Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bush Nostalgia?

Stanley Fish, who blogs on the website of The New York Times, recently revisited a topic about which he had written a year and a half ago: the rehabilitation of George W. Bush's reputation. I had reacted to his earlier post here, and discussed similarities between Bush and one of his predecessors.

I've made no secret of my assessment of Bush's presidency, an evaluation that is, on balance, negative. (See this post and this post.)

I think Fish is overreaching in looking for signs of an early revival for Bush. The Minnesota highway billboard to which Fish refers was financed by some local businessmen, as Scott Johnson explains on Power Line. That says nothing about the opinions of any statistically significant part of the population.

But I do believe that, in the long run, Bush will be viewed much more favorably than he is now. Two reasons: 1) other people's criticisms of Bush have not been as measured as mine, and the passage of time will inevitably convince most people that the strongest of those criticisms were exaggerated; and 2) that is what has generally happened with other former presidents.

The case of Harry Truman has been much talked about, including by me, here and here. As to his successors:

Dwight Eisenhower was still popular when he left office in 1961. The first president to be constitutionally term-limited, he could otherwise probably have won a third term. Current opinions of him are generally favorable. Sophisticates among the comedians and other political commentators in the '50s portrayed Ike as genial but not too bright. I think that that view has faded away to a large extent.

Americans generally considered John Kennedy to be a demi-god, for a period of time after his 1963 assassination. An air of martyrdom and fresh memories of his charisma combined to raise his stature to a level far higher than the meager accomplishments of his 34-month presidency would justify. Today, people across the political spectrum generally have a higher opinion of him than I do. But it was inevitable that those opinions would fall back a little closer to earth over time. Allegations regarding adultery and drug abuse have contributed to that trend. Overall, opinion about Kennedy seems to have returned to where it was when he embarked on his ill-fated trip to Texas. His poll numbers had fallen back to a level just a bit above 50%, as he was seen as above-average but not great.

Lyndon Johnson left office under circumstances similar to those of Truman and George W. Bush. He was unpopular, largely because he got the country bogged down in an unpopular war. I've often thought that, if Johnson had done what he did in 1964, and then declined to run for a full term and retired to Texas, I would have a higher opinion of him that I in fact do. During his first year in the White House, Johnson pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a supply-side tax cut. (The flaw in that analysis is that, had he been a lame duck, LBJ probably would have been less successful with Congress.) There was no good answer as to what to do in Vietnam during Johnson's presidency. But both Hawks and Doves have a case to criticize Johnson for maximizing our involvement in the war, in a way that minimized the chances of accomplishing anything. Emotions about Vietnam have cooled since 1975; as I see it, current opinion about Johnson is somewhat negative, but his critics are nowhere near as hysterical as they were in the late 1960s.

Richard Nixon was always, at best, more respected than loved. He was introverted and uncharismatic. Charismatic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were able to withstand scandals. But Nixon did not have a reservoir of good will to draw on, when the details of Watergate began to emerge into public view. When he resigned in 1974, Nixon's poll numbers were similar to the low ebbs of Truman and Johnson. After lying low for several years, Nixon began to re-emerge as an author and elder statesman during the 1980s. Toward the end of his life (Nixon died in 1994), I was astounded to hear some people say they wanted him back in the White House. I'm not sure how serious that talk was, but it was based on a misunderstanding of the term-limit amendment; Nixon could not have been elected a third time, despite his having ended his second term prematurely. The effects of charisma, or the lack thereof, seem to fade over time. By now, the foreign-policy-genius-Nixon has grown in relation to the unlovable-Nixon.

Gerald Ford was also charisma-challenged. Unlike his predecessor, Ford was a likable guy. But, perhaps if, in his football days, Ford had been a dashing quarterback, rather than a stolid offensive lineman, he would have had more of a hold on the public's imagination. Ford barely lost his bid for a full term in the White House in 1976. Had it not been for the support he lost when he pardoned Nixon in 1974, chances are Ford would have won that election. After a long ex-presidency, Ford was generally admired. By the time of his death in 2006, people had come to see the pardon as a sacrifice for the sake of the national interest. Further proof that ex-presidents are eventually looked at differently than when they were in office.

Time to end this. It's getting long, and historical perspective is less available in relation to more recent presidents. My point in all this rambling is that historical precedents bode well for an eventual improvement in Bush's reputation. But let's not be premature; one billboard does not a comeback make.

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