Presidencies hewn by war
WASHINGTON — 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.
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."
"Johnson was always someone who worked tirelessly on issues in the Senate, and practiced a lot of deception," he says. "The same characteristics played out in Vietnam, especially the deceptive part, which worked to his disadvantage. He was always trying to make the war sound better than it was."
Bush, too, speaks in sanguine, forceful terms about the war he has just embarked upon - a war aimed not only at destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and overthrowing its government, but also at turning the entire Middle East into a bastion of democracy. Critics, moreover, say he has deceived the American public into believing war is the only way to protect the United States from Mr. Hussein.
But unlike his fellow Texan, he shows no signs of becoming overly immersed in detail. As a self-acknowledged nonexpert on foreign policy, Bush relies on his advisers, most of whom came into office believing Hussein had to be overthrown.
"If I had to put George W. Bush closest to another president, I would do it to plain-spoken Harry Truman, who was straightforward, not charismatic, much to the point," says David Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington.
But for Bush to succeed, says Ambassador Abshire, he has to become a "grand strategist" in the vein of a Dwight Eisenhower - and in particular, he has a lot of work to do to shore up the United States' image abroad and the flailing global economy.
Some historians see a Woodrow Wilson-esque grand vision in Bush's talk about bringing democracy to the Middle East. But in another important respect, Bush is the antithesis of Wilson: He is embarking on war with a narrow coalition, in contrast with the vision of broad collective security that became a hallmark of Wilson's presidency.
Wilson was determined to focus on domestic issues, but became embroiled in foreign policy, and eventually World War I. Bush entered office much the same way. So far, he has not dropped his ambitious domestic goals of cutting taxes and reforming Medicare. Yet history is littered with presidents who tried to have it all, but had to give up on domestic goals in favor of pressing foreign concerns.
For Wilson, progressivism came to a halt in April 1917, when the US entered the war. Franklin Roosevelt went from being Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win the War. Truman's Fair Deal was killed off by the Korean War. Johnson's war on poverty bit the dust when the Vietnam War took center stage.
For all these presidents, war was a transforming experience. In turn, the nation was transformed. World War I brought a period of isolationism. World War II gave birth to the United Nations. Now, after the US decision to go to war without UN support, the future of that body's security component is in question.
"A president can act wisely, as Bush did with 9/11," says Robert Dallek, a historian at Boston University. "Then there's the danger he'll overreach."