(Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The Second Coming of George W. Bush

The public image of the 43rd President of the United States has undergone a surprising revival

Artillery Row

For some, there is little to no discontinuity between George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump, claiming that the Republican Party of 2000 paved the way for the GOP of 2020. These criticisms usually appear whenever Bush seems wholesome in the public, such as when he and Ellen DeGeneres were spotted together at a Dallas Cowboys football game or when he offered a cough drop to his friend Michelle Obama.

Commentators, eager to clamp down on any sort of positive feelings toward Bush, disparage these moments as little more than a cynical attempt at rehabilitation. Following Bush’s speech at the Flight 93 National Memorial, commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the cycle of praise and disapproval repeated itself like clockwork.

Despite the praise Bush received from some liberal and conservative pundits for his allusion to the 6 January insurrectionists and the 9/11 terrorists as “children of the same foul spirit,” there has been plenty of backlash as well.

Unsurprisingly, former president Trump was quick to respond that, “The World Trade Center came down during his watch. Bush led a failed and uninspiring presidency. He shouldn’t be lecturing anybody!” But again, amidst the supportive comments for Bush, the New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie responded to Bush’s speech rebutted, “You can draw a straight line from the ‘war on terror’ to the 6 January attack on the Capitol,” arguing, “Bush is one of the leading architects of our present crisis.”

But despite such condemnations, Bush’s public image and reputation among historians has been on the rise. Since leaving Office, Bush has experienced a steady incline in C-SPAN’s Presidential Leadership Survey, now ranked at 29th from 33rd in 2017 and 36th in 2009. What can account for this change in attitude among historians? Is it merely the contrast in character between Bush and Trump, or is a deeper historical revisionism of the age of Bush underway?

One popular Twitter account offers daily reminders of the rancour that was directed at Bush

It is worth remembering that even before taking office Bush was met with virulent condemnation. Much of this can be ascribed to the narrowness of Bush’s presidential victory, losing the popular vote but winning the electoral college by a single vote, as well as the outcome of Bush V. Gore. Not only that, but many Americans thought of him as a pale comparison to his father, an undeserving frat boy, and an intellectual lightweight. Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, commented by phone that: “His mistakes as president reinforced so many of these opinions and only intensified the feeling that Bush was unfit and illegitimate.”

The caricatures of Bush tended to render him as either a clueless cowboy who was easily manipulated by the likes of Dick Cheney, or as a warmongering theocrat eager to bring about the Christian apocalypse. The portrayal of Bush as the right’s useful idiot has been particularly enduring, as seen in Will Ferrell’s portrayal of Bush on SNL, Oliver Stone’s W. (2008), and Adam McKay’s Vice (2018).

As noted by David Martin Jones and M. L. R. Smith’s study of music produced in response the War of Terror, frequent protest songs released throughout the War in Iraq featured “ad hominem attacks on Bush’s character and the general charge that the War on Terror was simply a pretext for a war-for-oil.” One popular Twitter account, “G.W. Bush-era Leftism”, offers daily reminders of the rancour that was directed at Bush, particularly with constant artistic allusions to Hitler.

Most shocking were the conspiracy theories which claimed Bush knew or was somehow involved in the 9/11 plot, supposedly using it as a pretence for war and to profit. Throughout the 2000s, survey after survey revealed that a significant amount of Democratic voters entertained the idea that “George W. Bush intentionally allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place” — a feeling that is still alive and well today. As time has gone on, people’s selective memory about the Bush years have led many to forget that most Americans, as well as most members of Congress, supported the War in Iraq at first.

But Bush had plenty of critics on the right as well. The whole concept of an “alternative-right” grew out of 80’s era disputes between so called neoconservatives and paleo-conservatives. During the George W. Bush administration, the conflict was renewed. In addition to some paleoconservative stalwarts like Patrick Buchanan, the critics were a loose group of conservatives and libertarians who were bound together by their hatred of Bush and opposition the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Founded in 2002, The American Conservative relentlessly attacked Bush, even encouraging its readers to support John Kerry. Buchanan indicted the Bush Doctrine and dubbed the 43rd president “Woodrow W. Bush.” These paleo-conservatives took Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” as an attack on “real” conservatism. But even 9/11 conspiracy theorists could be bipartisan, with Republican figures like Ron Paul and Greg Brannon, playing footsies with 9/11 truthers.

C-SPAN Presidential Historians Survey 2021

When asked about the changes in Bush’s public image, presidential historians and pundits have typically pointed to the comparison of Bush’s compassionate conservatism with Trump’s vulgar national populism as primary factor. Stephen F. Knott, author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, told me:

I definitely think Bush’s reputation has rebounded partly due to Trump, although I think there are limits to how far his reputation will climb. Two (now) unpopular wars and a significant economic collapse make it hard to foresee Bush climbing all that high on those perpetual polls of presidential greatness.

Barbara A. Perry, on the other hand, is more optimistic, remarking that:

I think it is fair to say Trump has helped, but you cannot attribute it all to Trump. His post-presidential activities, especially his painting in the service of veterans and immigrants has certainly helped, as well as his other humanitarian work. People can also relate to losing a parent, and people felt his palpable grief after his father passed away.

In a nod to one of his classic “Bushisms,” her advice was to not “misunderestimate” George W. Bush.

Matthew Continetti, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, compared Bush’s budding comeback to that of Harry S. Truman’s. Truman left the presidency as an unpopular figure due to a lagging economy and an ongoing war in Korea.

Yet in the face of the Watergate scandal and the Cold War, Truman’s image rebounded, appreciated for his accountability and integrity. Following the collapse of the USSR, Truman’s efforts to contain and combat communism aboard were seen as vindicated in the works of Robert Dallek and David McCullough.

According to Continetti, “As we move further away from the Bush years, it might happen to him too. Time really does heal some wounds.” The Bulwark’s Bill Kristol echoed similar sentiments, observing that while Bush’s revaluation is “partly due to Trump,” he suspected “something more is going on.” Recalling the heated atmosphere of the Bush years, Kristol remarked, “People do lose all prospect in the moment, and with distance, as well as mediation and perspective, historians can re-examine things and come to new conclusions.”

Every president connected to slavery has faced ongoing revaluations

It should be noted that historians have also changed their minds about numerous presidents. Over the decades, Ulysses S. Grant and Jimmy Carter have undergone some of the most dramatic reassessments. Even party-bias has been overcome in some studies, as Democratic darling John F. Kennedy’s anti-communism has also been praised by conservative commentators, just as conservative juggernaut Ronald Reagan’s enduring appeal has been appreciated by liberal biographers and historians. But just as some have come to value underappreciated qualities in and efforts from former presidents, with new facts or cultural trends, historical revisionism can also re-examine darker elements of past presidencies.

Every president connected to slavery, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, has faced ongoing revaluations, being viewed by many current historians as either weak-willed hypocrites or villainous slavers.

In the light of the #MeToo movement and the changing views on NAFTA, Bill Clinton has faced a new wave of disapproval from the public and seen his presidential ranking slip. Even Abraham Lincoln, the reigning champ of C-Span’s Presidential Historians Survey, has found himself the subject of revaluation due to accusations that he reluctantly ended slavery and didn’t promote racial equality.

Time, distance, and current events (as well as declassification and retirements from political life) will no doubt see the production of new studies, memoirs, and histories of the Bush presidency. One already on the horizon for publication later this year is John Robert Greene’s The Presidency of George W. Bush, which promises to challenge the notion that the Bush presidency was “a complete failure” and, despite its numerous shortcomings, claims “the Bush administration was responsible for many positive achievements.”

Some of Bush’s harshest historical critics have started to re-evaluate their analyses, such as Sean Wilentz, Princeton historian and long-time Clintonian Democrat. Wilentz had once called Bush a contender for the status of worst president ever, but has recently reconsidered some of his condemnations, even complimenting how Bush in the wake of 9/11 “rallied the country’s spirit while cautioning Americans not to turn their grief and outrage into reprisals against Muslims.”

Bush has concentrated on the present, focusing on his humanitarian work, leaving the past to historians

In a recent post for Arc Digital, Cathy Young — herself no fan of Bush — sympathetically emphasised the “unprecedented crisis” Bush faced following 9/11, reminding readers that many of Bush’s efforts in the War on Terror were “overwhelmingly supported and even demanded by traumatised Americans”. Even so, with the Iraq War behind us, the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the apparent end to the War on Terror, no doubt critical works focused on those conflicts will continue to question their efficacy.

George W. Bush is aware of his controversial status and poor standing among historians. But while his vice president, Dick Cheney, has been defensive about their choices, Bush has generally chosen to stay out of the public eye, rarely commenting on politics (much to the disappointment of Never Trump Republicans during the 2020 Election).

Instead, Bush has concentrated on the present, focusing on his humanitarian work, leaving the past to historians. This was made clear upon the publication of his presidential memoir, Decision Points, which ended with the statement, “Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it. That’s a decision point only history will reach.” Bush has surrendered his presidency to the longer judgement of history, and hindsight is rarely 20/20.

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