June 9, 2012

Will history be kind to Bush (Jr)?

George Washington Bush shouting at a bald manOn CNN, Timothy Stanely compared Bush Junior to Harry Truman. Both Presidents left office with low approval ratings, both supposedly fought what seemed like unpopular wars (Truman in Korea, Bush in Iraq), yet both had “a gentle, honest personality that voters looked back on with fondness.”

Really?  Gentle and honest? Really?

The comparisons just get more ridiculous.  George W. Bush Jr. is also called “limited and cautious – in the style of Thomas Jefferson and Ron Paul.”  I think that Stanley is getting Bush Junior mixed up with his “it wouldn’t be prudent” father.  And even George Herbert Walker Bush (Senior) joined NAFTA, something Ron Paul and Jefferson would never do.

Jefferson was especially cautious when it came to war.  While Jefferson could have gotten involved in Afghanistan, I doubt he’d invade Iraq.  Instead, Jefferson might offer to buy Kurdistan.  (And he’d get a good deal on it too.)

Of course, that has nothing to do with how history will judge George Bush the Younger.  By all accounts, Abraham Lincoln was a total jerk, a man with a violent temper for most of his life, yet history loves him.  Winston Churchill could also throw a temper tantrum on occasion.  Neither seemed that big on smiling.

Mussolini, on the other hand, was great at shaking hands with children.

Both Lincoln and Churchill were leaders during war time, and brought their countries into wars that people feel have produced great change.  That’s why some people like Harry Truman, he led the US when World War II ended.   They can relate the “Truman” name to change, or more importantly to victory that is said to have produced change, whether he caused that change or not.

We buy Truman for the same reason we buy a brand of soda pop after seeing the adverts, we associate him with all those young happy people celebrating D-Day.  (Perhaps a similar thing could be said for other popular Presidents.)

As other historians have pointed out, history is likely to be kind to Ronald Reagan because of the successful conclusion of conflicts that happened in his time.  (I might add in all the pop art he’s in.  Loved his cameo in Back to the Future 2.)  Reagan presided over the final victories of the Cold War.  And though Bush Senior saw the fall of the Berlin wall and the installation of Yeltsin, the Elder Bush was seen as an extension of Reagan.  Perhaps Bush Senior is to Reagan as Truman is to FDR.

But being President in war time is not enough.  Generally speaking, Americans don’t like loser Presidents, and many blame Johnson (or even Nixon) for the defeat in Vietnam.

Military victory doesn’t always help in the long run though, some people don’t like Woodrow Wilson for taking too long to enter a war, others see Wilson as a liar who didn’t keep his promise to keep us out of it.  And, despite the fact that Wilson was a bit harsh on dissent, I don’t think you’d find anyone with a kinder, gentler facial expression.

Yet, kind-faced Wilson is suddenly appearing on all these “worst Presidents of all time” lists.  Perhaps some people see World War I as unfinished, and indirectly blame Wilson for not preventing World War II.   Whatever the reason, if Wilson’s kind face and military victory didn’t save Wilson’s reputation, Bush’s goofy expression (false Texan accent) and unfinished wars definitely won’t save his.

Perhaps it’s too soon to see how history judges Bush.  But what about Barrack Obama?  Will nostalgia about his heritage save him in the long run?

I don’t think so.  Fifty years from now, we’ll have had much better “minority” presidents.  I think both Presidents will likely be largely forgotten, kind of like Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Truman or Martin Van Buren and the guy after him  (William Henry Harrison probably achieved more than both Bush and Obama put together.)

Yes, we tend to think our time is so significant, with all these technological advances and wars and disasters and economic problems.

Well, every twenty years or so there’s a crash.

Britain was involved in wars for pretty much the entire 19th century, just like the US was for most of the 20th.   Bush Senior once said that the US had been involved in well over 200 wars, if you counted all the unofficial conflicts like the Quasi-War.  (200 seems too low. Perhaps Bush the Elder was limiting his count to conflicts he was involved in during his time with the CIA.)

And there have been significant technological changes every year since the middle ages, yet few of us could name who was president when the telegraph was invented (or when they made “sliced bread.”)

Lyndon Johnson was greatly charismatic with the crowds.  He had a nice smile, when he smiled.  But today, Lyndon Johnson’s not remembered very fondly, and a lot of times we see him portrayed with a scowl.

If I had to guess how George Bush Junior would be remembered in forty years, I’d say, take a look at how we see Lyndon Johnson today.  That is, if he’s remembered at all.

Perhaps, if some great historian takes up his case, Bush the Younger might be the next Cato the Younger, studied for thousands of years after his death.

A few movies about Bush the Younger have already been made, but neither Postal nor “W” is destined to become a classic.

My guess is that Bush the Younger will be more like a Gerald Ford, John Major or Gordian III, forgotten during his own lifetime or soon afterwards.