W and History

Following up the last post — on Eric Foner’s WaPo columnWaPo is running op eds on Bush’s place in history by several historians today. Foner (the most well-known historian in the group) has the lowest opinion of Bush — that he’s flat-out the worst POTUS who ever walked the faced of the earth. Let’s take a look at what the others say, starting with the most favorable assessment.

Vincent J. Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, is the most upbeat of the group. Not that he thinks Bush’s administration has been good so far. Cannato just argues that the boy’s got two more years, and maybe if the war on terror thing doesn’t turn out too badly, history will be kinder to Bush than we might assume now.

Much of Bush’s legacy will rest on the future trajectory of the fight against terrorism, the nation’s continued security and the evolving direction of the Middle East. Things may look grim today, but that doesn’t ensure a grim future.

No one expects historians to be perfectly objective. But history should at least teach us humility. Time will cool today’s political passions. As years pass, more documents will be released, more insights gleaned and the broader picture of this era will be painted. Only then will we begin to see how George W. Bush fares in the pantheon of U.S. presidents.

I don’t know how history will judge him. My guess is that, like most presidents, he will bequeath a mixed record. We can debate policies and actions now, but honesty should force us to acknowledge that real judgments will have to wait.

And, of course, he’s right in the sense that we don’t know what we don’t know. Those of us lefties who have watched this administration closely assume that the secrecy and opacity Bush is famous for is covering up corruption and ineptitude. Maybe when all the facts come out we’ll find he was only pretending to be a bad president while his Real Plan to keep us all safe and secure was proceeding splendidly.

Yeah, right.

Like Professor Cannato, David Greenberg of Rutgers reminds us that many people have dissed past administrations that turned out not to be so bad. Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan were all declared to be “worst presidents” by somebody, he says.

Considering these moments from history, how likely is it that George W. Bush, as many now assert, is our all-time worst president? Yes, many of us can easily tick off our own lists of Bush policies that we believe have done the United States significant harm. But any declarations that history will consign him to the bottom tier of presidents are premature. As the now-flourishing reputations of Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan attest, the antipathy a president elicits from his contemporaries usually fades over time.

On the other hand, as Eric Foner pointed out, sometimes popular presidents look less likable as the years go by.

Changes in presidential rankings reflect shifts in how we view history. When the first poll was taken, the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War was regarded as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting black men the right to vote. As a result, President Andrew Johnson, a fervent white supremacist who opposed efforts to extend basic rights to former slaves, was rated “near great.” Today, by contrast, scholars consider Reconstruction a flawed but noble attempt to build an interracial democracy from the ashes of slavery — and Johnson a flat failure.

I noted yesterday that Warren Harding was popular with the public — I don’t know what the history profs were thinking about him — until after he died in office. But after time had passed (and documents released, and insights gleaned) ol’ Warren’s popularity sank like a stone.

Anyway, Greenberg’s argument in favor of Bush boils down to at least he’s not Nixon.

While Nixon had his diehard defenders, something close to a national consensus emerged over the idea that his crimes were unprecedented and required his removal from office. Barry Goldwater conservatives and Lowell Weicker Republicans, libertarians and liberals, Main Streeters and Wall Streeters all agreed that Nixon was, if not necessarily the worst president in U.S. history, deserving of the most extreme reprimand ever visited on a commander in chief. Instead of being impeached and removed from office, Nixon resigned.

No such consensus exists for a Bush impeachment. On the contrary, in this fall’s election campaign, Democrats pointedly quashed any talk of seeking his ouster if they were to win control of Congress. One can argue that Bush’s sanctioning of illegal wiretapping by the National Security Agency constitutes an impeachable offense. His policy of depriving suspected terrorists and POWs of Geneva Convention protections may also strike some people as grounds for removal — although Congress, by acquiescing in Bush’s military detention policy last fall, made the latter argument a tougher sell.

Uh HUH, Professor Greenberg. Doesn’t wash. First, the consensus about impeaching Nixon only emerged because of the televised hearings and Nixon’s bungling responses to the investigations against him; the “Saturday night massacre” comes to mind. In W’s case, we haven’t had the investigations yet. He’s been far more successful than Nixon was in keeping the details from public view.

Further, Democrats “pointedly quashed any talk” of impeachment for purely political reasons. Conventional wisdom said that talk of impeachment would have worked against electing Democrats in the midterm elections. The lack of consensus has nothing whatsoever to do with Bush’s perceived culpability.

Michael Lind, Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has made up his mind that Bush is only the fifth worst president, after James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and James Madison.

James Madison? Lind picks on Madison because of the War of 1812.

Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” was a great patriot, a brilliant intellectual — and an absolutely abysmal president. In his defense, the world situation during the Napoleonic Wars was grim. The United States was a minor neutral nation that was frequently harassed by both of the warring empires, Britain and France. But cold geopolitics should have led Washington to prefer a British victory, which would have preserved a balance of power in Europe, to a French victory that would have left France an unchecked superpower. Instead, eager to conquer Spanish Florida and seize British Canada, Madison sided with the more dangerous power against the less dangerous. It is as though, after Pearl Harbor, FDR had joined the Axis and declared war on Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

Granted, Madison was a better Constitution writer than he was a President, but most historians put Madison somewhere in the middle of the president pack. In general U.S. relations with Britain were really bad until the Grant Administration. The French Revolution had rendered France less a friend to the U.S. than it had been before, of course. But Monroe’s judgments were probably based less on what might happen to the balance of power in Europe than on which European superpower might be a better friend to the United States. Lind could have a point, but I’d have to look into it to be sure.

Lind continues,

By contrast, George W. Bush has inadvertently destroyed only Baghdad, not Washington.

Well, yes, the Brits broke up Washington DC pretty badly in 1814. But I think it can be argued that Bush’s War will hurt the U.S. more, long-term, than the War of 1812 did.

and the costs of the Iraq war in blood and treasure are far less than those of Korea and Vietnam.

I think Vietnam will always have a special place in America’s imagination — a very dark and nasty special place. The whole nation suffered collective post-traumatic stress over Vietnam. But it will be a long time before we can compare long-term geopolitical effects of Vietnam and Iraq. After the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, southeast Asia continued to be fairly horrible — think Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, conflicts between Vietnam and China — but the mess we’re making of the Middle East could well turn out to be a lot more horrible. We’ll see.

Now we come to Douglas Brinkley, director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University. Brinkley’s assessment is almost as negative as Foner’s.

Clearly it’s dangerous for historians to wield the “worst president” label like a scalp-hungry tomahawk simply because they object to Bush’s record. But we live in speedy times and, the truth is, after six years in power and barring a couple of miracles, it’s safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder. The reason: Iraq.

Brinkley points out that other president have launched wars of choice — Polk in Mexico, McKinley against Spain in the Caribbean and in the Philippines — but these wars were (mostly) quick, successful, and popular. Bush’s War, on the other hand — is not.

I thought this paragraph interesting:

At first, you’d want to compare Bush’s Iraq predicament to that of Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. But LBJ had major domestic accomplishments to boast about when leaving the White House, such as the Civil Rights Act and Medicare/Medicaid. Bush has virtually none. Look at how he dealt with the biggest post-9/11 domestic crisis of his tenure. He didn’t rush to help the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina because the country was overextended in Iraq and had a massive budget deficit. Texas conservatives always say that LBJ’s biggest mistake was thinking that he could fund both the Great Society and Vietnam. They believe he had to choose one or the other. They call Johnson fiscally irresponsible. Bush learned this lesson: He chose Iraq over New Orleans.

Except that LBJ in 1967 asked Congress to pass a special wartime surcharge on individual and corporate income taxes to pay for the war. (Congress resisted, and didn’t pass the surcharge until LBJ had agreed to a reduction in discretionary spending.) And the problem with New Orleans and the Gulf Coast isn’t so much a lack of appropriation — Congress has allocated more than $107 billion so far — as it is wholesale corruption and incompetence. The American people, I believe, realize that something’s seriously out of whack about Gulf Coast recovery, and I’m surprised someone in Tulane hasn’t noticed.

Here’s the punch line (emphasis added):

There isn’t much that Bush can do now to salvage his reputation. His presidential library will someday be built around two accomplishments: that after 9/11, the U.S. homeland wasn’t again attacked by terrorists (knock on wood) and that he won two presidential elections, allowing him to appoint conservatives to key judicial posts. I also believe that he is an honest man and that his administration has been largely void of widespread corruption. This will help him from being portrayed as a true villain.

Oh, son, just wait until we have those hearings. Just wait until the documents are released and the insights gleaned and the broader picture of this era is painted. If this administration isn’t found to be the most corrupt ever, I will eat my laptop.

22 thoughts on “W and History

  1. Douglas Brinkley must’ve devoted all his mental storage space to Iraq, so that he’s forgotten Katrina/FEMA, Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, domestic spying and Halliburton’s no-bid contracts. Honest? An administration void of widespread corruption? On what planet, sir?!

  2. The boobs you are quoting about ‘Bush ain’t so bad…’ are delusional.

    Just plain nuts.

    When the final bill for his malfeasance, criminality, and stupidity is examined, and it won’t be for many years, it will make your head explode.

  3. I’ll eat my desktop, too.

    Actually, this points to the reason history is unpopular, because of mindless exercises like these.

    It doesn’t matter a whit who’s the most corrupt.

    What matters is the current one is nowhere close to being good enough to resolve any major problem our nation is enduring. And that won’t change in the next two years.

  4. Prof. Cannato’s belief that there may be a metaphorical pony somewhere behind the ‘pile’ we can see has a quaint, childlike charm. He may be right that it’s too soon to say – if, years from now, we discover that it was W’s bellicosity that convinced space aliens our planet wasn’t worth invading, I’ll move him up in my ranking. Not until then, mind you.

    I’m also looking on with sad sympathy for Douglas Brinkley. It’s always hard when you discover someone you thought was honest was a lying, corrupt scumbag who was exploiting your trust, and I imagine Brinkley will be facing that agonizing reappraisal soon.

  5. Maybe we need a clarification on what constitutes corruption exactly. I know that in my mind I don’t have enough mental capacity to remember all the incidents I would consider corrupt. Was Jimmy-Jeff a corruption of our democracy? Isn’t torture a corruption of our ideals? For me, it’s more than just filling pockets with monetary gain, it’s the corruption of our principles and our honor as a nation.

    Off topic….I just have the need to share the good news…After 5 year of diligence and hard work, I’ve been promoted to Aisle Manger, and with that comes a generous pay increase of almost $9.25 an hour. Me and the Misses are gonna do the town tonight! Toggle bolts? Zinc plated or Galvanized?…they’re down on the left hand side about half way up the display.

  6. I read just about every book written on Watergate from 1984 through about 1990. (Refused to read Gordon Liddy’s book.) First, the Bushies have learned the first lesson of Watergate–destroy the evidence. For the next two years, there is going to be so much serious shredding going on the noise of the machines may reach where I live in Rockville, Maryland. All the hearings in the world will do no good if the documents don’t exist any more. The first thing this Congress should do is confiscate all files (paper, computer, etc.) for the hearings.

    The other lesson learned of Watergate by our present group of crooks who inhabit the White House is to not be like the people who testified at the hearings and TOLD the TRUTH. These guys are going to lie through their teethn or not remember (the Nixon defense); and, with the evidence gone, how will we know. Where would we be if John Dean had decided not to tell the truth? Or Alexander Butterfield telling the truth about the tapes? Or if Judge John J. Sirica hadn’t come up with an ingenious way for him to determine if the tapes contained national security info or not?

    Look at Iran-Contra, which was worse than Watergate, but by then it had been learned to destroy the evidence. We know Ollie North, et al. had many shredding parties. Cheney is probably now in is undisclosed secret place with state of the art shredders.

    I am not hopeful that the truth about this administration and Republican Congress will be found out in my lifetime. It makes me sad to not learn the truth so that other Americans can learn a lesson about who to trust. And, it makes me sad to see that justice will not be served.

  7. Great post and wrap-up and great comments. Swami, good on you, sir! [but what is an aisle manger???…….one who leads the magi to the baby, or something like that?] Anyhoo, have fun tonight with the missus.
    Bonnie, even with shredders, often real psychopath types are too full of themselves to bother to cover their tracks thoroughly. They think others are too stupid or lazy to dig in the right places and dig deep enough.

  8. While I agree with Bonnie that the residents of DC and immediate environs are going to notice a strange whirring noise going into the night, for many nights to come, I also believe that the malfeasance is so broad and touches so many people that, let’s just say it’s going to be a “target rich” environment. I think the basic strategy is to work the little fish, who will tell on the bigger fish… on up the pyramid.

    That said, we may never quite get to the top – Iran-Contra was a big disappointment in my book, and now I know why.

    Nonetheless, some things just can’t be shredded, for example: the sheer amounts of money awarded in no-bid contracts; requiring GIs to pay $99 a load to do their wash (and forbidding them to wash their clothes in the sink); destroying $80,000 trucks for want of a $10 oil filter, etc, etc, etc. (These examples are from the movie “Iraq For Sale” – there are many more). As Henry Waxman put it, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

    Agree with Donna, that these people are so extreme and self-righteous, there’s bound to be blindspots that they’ve never even thought about. They’ve been so brazen that their plans have largely been out in the world for all to see, if people would only look.

    Swami, I used to live at places like Home Depot – it was getting to the point where I almost had a reserved VIP parking spot. I think I’d enjoy working there ‘cept for the noise and being on my feet all day. OTOH, I’d really rather just retire…

  9. The conventional wisdom is that Iraq can’t be compared with Vietnam. That’s not because Iraq isn’t a disaster, but because Vietnam was a failed war and to call Iraq a “failed war” however deserved, would be politically offensive to all the thousands of pundits and politicians who cheered it on and talked endlessly about how “crazy” all those looney leftists who insisted it was a disaster from the start.

    Thus, we can’t “rate Bush” because we don’t know how Iraq will “turn out.” I suppose a magic fairy might come down and sprinkle the whole country with pixie dust and transform everything into a success.

    Well, it could happen couldn’t it?

    But, Iraq is about 100 times worse than Vietnam could ever be, because it’s threatening to turn into a regoinal war between the world’s major energy producing countries.

    You probably all saw the Wash. Post article by the Saudi strategic advisor who warned the Bush administration that the Saudi government would intervene to preserve the Sunni minority from massacre at the hands of Iranian supplied Shiite militias if the U.S. withdrew.

    This threatens a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and utter destruction of the world economy.

    The “go long” strategy we see discussed everywhere in the papers seems to be a reply to this threat.

    The absolute degree of Bush’s failure is not yet visible. The outlines are clear and it’s a flat calamity, but how bad will it get?

    Will it lead to a nuclear war with Iran? Will it lead to a wider war with Syria, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia taking sides? A proxy war in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia back the Sunni insurgents and the Iranians the Shiites? What will the U.S. do under these scenarios?

  10. I still find some black humor in the idea that the best defense boils down to “No, no he’s only 5th worst”

  11. While I agree there will be shreading going on, I am doubtful this gang can cover up because they ALWAYS believed they would maintain the power in the capitol. Arrogance. What they did, even when they knew it was illegal, was the right thing to do. In that mindset, hiding the evidence becomes an afterthought.

    Also, they stabbed people that maybe they should not have stabbed. Colin Powel might feel inclined – or obliged – to tell the truth if he was under oath. Might be interesting.

  12. Right-o Fledermaus,
    How would any of us feel if we placed 5th from the bottom in a field of 43?
    Good on You Swami! That’s good money (for Florida)….
    Don’t cha hate it when someone says that?
    Anyway, I need a new lurch pin for my thing box, my skyhook needs a new wachamacallit, and that damned 12 in. Langstrom gangly wrench is need of new lubrajoint. Can you help me Ace?
    P.S. I don’t do the self check out line.( ‘cept after a shower).

  13. I am not sure if it’s encouraging or frightening – but history will record that W proves that anyone can be president. Maybe we should narrow the possibilities with an IQ rest and unannounced drug/alcohol/sobriety testing.

  14. 1.While the big guys will shred away
    (I note Rumsfeld will have a head start– possibly a much-needed one!),
    as per the commenter citing a “target-rich enviroment”, I imagine many small fry will save documentation of things that passed their way, not necessarily out of patriotism but for protection, out of fear that someday the big fish would try to hang them out to dry.

    2. Doug Brinkley’s a historian?

  15. Swami, I knew it was a typo, but I still haven’t figured out how to do those little smiley face things…….your future daughter-in-law is lovely, btw.

    Said this before, and will repeat it: The Military Commissions Act, in itself, is unconstitutional, is contrary to the Supreme’s rulings of June, ’06, and was initially held up by some big names Republican congress-critters. That it suddenly got rubber-stamped and hurriedly passed [McCain and Warner and Linsay Graham suddenly went silent] by the out-going Bush enabler majority is significant. It carries within it a specific language designed to ‘hopefully’ give the Bush administration criminals a retroactive ‘defense’ plea bargaining chip re: their design, sponsorship and execution of torture.
    The retroactive part is pathetic, legislating a new law about torture AFTER your buddy commits to a policy of torture, and AFTER pictures of the crimes are circulating world-wide.

    There are, as Waxman said, so many crimes to investigate. I would prefer that the investigators go right for the jugular vein that carries this ‘torture mentality’ blood, bad blood that still circulates the globe and tarnishes and threatens our future.

  16. “History will record that W proves that anyone can be president”–Doug Hughes

    Anyone with wealth, connections, the ability to impersonate a regular guy on TV, and a conscience deficit.

    Bush & Co. deserve a Nuremberg, and I’m sad that they’ll never have one.

    You go, Dr. Foner!

  17. John Bolton’s U.N. resignation will set up a North Korea confrontation. Condie Rice will resign by 12/11/06. In January, the ISG’s Baker will resign as the War in Iraq, will turn much worse after Saddam is hanged. Bush will admit he authorized the torture at Abu Graib. The investigator of Bush, Rep. Conyers steps up with subpoenas directed to the NSA in January and Gates confirmed agree to the disclosure of the documents which Rummy has secreted pending his own war crimes trial in Germany. He will be convicted and die in prison.After Al-Sadr reaches an agreement with al-Maliki, Bush will be explicitly forbidden from visiting Baghad and all of Iraq. The Bush impeachment begins in earnest in February. Hillary Clinton was one of those dems who authorized giving this Pres the authority to start an illegal war. This is what will be her downfall in the ’08 race, poor judgment. She announces she will not run in Febraury. After the natural passing of GHW Bush in March, 2007, Bush will be ousted in April with the illegal wiretapping used as a basis for impeachment along with Bush’s complicity in the Diebold fraud in Ohio in ’04 exposed by Mr. Blackwell, indicted in May. Cheney will resign after the Senate votes to impeach him for theft involving Haliburton and its no-bid contracts in Iraq and new Orleans in June. Webb will be a Presidential candidate. McCain will decide not to run. The end.

  18. Donna, To make the smilely face you type a colon : and then a parentheses ) just like you’d add a smiley face in the early days of e-mail. : ) = 🙂 . But no space between the colon and parentheses.

    And Bush?…His history has been written, and we have become part of its writing…..

  19. Cool Swami! Now how do ya do spell check in haloscan? I’ve been using my old dictionary (when I’m not too tired or fired-up, and when I can find my glasses!)Notice my posts are usually early in the A.M. since I’m up at 4:30 because of our Kissimmee hoot owls……..

  20. erinyes..If you are using a explorer browser you can download free spell checker for IE. Then, after it is installed, all you do is click right and hit spell check to tidy up your spelling. What’s great is that you can just take your best shot at spelling the word correctly, and if it’s close enough spell checker will catch it.It even has subpoena…But in my case I pronounce it “supeena”, so I had a hard time locating the correct spelling.

Comments are closed.