“On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”
“Earlier in his presidency, Bush shrugged off questions about his long-term legacy. When Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward asked him in December 2003 how history would judge the Iraq war, Bush responded: «History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.»”
By Dan Eggen, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008; A03
Meet George W. Bush, time traveler.
He’s in Poland in 1939 as Nazi tanks advance on Warsaw, then flying with his Navy-pilot father to battle imperial Japan. He’s alongside Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, William McKinley on his deathbed and Franklin D. Roosevelt on D-Day. He lingers with Harry S. Truman, another U.S. president deeply unpopular in his time.
President Bush leaps forward as well, envisioning a distant future in which Iraq is a tranquil democracy, Palestinians live peaceably alongside Israelis and terrorism is a tactic of the past.
“Imagine if a president had stood before the first graduating class of this academy five decades ago and told the Cadet Wing that by the end of the 20th century, the Soviet Union would be no more, communism would stand discredited and the vast majority of the world’s nations would be democracies,” Bush urged graduates at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs nearly two weeks ago.
As the door begins to close on his tenure, Bush is increasingly drawing on selected events of the past to argue that history will vindicate him on Iraq, terrorism, trade and other controversial issues.
Historical analogies have become a staple of Bush speeches and interviews this year, whether he is addressing regional leaders in Egypt or talking to workers at an office park in suburban St. Louis. Bush will continue this historical focus in a visit to Europe this week, where he will commemorate the Berlin Airlift in Germany and deliver a speech in Paris marking the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan.
White House aides say Bush, who majored in history at Yale, likes to emphasize historical comparisons because they are easy for the public to understand and illustrate in dramatic fashion how differently future generations may come to view him.
Unfortunately for the president, many historians have already reached a conclusion. In an informal survey of scholars this spring, just two out of 109 historians said Bush would be judged a success; a majority deemed him the “worst president ever.”
“It’s all he has left,” said Millsaps College history professor Robert S. McElvaine, who conducted the survey for the History News Network of George Mason University. “When your approval ratings are down around 20 to 28 percent and the candidate of your own party is trying to hide from being seen with you, history is your only hope.”
Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, who wrote a widely cited Rolling Stone essay about Bush in 2006 titled “The Worst President in History?,” said last week that the president’s historical arguments can be effective because they are difficult to disprove. “By just saying, ‘In the long run this is going to look great,’ it makes it very hard to respond to,” he said.
White House officials dispute any link between Bush’s recent emphasis on history and his disapproval rating, which is now the highest of any president since Gallup began asking the question in the 1930s. Current and former aides note that Bush is a longtime history buff who, in the middle of his presidency, met regularly with historians and other intellectuals to discuss predecessors including Washington and Nixon.
“His interest in history predated his low approval ratings,” said Peter H. Wehner, the former White House aide who arranged those meetings. “It’s not like he’s grabbing for history; it’s been a constant theme.”
Earlier in his presidency, Bush shrugged off questions about his long-term legacy. When Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward asked him in December 2003 how history would judge the Iraq war, Bush responded: “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”
Yet the recent pattern is clear. In May alone, Bush employed broad historical references in about a dozen speeches and interviews, looking back to the middle of the 20th century and forward to the middle of the 21st. He has focused on similar topics during private GOP fundraisers, according to White House aides. “People can understand it, and people can then understand when the president talks about 60 years from now what we could be enjoying,” said press secretary Dana Perino.
A week before his address at the Air Force Academy, Bush told paratroopers at Fort Bragg, N.C., that “when the history books are written . . . they will show that freedom prevailed.” And during his May trip to the Middle East, Bush told Arab leaders: “Just imagine what this region could look like in 60 years.”
Presidential counselor Ed Gillespie said that many of Bush’s recent remarks have been tied to specific events, such as the 60th anniversary of Israel, and that there is no “retrospective effort” afoot at the White House. “It’s only natural that you would tap into the common history and experiences of our country to derive lessons,” he said.
Vice President Cheney has also argued that history will vindicate Bush. Speaking at a Washington luncheon last week, Cheney recalled that former president Gerald R. Ford was “attacked from every conceivable angle” for pardoning Richard M. Nixon, but he said that “the consensus now is that Gerald Ford did the right thing.”
Former Bush political adviser Karl Rove wrote in National Review last year that the president will be viewed as “a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century.” Rove ticked off successes such as the remaking of humanitarian aid efforts in Africa and the transformation of the political complexion of the federal judiciary.
One of Bush’s lengthiest recent discussions about his legacy occurred in an unlikely venue on May 2, when he took questions from employees at a technology firm near St. Louis. Bush said that he “never wanted to be a war president” and that “sometimes you get dealt a hand you didn’t expect.” He added: “The question is, how do you play it? And here’s how I’m playing it.”
He talked about the World War II service of his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and how the elder Bush fought against a nation, Japan, that is now a key U.S. ally. Referring to the 1940s, President Bush said: “If you’d have thought an American president would stand up and say, ‘My close buddy in dealing with the threats to our countries would be the prime minister of Japan,’ they’d say, ‘Man, you’re nuts, hopelessly idealistic.’ . . . I have found that to be one of the ironic twists of history.”
Yet even as he sought to highlight similarities between past and current conflicts, Bush also stressed the differences. “This is a different kind of war, and it’s hard for some Americans to get their hands around it,” he said. “. . . World War II, there was Germany and Japan and Italy. The Cold War, a big standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. There’s no nation involved in this war.”
Many historians accuse Bush of cherry-picking history to bolster his arguments, in what the late author David Halberstam last year called a “history rummage sale.”
One controversial example emerged during a speech at the Israeli parliament on May 15, when Bush compared talking with “terrorists and radicals,” including Iran, to the appeasement of Nazis before World War II.
The reference was widely seen as an attack on Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — who has said that if elected president, he would talk with Iran’s leaders — although the White House said that was not Bush’s intent. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, seized on Bush’s words to attack Obama.
The argument was muddied by subsequent events, however, including news that Israel has been talking indirectly since 2007 with Syria, which the United States has designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. The comparison was also undermined by the Bush administration’s negotiations with states such as North Korea.
Some historians are particularly critical of Bush’s frequent references to Truman, who had an even lower approval rating than Bush amid opposition to the Korean War. They say Truman’s place in history is elevated by his roles in leading the victory in World War II, creating institutions such as the United Nations and implementing the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe.
“The only connection between Harry Truman and George Bush is that they left office with low opinion numbers,” said historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. “That’s a very thin reed.”
There are dissenters who argue that liberal scholars have let their politics influence their views and that it is too early to render a verdict on Bush. “We’re still arguing about Grant, for goodness’ sake,” said Vincent J. Cannato, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “If all historians are thinking one thing, you have to think something’s wrong.”
Most agree, however, that Iraq will be central to any future assessments. In his critical book about his time as Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan recounts a conversation in 2003 when “the story line was first emerging among the media that the outcome in Iraq would determine his legacy more than anything else.”
“I asked Bush about this,” McClellan writes. “He quickly and confidently replied, No. The war on terror will determine my legacy and how Iraq fits into that will determine my legacy.’ ”
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.