Daniel W. Drezner

Meet the revisionist George W. Bush — pretty much the same as the old George W. Bush

Meet the revisionist George W. Bush — pretty much the same as the old George W. Bush

The George W. Bush presidential library is having its coming-out party this week. Five years after the end of the Bush administration, it’s about time for a push to recalibrate our historical understanding of George W. Bush’s legacy. In the Washington Post, Stephen Knott argues that the professional historians have it in for W., and that time will may vindicate his legacy:

In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information.

There is a difference between punditry and scholarship. The latter requires biding one’s time and offering perspective as the evidence emerges and the passions of the day cool. An assessment of Harry Truman’s presidency looks quite different today than it did immediately after he left the White House in 1953. And no historian, especially Schlesinger, would have predicted in 1961 that 21st-century scholars would rank Dwight Eisenhower among the nation’s greatest presidents.

George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.

Meanwhile, over at the National Journal, Tom DeFrank details how the Bush library, and Bush himself, will push back against this historical bias:

This week’s two days of festivities on the campus of Southern Methodist University, Laura Bush’s alma mater, mark his somewhat reluctant re-emergence into the national spotlight since leaving Washington in 2009. President Obama and the three living Presidents will join 15,000 guests to celebrate the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

The center comprises a Presidential library housing 43,000 artifacts and millions of documents from the eight years of 43’s tenure. The adjoining think tank, informally known as the “freedom institute,” will preach the gospel of Bush’s conservative vision to future generations.

The institute is also designed by Bush as the vehicle to rehab and burnish his legacy with future historians and posterity….

While time is known to heal some wounds and Presidential legacies, money doesn’t hurt, either. The institute is bulging with cash, allowing its board to hire like-minded academics and pay some executives more than $650,000 a year….

“As time goes by Bush will benefit from the comparison with Obama,” Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution predicted. “If Obama had been a Bill Clinton-like figure he would have made Bush look like the caricature his opponents have suggested. But Obama has been a great gift for Bush – he’s as polarizing a figure as Bush was.”

OK, so, a few things:

1) The moment you trot out someone as partisan as Victor Davis Hanson to claim that Bush’s legacy will outshine Obama’s, you’ve abandoned the argument that Bush is merely the victim of partisan historians.   

2) It’s good to know that those shameful historians who abandoned dispassionate analysis in favor of a partisan agenda will overwhelmed by the forces for good — namely, a $500 million wad of cash. And I, for one, look forward to future Knott op-eds praising the nobility of historians who suckled on this teat as paragons of unbiased scholarship. 

3) That Truman analogy that Knott uses? Yeah, as Amy Zegart discussed back in 2008, that dog won’t hunt.

4) Five years later, is there any dimension of George W. Bush’s legacy that will improve with time? Actually, I think the answer is yes on a few fronts. 

First, he’s been a great ex-president. For such a polarizing political figure, it’s remarkable at how successfully Bush has receded into private life. Lest you think that this was his only option, let me introduce you to Dick Cheney’s post-vice-presidential path. 

Second, ironically, Bush’s legacy will be a bit more buoyant because the quality of post-Bush GOP thinking on foreign policy has been so piss-poor that Bush really does look good by comparison. It is worth remembering that, for all of the criticisms of Bush’s foreign policy rhetoric, he kept anti-Muslim hysteria somewhat in check. He boosted foreign aid through PEPFAR, which might be his most significant foreign policy legacy. And the Bush foreign policy of 2008 looked dramatically different from the Bush foreign policy of 2003, which suggests some degree of adaptation and learning. 

Third, the performance of Bush’s economic team in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis probably deserves more credit than it gets. Despite being a wildly unpopular lame-duck president, Bush still was able to implement a series of international moves (convening the G-20 rather than the G-8) and domestic moves (TARP, the auto bailout) that prevented the crisis from metastasizing into another Great Depression. 

All that said, however, there are some cold hard facts that cannot be erased. George W. Bush helmed a war of choice that proved, in the end, to impose powerful constraints (though perhaps not system-changing) for American foreign policy. He pursued his foreign policy aims in such a way as to dramatically lower U.S. standing abroad. He was at the helm when all of the pressures that triggered the 2008 financial crisis were building up and did next to nothing to stop them. And five years later, the GOP is still wrestling with the negative aspects of his political legacy. 

At best, George W. Bush was a well-meaning man who gave the occasional nice speech and was thoroughly overmatched by events. At worst, he was the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era. 

Am I missing anything?