination of a disciplined and aggressive campaign of mute obscurity. While his vice president, Dick Cheney, has been regularly tossing rhetorical Molotovs at Obama and his allies, Bush has maintained a seemly reticence to publicly criticize his successor. His presidential memoir, Decision Points, was predictably unremarkable and poorly received; far more positive attention has been directed at his recent adventures in pet portraiture and landscape painting (notably, a painting of himself, depicted naked from behind in the shower). “People are surprised,” he recently told The Dallas Morning News in appealingly self-aware, self-deprecating mode. “Of course, some people are surprised I can even read.”
Historian and novelist Jeffrey Frank, author of Ike & Dick, a revelatory account of the curious relationship between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, said that in 43’s case, silence has been golden. “What is the old maxim about the dead? ‘Speak nothing but good?’ George W. Bush has been silent about his accomplishments, and that is pretty close to what has been helping him.” Frank, however, is doubtful that Bush’s reputation will experience a revival ever, let alone anytime soon. “I can’t imagine it,” he said, noting that Bush’s decision to start a ruinous preemptive war against Iraq is a deal-breaker. “I really do think he is possibly the worst president we’ve ever had.”
Never mind the meticulous exertions of various reputation-polishers such as Karl Rove and Karen Hughes to put lipstick, as it were, on a pig. Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, who worked for both Eisenhower and Nixon, likewise predicted that Dubya’s rehabilitation, if any, will be a glacial enterprise.
“It’s going to take a long time,” Hess said, adding that on the few occasions he’s met Bush 43, he’s found him to be “a nice man.” Hess said it’s noteworthy and even unusual that Bush has assumed no active role in the Republican Party, and was virtually invisible in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. “He has been very wise to move into the background, and he seems very comfortable there.”
GOP operative turned Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said partisan passions remain too high for Bush to get a fresh look in the foreseeable future.
“Modern presidents aspire to cross a Rubicon and transform [themselves] from political figures to historic figures,” Shirley emailed. “No doubt great politicians like FDR and Reagan have long since crossed that river from political to historic. Some, like Truman, take a longer time. Some never get to cross it. History has not decided about Carter because he is so anomalous. Bush 41 has never crossed it, Eisenhower only recently crossed it and supporters of LBJ are trying to help him cross it. Clinton will probably never cross it because he was so overtly political ... The jury is out on 43, which means he still has a chance but, in my estimation, it is a small chance, because, like Clinton, his presidency was just so aggressively political.”