How Will History Judge Bush?
CGS Prof Tom Whalen on #43’s legacy
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?
Whalen: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org Comments