How is history going to judge George W. Bush?
While the answer may seem obvious (he will be ranked somewhere between Warren Harding and the Holocaust) academic work on the presidency shows an interesting lack of objectivity on the matter. We like to think of ourselves as impartial observers, but look no further than Ronald Reagan to understand how history interacts with PR campaigns.
Various attempts at ranking the presidents – some academic, some popular – show substantial variance in Reagan's placement. In reality, Reagan was a pretty middling president. His assets were his tremendous confidence, optimism, and ability to soothe with his words. These qualities become very important only when considered in the proper context – the miserable 1970s. Post-war prosperity ended. The economy was in shambles. Major cities often resembled war zones. America's position in the world was not as strong as it once was. Under these circumstances, Reagan was just what the doctor ordered. He also excelled at working constructively with the Democratic majorities in Congress – the mark of an outstanding president in the Neustadt model.
On the downside, Reagan was not a rocket scientist. He strongly advocated economic policies he didn't really understand. He engineered a dangerous, possibly reckless, increase in tensions with the Soviet Union. He accomplished no major act of domestic policy save the 1986 revision of the tax code. Most importantly, he created a "Government = Bad, Period" ideology that left government oversight of public health, education, safety, and the environment in shambles.
So what was he? He was an important president who was the right person for the moment. He also had serious flaws in his legacy, although on balance let's be generous and call his two terms more positive than negative. That would suggest a president in the top half of the rankings, but not an excellent one. If the 43 presidents are broken into quartiles, Reagan deserves a ranking in the 12-20 range.
Instead, the trend in recent years is to rank him somewhere in the top 8, occasionally even the top 5. Make no mistake: this is pure appeasement. To the right-wing media, Reagan is #1. Any ranking system that does not recognize his greatness is biased. So Ronnie has steadily crept up the list as academics, historians, and journalists cave in (deciding that it's easier to just throw him at #6 than to deal with conservative histrionics). Twenty years of retrospection have made him Great.
My question is, are we are going to have to play this game with George W. Bush? I mean, Ronnie was likeable enough that most people do not have to swallow too hard to sneak him into the top ten. Overrated? Definitely. Awful president? No. Bush, on the other hand…ranking him higher than Ass Cancer would qualify as "overrating." And he is certainly a thoroughly awful president. Which will the Cato Institutes and Fox News anchors of the world choose: will they simply try to forget Bush as quickly as possible? Or are we honestly going to be expected to Seriously and Solemnly look at him in hindsight before concluding that he belongs on Mount Rushmore?