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.
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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.
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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.

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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?

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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?


  • I disliked Nixon even tho his budget got me an early out from the military, but St. Ronnie is the first Pres that I hated. I still hate St. Ronnie because his policies are still fucking us. I didn't think I could hate someone more than St. Ronnie until aWol came along. I will loath both until I die. The thing that pisses me off the most about the Repugnicans is that they have no respect for human life. Nixon interfered with the Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War, St. Ronnie interfered with negotiations on the Iran Hostages, and aWol started an unnecessary war in Iraq. They didn't care if people died, all they wanted was power. They say that St. Ronnie was a strong leader, but he turned chicken after the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Lebanon and pulled out. To compensate for that he invaded Grenada to save them from Cuban engineers building a new airport.

  • Don't forget the medical students that needed rescuing.

    To prevent the Cubans from using them as hostages.

    Which they might do if we invaded.

    Which we did. To rescue them.

  • Reagan's hagiographers always have to blip over certain little hiccups (like, say, doing absolutely nothing about the greatest public health crisis since the WWI-era flu epidemic because its victims were, you know, Godless homos), and we might remind ourselves that this is the guy who put Scalia on the Supreme Court. Plus that whole "screw Congressional oversight, I'ma gonna pull me off a wing-ding of a deal to fund them there Contras" thing. The worshippers can always fall back on "He WON The Cold War," which is such a gross oversimplification that one doesn't know where to begin. And he made the country feel *good* about its worst impulses: greed and a corresponding contempt for the less fortunate.

    That said–

    Nobody that I know of "loves" Bush. People loved Reagan. Don't know why, but they did. Not Bush. He's not personally popular, so there's much less of a subjective impulse to nudge him into the "Swell" category of presidents. And it's too easy rack up his failures: Ground Zero is still a hole, Bin Laden is still at large, New Orleans is still a mess, corporate malfeasance continues unabated, torture is still practiced, the threat level is *always* orange, and then, there's that little war thing we got into. Now, Bush *could* be redeemed if, *if* Iraq turns out OK. I cannot imagine how this could happen. But if it were to happen, he'd be revised pretty quickly into a great visionary who stood his ground against the pusillanimous nay-sayers.

    But as it is, it's a way better *story* to talk about what a series of catastrophic blunders this man's administration was–how he could not do *anything* right. (Minus, we all have to concede, that whole AIDS-in-Africa thing.) We have to remember that Reagan left office with very high approval ratings, so it makes sense for those on the Right to glom onto his legacy, given that the pigs like the slop. Bush, I suspect, is going to go out with record lows–there's no upside to aligning oneself with his legacy, when the country so clearly wants to forget it. Reagan told us a lie we wanted to believe and could; Bush told us a lie we didn't and couldn't. I think he'll suffer for it, even in the long run.

  • We all hope Dubya eventually dies a lingering, painful death. But as soon as the first twinge of his suffering starts to leak to the media, whatever Republicans still exist in congress will start drooling all over themselves to name highways and airports and (if there is a god and he has a sense of humor) zoo monkey houses after him.

    I dread that day.

  • I don't care about what "historians" say 20 years from now. That's not history. The US pop culture works in 20 year nostalgia cycles, hence the Sainthood of President Bonzo Jellybeans. What I'm going to be curious to see is how the last 10 years or so are seen when I'm 80 (so a mere 50 years from now), when people who have no direct personal stake in recent events may be the ones doing the writing. Or when my baby daughter is 80. Heck, maybe she'll be the one doing the writing.

  • With the upsurge of fox news and am radio blowhards, the US has had an over confidence in and over-hyping of all things conservative for the last 20 years. Most likely this was spurred on by Regan's deregulations of broadcast media that brought us the half hour infomercial and other advertisements that look like news. At this point, it looks like (I hope) that the whole conservative mechanisms for propaganda are on the decline, thus W may look as bad as or possibly worse than he actually was twenty years from now. Maybe due to the dominance of liberal blogs as the new media of the Internet takes over.

    Personally, I'd like to see a picture w/in 5 year after he leaves office of W being carted away by the cops while he sobs like a baby – a la Jim Bakker. Now there's a Regan era conservative who never got his neo-conservative bounce.

  • Yesterday I saw where they are going to name a sewage treatment plant in San Fran after aWol. How appropiate!! After all the shit he has caused it is very fitting that they name a sewage treatment plant that processes shit after him.

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