Presidencies hewn by war
As chief executive, George W. Bush is known for staying on schedule, turning in early, and getting a good night's sleep. Even in the midst of national crises, there is not a hint of second-guessing or agonizing over decisions. When asked how he will be judged by history, he claims not to be concerned. That's for the historians to work out, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Since the start of his term, President Bush has barely changed his routine.
Yet there is nothing routine about Bush's presidency. The Sept. 11-induced war on terrorism has now morphed to include war on Iraq, the first under his so-called "doctrine of preemption." And so Bush has further fixed his place in history, joining a select category of presidents - those who have taken the nation into war. He is gambling that he will join those noted for victory, not defeat.
Historians agree that wars shape presidents. Rankings of America's greatest presidents invariably are topped by those who led the nation successfully through major wars - Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt. All rose to the occasion, communicating effectively and projecting a vision. Even some of those who lost at war and suffered mortal political wounds, such as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, have risen over time in the estimation of historians.
Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton both wished out loud that they had had the chance to show their mettle during a national crisis on the level of a major war.
But George W. Bush has no such complaint. Sept. 11, 2001, handed him the opportunity to lead, and now he has pushed the envelope with a war of choice against his father's nemesis, Saddam Hussein.
Failure in Iraq could end Bush the Son's political career. But victory guarantees nothing: Bush the Elder won the first Gulf War, only to lose reelection over the economy.
For presidents, "the history of postwar America is such that a foreign-policy triumph will not reelect you, but a disaster could kill you," says Allan Lichtman, a history professor at the American University in Washington. "Three presidents since World War II were driven from office from foreign-policy disasters: Truman in '52, Johnson in '68, and [Jimmy] Carter in '80. Carter would have lost anyway, probably, but I'm not sure about '52 and '68."
There is no one personality type best suited to fighting a war, historians say. Lincoln was plain-spoken and prone to bouts of melancholy, but knew how to rally a nation. Franklin Roosevelt was gregarious and charming. "His composure under stress was remarkable," writes biographer James MacGregor Burns. Woodrow Wilson, who led the nation through World War I, has been described as a "dormant volcano."
Truman projected humility and decisiveness - and, like the current President Bush, made decisions and moved on. Johnson, in contrast, personalized the Vietnam War and got bogged down, ruining his health.
"In many ways, I think presidents as leaders in wars pretty much have the same style characteristics as leaders in general," says Gary Hess, a historian at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of the book "Presidential Decisions for War."