Political Animal


April 30, 2013 4:27 PM Bush as Truman

By Ed Kilgore

Having celebrated Jonathan Alter earlier today, while also writing some more about the George W. Bush retrospective we’ve all been wallowing in, I want to call your attention to a new Alter piece at Ten Miles Square that looks at the Bush “legacy” from W.’s own point-of-view. He quite naturally wants to be remembered as a great president who was initially underestimated. And his model in that respect is Harry S. Truman:

Bush’s ultimate goal — already hawked by his former political adviser Karl Rove — is to become another Harry S. Truman, a regular-guy commander-in-chief whose stock rose sharply about 20 years after he left office.

The superficial comparisons are intriguing. Vice President Truman only became president because Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. The failed haberdasher and product of the Kansas City political machine was unlikely to make it to the top on his own. He was a plain-spoken, unpretentious man who cared enough about racial injustice that he desegregated the armed forces.
Bush became president because he was born on third base, to paraphrase Texas Governor Ann Richards’s quip about his father, and because of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000; an unexceptional man who drank heavily until he was 40 probably wouldn’t have made it on his own. He’s a blunt, compassionate conservative who, as Jimmy Carter pointed out at the dedication, saw the ravages of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere and did something about it. (Bush also appointed two black secretaries of state.)

But the analogy falls apart pretty quickly, as the Bush Library dedication itself demonstrated. For all of Bush’s let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may self-description as “The Decider,” Iraq was not even mentioned in the event. The Bush Museum it opened also gives Iraq short shrift, and barely mentions Bush’s vice president and secretary of defense. Truman was a “warts-and-all” kind of guy. W. requires a great deal of airbrushing. Alter concludes:

On Sept. 14, 2001, I was in the White House press pool and was 5 feet from Bush as he stood atop a crushed truck as rescue workers at Ground Zero shouted that they couldn’t hear the president speak.
“I can hear you! I can hear you,” Bush said through a bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was a defining moment for his presidency.
The problem that Bush can never get around is that “the people who knocked these buildings down” —- namely, Osama bin Laden — didn’t hear from Bush, while others unconnected to the attacks did.
The bullhorn is in the museum. And so is the bull.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • sjw on April 30, 2013 4:35 PM:

    Jonathan Alter wrote a powerful column several years ago in which he imagined the alternate future had Gore won in 2000 instead of Bush. It had me in tears.

    P.S. And thank you Sandra Day O'Connor for telling us now that the Supreme Court decision giving the election to Bush was probably a mistake.

  • fry1laurie on April 30, 2013 5:11 PM:

    I've always had trouble with the idea that Bush said something heroic in his bull(sht)horn moment. The first responders and firefighters basically told him to "speak up," but as any good politician did Bush turned the tables to make a political speech.

  • c u n d gulag on April 30, 2013 5:16 PM:

    Since comments on the last post are, apparently, denied, I'll put here, what I intended for there - with, a brief comment:

    Republicans knew their policies were so unpopular, that they were even forced, in the late 90's, to paint a sociopathic fratboy cheerleader, as a "Compassionate Conservative," in order to even stay close in the 2000 election.

    W had plenty of sociopathic Conservatism, but sadly, almost none of the former compassion.

    The question I have regarding W is, was it because the party allowed an inexperienced, but potentially sociopathic @$$clown like him, to have an experienced, and truly sociopathic @$$clown like Dick Cheney, to be W's VP? Thus, making a potentially vicious, but ignorant, naif, into arguably the worst President in our nation's history?

    The Republican Party gladly left W to take the heat of his disasterous mis-administration's brutally bad, and stupid, judgements, because, as always, Conservatism never, ever, NOT NEVER EVER, fails - it can only be failed.

    And, Liz Cheney, who is truly her father's daughter, will be more electable in the future than Jeb, or other Bush's, because of her father's 24k gold Conservative credentials, and Jeb's father's RINO record, and his Young Churchill's brother's ineptitude, which led his party to call him a RINO when the debt at the "All You Can Eat Tax-breaks For the Rich, and Wars and Occupations Buffet" the Chinese were running for them, passed along the bill.


    Any comparison between FDR's, and Harry S. Truman's legacies, and George W. Bush's legacy, will begin and end with FDR's handling of the economy, and a a war with 2 fronts, and, Harry's, "The Marshall Plan."

    FDR successfully marshalled all of the resources America had available, and, unlike Hitler, who also got people back to work, successfully brought about an end to a war with 2 fronts.
    W, 'Young Churchill,' got mired in the muck, in each of his.

    Regarding Truman - had W even thought of allocating the trillions of dollars we will end up spending for his two stupid wars and occupations, into building Afghanistan into something that even vaguely resembled the 21st Century, then the comparison might be more relevant.

    But he did neither.

    Willfully, as it sometimes seems, on unwillingly, his decisions and actions resulted in the closest we as a nation have come, to disaster, since The Great Depression met WWII.

    And I hope it costs his family, and not the US government, the money to keep his grave from being repeatedly desecrated, with human garbage, and precious bodily fluids.

    Not so short, after all.
    Sorry 'bout that!

  • Blue Girl on April 30, 2013 5:42 PM:

    Comparing Bush to Truman? What're ya tryin' to do Ed? Give me another stroke?

  • Robert on April 30, 2013 5:43 PM:

    My first experience of Little George was his high-profile residence in Georgetown, when his daddy was posted to DC. He was a celebrity blue-blood then, the eligible party-boy. No sign of the cowboy boots, or drawl. That affect came later. Back then you could find him drinking from one end of M Street to the other! Then one day he disappeared to Texas. He dropped from the Style pages. Rolling Stone quit reporting his hijinks. The girls quit talking about him. Imagine my surprise when he showed up in the Texas governor's mansion. Imagine everyone's surprise when the SCOTUS appointed him President. Man, them Bush's is different!

  • Bokonon on April 30, 2013 5:47 PM:

    Bush's newly opened presidential library puts forth a revisionist program, in which Bush was a far-sighted leader who served in difficult times, who was criticized unfairly by those awful, terrible Democrats, and that he needs re-appraisal. And they've been planning that for a long time. Hell ... Karl Rove was spinning this line while Bush was STILL PRESIDENT, and was still RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF FOULING THINGS UP. That's pretty revealing.

    In fact, it is more than revealing. It is a big piece of the problem at the core of Bush's presidency.

  • smartek on April 30, 2013 9:32 PM:

    Pedrantry alert!

    It's "Harry S Truman;" no period after the letter "S," which is not an initial letter -- it *is* his middle name, in full. No, I don't get it either, but that's the way it is. (Various websites suggest it was a compromise by his parents, attempting to please both sides of the family.)

    Sorry, I can't help it -- it's in my contract. (See handle.)

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