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April 28, 2013 10:22 AM George W. Bush’s Long-Shot Campaign to Be Seen as Another Truman

By Jonathan Alter

BushLibrary

The dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was more than an opportunity for the five living U.S. presidents to compare notes on what Stefan Lorant called “the glorious burden” of the office.

It also was the beginning of Bush’s campaign for rehabilitation. As Bill Clinton said at the ceremony, all presidential libraries are attempts “to rewrite history.”

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.)

Korean War

Like >Iraq in Bush’s era, the Korean War was hugely unpopular when Truman left office in 1953, and his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan was at least as controversial as Bush’s support for torture.

Still, you don’t have to be Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to know that the differences between Bush and Truman are much greater than the similarities. With Korea, Truman was responding to communist aggression, not hyping unconfirmed stories about weapons of mass destruction.

While Truman’s “Marshall Plan” (named for his secretary of state, George C. Marshall) produced spectacular results in postwar Europe, Bush apparently didn’t even have a plan for postwar Iraq.

His decision to disband the Iraqi army was catastrophic. Iraq and the simultaneous neglect of Afghanistan are only the best-known Bush administration fiascos that are all but airbrushed out of the museum, though not out of the historical record.

A broader list would include weakening bank-capital requirements and prohibitions on predatory lending that helped pave the way for the financial crisis; botching the response to Hurricane Katrina; gutting federal rules on worker safety, education, veterans’ affairs and other protections; endorsing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; editing climate- change reports to the specifications of ideologues; reinstating the global gag rule on family planning in deference to right- wing anti-abortion activists, and politicizing appointments to the federal bench and federal law enforcement.

All this is ignored by Bush apologists. Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican operative who last year helped the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, offered a defense of Bush in National Review that sought to absolve him of any blame for the budget deficit. As if the trillion-dollar wars, unaffordable tax cuts, the $550 billion (unpaid-for) prescription-drug benefit and hundreds of billions of lost revenue in the recession that began on his watch could be erased from history.

‘Decision Theater’

The new museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas is cleverly designed to subsume Bush’s record within the burdens of the presidency. It includes a “Decision Theater” that puts visitors in the shoes of a president forced to make tough calls on a variety of pressing issues.

The subtext is that this is an extremely hard job and that you, the visitor, couldn’t do it any better than Bush did.

While this may make for a thought-provoking museum experience, it’s a low bar for presidential performance. Allowing for some mistakes, we should admire our presidents not because they have to face tough decisions but for making the right ones.

The “moral clarity” that is Bush’s claim to presidential respectability is only worth something if it results in clear achievement.

As a sign that even Bush knows his batting average on big decisions was low, the museum barely mentions Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other officials who helped him make them.

Cheney’s churlish behavior and frequent shots at President Barack Obama over the last four years have made Bush, who has refrained from criticism, look restrained and classy by comparison.

But you can’t flush a disastrous war down the memory hole. At the dedication, the word “Iraq” wasn’t mentioned once, and the museum covers the subject in a section devoted to “the Global War on Terror.”

Continuing to conflate Iraq with the Sept. 11 attacks is an insult to truth that historians will never be able to overlook.

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.

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Jonathan Alter , a columnist for Bloomberg View, is the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One." He is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • Tony Greco on April 29, 2013 11:13 AM:

    I agree with everything you've written, but it's worth pointing to some more similarities between Bush and Truman. Truman, like Bush, prided himself on his decisiveness. Both men were moralists with a low tolerance for ambiguity--they saw the world in simple, black and white terms of right and wrong. Historians will continue to debate the origins of the Cold War, but only the ultra orthodox deny Truman some share of responsibility, along with Joe Stalin, for letting it escalate out of hand in the early post war years. Truman and his administration actively and consciously fomented an overly alarmist view of the Soviet threat, laying the basis for the anti-communist hysteria that distorted US politics and foreign policy for decades to come. The consequences were arguably even more damaging than those of the Iraq War.

  • Rich on April 30, 2013 9:11 AM:

    Truman had worked hard to differentiate himself from the machine that produced him and went after wasteful spending during WWII. He also helped rehabilitate Herbert Hoover by appointing him to a commission to review government spending. Truman was an actual populist. Bush was a bad attempt at portraying one. Truman benefited greatly from FDR's advisors and the high level of post WWII planning for the economy that already had taken place during the FDR administration; however, he was not a prisoner of those advisors or polices whereas Bush was. Also, Truman didn't bring any weird Oedipal baggage into his presidency. His wife genuinely hated Washington whereas that always seemed to be a pose with with both Bushes. Truman's daughter may have been a weak pianist, but she didn't wind up drunk on the floor in Georgetown like the Bush girls.

    Truman was rehabilitated in the wake of the Nixon administration and Watergate, along with his nemesis, Eisenhower. It would take a far greater crisis to make the Bush II presidency look good.

  • Dan on April 30, 2013 10:16 PM:

    "The bullhorn is in the museum. And so is the bull."

    Nicely concluded! An aptly done article, all around.

  • John Danahy on May 03, 2013 11:10 AM:

    Greco's observation above re Truman's share of responsibility for the Cold War is one I've not heard before. I'm sure there are many valid arguments for such. I see it as a "buck" stopping at his desk about which a decision had to be made. One I believe did not serve him with any overt political purpose. His transparency would not likely have allowed it. His affirmation of the strength of character and honestly that must be of the Office of President, did much that can be looked up to, and I hope will be looked up to by Pres. Obama and all future presidents...and all in politics.

  • Julemry on May 08, 2013 8:42 AM:

    I find it hilarious that Dubya has his very own Prezeedent Lieberry, because I'm pretty sure he didn't read past the first paragraph of any report sent to him. He is an abysmal failure, and watching the Lieberry dedication, I am pretty sure he knows he was a terrible President. What a joke.

  • dyinglikeflies on May 20, 2013 4:58 AM:

    Dedicating a library to Bush is like naming a battleship after Jeanette Rankin.