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How Will History Judge Bush?

CGS Prof Tom Whalen on #43’s legacy


Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social science in the College of General Studies. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Like the great state of Texas, George W. Bush’s presidency was big. He entered the White House on the heels of a controversial election that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, and just eight months after taking the oath of office, he faced a series of terrorism attacks on American soil that left nearly 3,000 dead.

During the seven years that followed, Bush declared “a global war on terror” and began wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He cut taxes three times, tried to privatize Social Security, worked to combat AIDS in Africa, named two new Supreme Court justices, and changed the federal role in elementary and secondary education.

It was the best of terms, and then it was the worst. When the United States began air strikes against Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, Bush had a 92 percent approval rating — the highest on record. But two wars, the devastation brought about by Hurricane Katrina, and the current economic crisis changed all that. During his second term, he did not once attain a majority of public approval — a feat unseen in 70 years of presidential approval polls.

Today, as Bush relinquishes his presidential duties to Barack Obama and rides off into the proverbial Texas sunset, Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social science in Boston University’s College of General Studies, and the author of A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage, reflects upon the 43rd president’s eight years in office and predicts how he will be remembered in the decades to come.

BU Today: How did Bush shape the Republican Party during his presidency?
I think Bush turned the Republican Party to the far right and narrowed its appeal even more than Ronald Reagan did during the 1980s. The evangelical Christian right of the Deep South now defines the Republican Party. And in the long term, that’s going to hurt the Republican Party as a national force in American political affairs, because its base doesn’t reflect the demographic changes that have taken place in America during the 20th century.

What are those demographic changes?
During the last 50 years, the country has become increasingly nonwhite and more diverse. In terms of positions on key issues — from health care to taxes to Social Security — Americans are more to center-left than center-right. Bush has steered his party on a course that puts it out of touch with the majority of Americans, and I think that’s disastrous for the Republican Party.

What events shaped the path of Bush’s presidency?
Well, September 11, of course, and his subsequent decision to declare war on Iraq. The Iraq debacle has had major domestic economic ramifications. I think it’s no accident that we’re in such a bad economic situation, because so many of our resources were poured into the war, which in turn devalued our currency and ran up the national deficit. Just as we are militarily stretched thin, we’ve been stretched thin financially by this war.

I think Hurricane Katrina was the turning point in Bush’s administration, because it really demonstrated his laissez-faire approach to the presidency. This was a national disaster of epic proportions — we have a major metropolitan city that will never be the same — and his response? “Heckuva job, Brownie.” It was disgraceful. I think he lost the country after Katrina.

And, of course, then we had last summer’s soaring gas prices, followed by the crisis on Wall Street — a financial meltdown that was on a scale that we haven’t seen since 1929.

What were Bush’s best moments during his presidency?
Bush was very proactive in helping to relieve the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and that’s a major achievement. His administration poured a lot of resources into providing medical support to fight AIDS, which has absolutely devastated the continent, and I don’t think he’s gotten nearly enough credit for those efforts. And, despite its problems, I think Bush also deserves credit for the No Child Left Behind Act. Whether it’s actually working is another thing, but it was well-intentioned, and more importantly, it was one of the few times he worked in a bipartisan way with Democrats, particularly with Senator Ted Kennedy.

During his 2000 campaign, Bush promised to be a uniter — did he fulfill that promise?
More so than any other president, Bush pitted Americans against one another, and he did it deliberately, because in all of his policies and all of his political responses he catered to his conservative Republican base — the people who put him in the White House. He promised to bring bipartisanship to the Oval Office, but the very means by which he entered the White House kind of doomed his presidency from the start, and his actions during the subsequent eight years served to divide the country even further.

But the country did unite after the September 11 attacks.
For a short time, yes. After September 11, Bush had the world’s sympathy. But ultimately his presidency will be judged by his decision to declare war on Iraq, and Iraq had nothing to do with September 11. Saddam Hussein was contained as a threat, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and Bush knew that. Yet he chose to put America’s military resources into Iraq. It was a strategic blunder — probably the worst in American history, because we lost all of the goodwill that America had gained after September 11. I think history will judge Bush harshly for that decision because he squandered America’s moral authority around the world.

Do you think public opinion of Bush will soften in years to come?
I think it depends on how things turn out during the upcoming decades. When Herbert Hoover left office in 1933, he left the country a disaster zone, and he’s still vilified. When Bill Clinton left office, people were disappointed in him, but I think they also realized everything Clinton had done for the country. Bush inherited a surplus — a prosperous nation — from Clinton, and he ran it into the ground. Iraq is falling apart, Afghanistan is still a mess, men and women are losing their lives by the thousands in both countries, and thousands of people are losing their jobs. And there’s no end in sight. Given the level of carnage domestically and abroad, I don’t think people are going to forgive Bush any time soon.

What do you think Bush’s long-term legacy will be?
If Barack Obama can’t turn things around over the next four to eight years, the United States’ world status will decline markedly. And when historians look back, just as they look back to determine the decline of the British Empire, they’ll point to Bush as the turning point of when things went awry and the United States entered its downward spiral in world affairs. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but if things don’t turn around, Bush will rightfully deserve a lot of the responsibility for reversing our country’s world position.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.


18 Comments on How Will History Judge Bush?

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 5:51 am

    Come now... Tell the truth...

    This is just not true. Bush’s stance on immigration and allowing illegals to have a path to citizenship is NOT taking the country far right. Neither is pouring huge sums of money into bailouts a far right effort. There are numerous other examples that you failed to cite.

  • Brian Michaud on 01.20.2009 at 6:59 am

    Interesting Perspective, but...

    First, I’d like to say that I am no big fan of President Bush. However, let’s not put blame where it doesn’t belong.

    “Bush turned the Republican Party to the far right…” Not really. In many respects, Bush’s policies were much more liberal than most Republicans would like. A quick example is his support of the auto industry bailout.

    “And, of course, then we had last summer’s soaring gas prices, followed by the crisis on Wall Street — a financial meltdown that was on a scale that we haven’t seen since 1929.” The gas prices were purely market-driven. If you do not agree, then we should be cheering him for the lowering of gas prices now. The problems on Wall Street stem from bad governmental policies that have nothing to do with the Bush administration. Markets rise and markets fall. Part of our current problem stems from the failure of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – a product of Congressmen like Barney Frank. It is noble to want everyone to share the American dream of owning a home – if they are willing to work for it and take responsibility.

    “Bush inherited a surplus — a prosperous nation — from Clinton, and he ran it into the ground.” Um, no. The stock market hit its high in the summer of 2000, and then the dot-com bubble burst. Bush inherited a mini-recession from Clinton.

    It is difficult to prove a negative. After September 11th, there have been no more terrorist attacks on US soil. We know that the policies taken by the TSA are not flawless, so it is hard to put a finger on why we were able to divert this crisis. I sincerely hope that President Obama will be able to have such a claim at the end of his presidency. Bob Schieffer recently asked Dick Cheney if he and President Bush went “too far” in their surveillance of Americans. If the federal government retracts its policies, when will we know we’ve gone too far the other way? And how many lives will it cost?

    I wish the best of luck to our incoming president, Barak Obama. He is facing one of the most challenging times America has faced since WWII. To blame Bush for this is not the correct route, though. The economic crisis is worldwide, but we are still a pillar of strength. (The Euro and the British pound have lost 25% of their value vs. the dollar in the last six months.) Terrorism will be a central issue in world politics for years to come. Maybe Obama will be better than Bush at putting a positive face on Americanism so we can work unilaterally to combat this critical problem.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 7:49 am

    Declared war on Iraq?

    Twice in this article Whalen states that President Bush declared war on Iraq. It bears pointing out that only Congress has the power to declare war.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 10:25 am

    Bush a rightist?

    I think this analysis is far from objective. Re: Katrina, neither the storm nor the response was the federal government’s fault. Bush did not take the Republican Party to the right — that idea is a factual error. Ask any Republican and you’ll hear just the opposite. McCain’s moderate slant was obviously unsuccessful; it wasn’t till Palin got on the ticket that the Republican base was even enthusiastic. And government bailouts are hardly a conservative idea — most conservatives I know think the banks and the automakers should be allowed to collapse: market forces at work. BTW I own GM and Chrysler products.

    Bush’s big fault: a failure of communication — he failed to manipulate the media. Reagan was a master at it, so is Obama.

    And no, I’m not a Republican, I just recognize bias when I see it. I hope our new president can do his job and be thoughtfully critiqued, but without being continually blamed and faulted like Bush was.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 10:55 am

    More of BU's left-biased BS

    Is it not possible to find an alternative viewpoint? Would they even try? Way to be objective; at least put this in an Opinions section.

    Isn’t anyone tired of this kind of propaganda which seems to permeate from the campus?

  • SH on 01.20.2009 at 11:01 am

    I'd like to get a 2nd opinion.

    I felt this was a very biased article. It would’ve been nice to have this interview juxtaposed with an interview expressing a different view. Like others have mentioned, many, many, many other examples of the Bush administration have been left out. Even today’s economic crisis may be attributed to the Clinton administration. Unfortunately, it seems that people just like to blame President Bush for everything. I think in years to come, as events unfold, and as cause and effect become clear, History will not judge Bush as harshly as the world today has.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 11:03 am


    You note “Iraq is falling apart” in your commentary….having completed 3 tours there, I think while your statement is accurate circa 2005-6, you fail to acknowledge there has been tremendous progress in that region and ironically a prosperous Iraq free from a dictator might be a “positive” down the road for the Bush administration, but of course only time will tell…..the league of Iraqi women voters to whom I spoke with in southern Iraq seem to bear out the positive progress.

    It will be interesting to see if nothing positive happens over the next two years for the economy what this might mean to the Democratic party currently running both houses of Congress and of course running horrific approval ratings as well…. I think it’s a bit premature to ring the death knell of the Republican party as your article intimates. The same arguments were made during the Clinton administration and then the Repubs took both houses. This talk of continued bail-out will hit a tipping point. I hope for the Dems sake they’ve got other options other than spending, or else John Q. Public will turn. In addition, I think Bobby Jindal and Michael Steele would also disagree with your assessment of the Republican party not reaching out to “minorities.” Thanks for posting the article…I enjoyed reading it.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 11:07 am

    Historical legacy isn't about details

    While there are valid and specious refutations of Tom Whalen’s points available – this article attempts to paint with a broad brush how history will percieve US president #43. Since history is normally percieved with a broad brush it is indeed the big picture that matters.

    …………………………………The Iraq war was the product of Bush/Cheney – despite the technicalities of who declares war.

    ……………………………….. The attack of Sept 11 transformed #43 from the ‘vacation/do nothing’ president to the Iraq occupation president. It was and will be percieved as a transforming moment.

    ………………………………… Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae problems are a direct result of lack of government oversight in the executive branch. While this issue mostly happened under #41 and was continued by #42, since the chickens came home to roost under #43, president #43 and his response will probably be the butt of history.

    ………………………………… Any realistic assessment of the present economic woes has to include the incredible drain of an overseas war. History is full of the cost of warfare as turning points, and it is modern hubris to assume the opening of the 21st century will be judged any differently.

    ………………………………… The major flaw I see in the article is the belief that AIDS and No Child Left Behind will be part of the Bush Legacy. If he gets no credit for AIDS in Africa now, unless there is a major reversal in the next year he wont get credit in the future – US and Europe will go down in History as ignoring the crisis / responding too late. No child Left Behind, a largely unfunded beaurocratic dream, will in my opinion quickly slide into the dustbin of historical memory.

    ………………………………… As a broad brush view of presidency #43, this article achieves it’s purpose. It may not catch on, history is fickle, but history still may adopt the bumper sticker judgement ‘Worst President Ever’

  • kcornuelle on 01.20.2009 at 11:15 am

    Biased? Are you kidding?

    Bush is the epitome of false patriotism evoked in Samuel Johnson’s quote: Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

  • SH on 01.20.2009 at 11:30 am

    Can we get a 2nd opinion?

    I feel this article was extremely biased and would’ve been good for it to have been juxtaposed with an interview expressing a different opinion. As others have mentioned, MANY examples from Bush’s administration have been left out. Even today’s economic crisis should be attributed to the Clinton administration. Unfortunately, it seems people just like to blame Bush for everything negative. I believe after time has passed, after cause and effect become clear, History will not judge Bush as harshly as our age has.

  • Yours Truly on 01.20.2009 at 12:13 pm

    The country will judge him how they want to judge him.
    How they saw him as a president, what he did and what he didn’t do. Simple as that, simple as every president that has held position in office. We all see the things he did differently, so at the moment you cannot define how “history” will judge him. Get a life, Yours Truly

  • Jacob on 01.20.2009 at 1:31 pm

    This is absurd. The ideas that a) Bush took the Republican party further right, b) that this would be DANGEROUS for a largely CONSERVATIVE party, and c) that the country is center-left, are all ridiculous statements, and don’t bother giving me any crap about Obama winning the election–that doesn’t all of the sudden make the country center-left.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 3:00 pm

    Profiles in Courage

    The irony here is that Professor Whalen is the author of a book called “A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage”, which is about presidents who refused to sacrifice principle for the sake of political expediency. One may or may not agree with President Bush’s policies, but any honest observer must concede that he made and stuck with more politically inexpedient decisions – the Iraq War, Social Security Reform, tax cuts, aggressive interrogation and intelligence gathering protocols, and Wall Street bailouts, to name just a few – than any other president in modern history. Barack Obama has already embraced multiple conflicting positions on each of these issues, always tacking with political winds. George Bush never sacrificed his convictions for popularity’s sake, and he dissented from his own partys’s orthodoxy (on immigration, campaign finance reform, and federal spending) to a degree that would be unthinkable for a Democrat. It would be nice if his critics in academia could acknowledge this obvious truth, but I suppose that is why you won’t find “Profiles in Professorial Courage” at Barnes & Noble anytime soon.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 3:36 pm

    Bush in his last 4 years has brought the country much more to the left. He was promoting bailing out whole industries against his own party.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 5:47 pm

    How will history judge Bush?


  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 6:49 pm

    Whalen clearly lacks the ability to address a subject with any degree of objectivity. President Brown – please remove these left wing ideologues from our campus.

  • Catherine on 01.21.2009 at 9:42 am

    Biased article?

    Points of view are just that – opinions – and Prof Whalen is certainly entitled to his. I happen to think that Bush’s major blunder was surrounding himself with old buddies (regardless of their qualifications) who merely echoed his own views rather than encouraging healthy debate and discussion. Dissent was systematically squashed.

    My other big problem with him is this seeming attitude that the executive branch is somehow above or outside of the law. This is not a monarchy. We should all be held accountable to the same standards of the law.

    On a final note, I for one do acknowledge Bush’s great contribution to fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa and I would venture to say that many Africans do as well.


  • Anonymous on 01.21.2009 at 6:45 pm

    here is the truth

    i am more than positive that President bush was the worst president in the us history. his international policies failed. he was responsible for killing a lots of civilians( people that have nothing to do with the terrorists…) i dont know what the hell he was thinking. he raised up a lot of hate in front of the international contries. Bush was a killer(indirectly). i think i will be a better president. he did nothing but bring tears into families and communities overseas. i pay taxes and guess what he sends my money and other felow americans to israel so they can bomb palastin. wow wow wow , i just can t believe he is doing so. if i had the power i would of put him in jail for all his life.

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