Bush's place in the pantheon
A Pulitzer Prize-winning author takes an early look at Bush's place in the American presidential pantheon
STANFORD, CALIF. — History is a stern judge, and stingy, too. As Ronald Reagan once observed (quoting Clare Booth Luce), "no matter how exalted or great a man may be, history will have time to give him no more than one sentence. George Washington - he founded our country. Abraham Lincoln - he freed the slaves and preserved the Union. Winston Churchill - he saved Europe."
What will George W. Bush's single sentence be?
The answer is scarcely obvious. History often shows little respect for the most cherished opinions of contemporaries. Washington, to be sure, was first in the hearts of his countrymen and still sits near the top in most historians' presidential rankings. But Abraham Lincoln, while mocked in his day as an inept rube, and so divisive a figure that his election triggered a civil war, is now all but unanimously acknowledged as the greatest American president. Churchill's colleagues long thought him a dangerously errant dreamer, and British voters in 1945 unceremoniously turfed him out of No.10 Downing Street as a thank-you for winning World War II - but he is today universally regarded as one of the towering world-historical figures of the 20th century.
Examples abound of history's nasty habit of undoing real-time opinions: Herbert Hoover, a famed humanitarian huzzahed into the White House in 1929 as the most competent man of his era, but ever after loathed (not altogether justifiably) as a heartless bungler in the face of the Great Depression; Harry Truman, scorned as a pipsqueak so befuddled that "to err is Truman" became a common taunt, but later elevated to the higher levels of the presidential pantheon as the original architect of America's ultimate victory in the cold war. Such examples warn of the perils of predicting history's final judgments, especially before all the facts are in.
Yet the urge to anticipate history's verdict is nearly irresistible. And the history that President Bush has already made provides some basis for at least a provisional assessment.
Begin with Bush's exceptional life path. How did a fun-loving party animal and amiable but unremarkable governor bulk himself up to become a heavyweight presidential contender? How did a pampered scion of Northeastern citadels of privilege like Andover, Yale, and Harvard successfully repackage himself as an earthy Texas populist? How did such a famously inarticulate man so magnificently find the words to bind up the nation's wounds after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001? All these wondrous transformations suggest that Bush's biographers may well adopt a story line reminiscent of Shakespeare: the morphing of callow Prince Hal into the legendary monarch, Henry V.
Just as the mutations in Bush's personality will pose a challenge to his biographers, so will transformation be a theme that future historians may well put at the center of their appraisals of his presidency.
Bush ran for office as a conciliator, but has governed as a polarizer. (He even threatens to divide his own house, catering to his conservative base on social issues like abortion and gay marriage while outraging the traditional right with big-spending programs like prescription-drug coverage.) He heads the party traditionally associated with strict fiscal discipline, but (like Ronald Reagan), has persuaded a Republican Congress to pass budgets that hemorrhage red ink.
The history books yet to be written may find a pattern amid those apparent inconsistencies. It is a pattern discoverable in the preceding two centuries of the nation's political experience. Students of history - including Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist and a voracious consumer of history books - have for more than 30 years been expecting a fundamental electoral realignment that would award long-term dominance to the Republican party. The curiously rhythmic cycles of American political history suggest that such a transition is long overdue.
Historians identify four "key" elections that turned on unusually impassioned political confrontations, deeply disrupting and redirecting the political loyalties of large numbers of voters. All four produced seismic shifts in the American political landscape, defining the salient issues for a long generation thereafter: westward expansion, slavery, and abolition following Andrew Jackson's election in 1828; civil war, reconstruction, and rapid industrialization after Abraham Lincoln's in 1860; immigration and economic regulation after William McKinley's in 1896; the welfare state and internationalism after Franklin Roosevelt's in 1932. Intriguingly, each of those political eras had a life span of about 3-1/2 decades.
Those precedents inspired political commentator Kevin Phillips to predict in 1968 that Richard Nixon's election would be the segue to the next, Republican-dominated, phase in this uncannily regular cycle. The uproar of the Watergate scandals aborted that development, the theory goes, permitting the anomalies of the Carter interlude and the Clinton "interregnum."
Mr. Rove and others now believe that the long-thwarted arrival of a durable Republican ascendancy is at last imminent, and that Bush's historic mission is to make it happen.
In that view, dividing the house by exploiting hot-button social issues is a political virtue, not a vice. Deficits, in turn, are simply the necessary cost of securing a permanently reduced tax base and thereby taming the monster of big government. Reagan initiated this strategy, and Bush appears to be perfecting it. History may therefore identify a shrewdly calculated and notably disciplined method in the seeming fiscal recklessness of the Bush domestic agenda.
In the realm of foreign policy, extrapolating from historical precedent is more difficult. The world at large is not only bigger and wilder than America, but its history is much less continuous than America's alone. And while presidents might prefer to concentrate on domestic priorities, it is a truism that international problems will nevertheless unerringly find them. Bill Clinton made "the economy, stupid," the centerpiece of his 1992 campaign, but issues arising in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Korea, and the Middle East inevitably found him. On Sept. 11, 2001, catastrophic terrorism spectacularly found Bush.
That event had no antecedent, but it has already had enormous consequences. Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks has defined his presidency, and will almost surely constitute his core story in the history books.
Transformation is again the dominant motif. His speech to the nation on Sept. 20, 2001, conferred upon him an aura of legitimacy that had eluded him since his formal inaugural address nine months earlier. And the events of 9/11 also wrought an epiphany that has transfigured the very premises of American foreign policy.
Bush campaigned against the policy of nation-building, but has audaciously committed to rebuilding not one but two notoriously intractable nations, Afghanistan and Iraq. Candidate Bush had called for America to be a "humble nation," but President Bush has become a globally derided emblem of American arrogance.
Most dramatically, he and his closest advisers, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, have undergone the policy equivalent of a born-again religious conversion. Lifelong realists all, habitually wary of open-ended commitments, critical of rhetorically seductive but impractical goals, and openly contemptuous of the role of idealism in foreign policy, they have embraced an agenda so utopian as to make Woodrow Wilson look like a hard-bitten cynic. They seek nothing less than remaking Iraq in the Western image, thereby changing the political equation of the entire Middle East and beyond. The ultimate goal is not simply to make the world safe for democracy, but to make the entire world democratic.
As the 2002 Bush National Security Strategy document puts it: "We must make use of every tool in our arsenal," to promote in "every corner of the world," the "single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise," and to those ends "the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."
To call those goals bold does not do them even minimal justice. The first President Bush often invoked the virtue of prudence. But Bush No. 43 is a plunger. He has placed a huge bet on the political payoff from his social and economic policies, and he is playing for the highest imaginable stakes in the international arena.
So what will be George W. Bush's one sentence in the history books? That he succeeded in rendering big government a timid relic of its former self, in the process consolidating an enduring Republican hegemony? Or that he bankrupted the country in the name of an outmoded laissez-faire ideology, while once again scotching the dream of long-term Republican rule? That he earned the gratitude of people everywhere for putting the entire planet on the path to achieving "freedom, democracy, and free enterprise," or that he committed the fatal sin of hubris and put the United States on the road to enfeeblement and isolation?
Though history is indeed a stern judge, its verdicts are rarely final. Few historical reputations are uncontested, and disagreement about Bush's presidency will persist as long as memory lasts. As Mark Twain once said, it's difference of opinion that makes for a good horse race. Historians understand the sentiment.
• David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. His most recent book, "Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945," won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for History.