Presidential libraries, like the one that opened last week in Dallas honoring George W. Bush, serve two main purposes: Providing a treasure trove of documents that allows historians to study a distinct period of history and giving a chief executive an opportunity to influence his legacy.
The tone of each of the 12 presidential libraries or museums I’ve visited have reflected the latter effort: Herbert Hoover’s library stresses his life-long humanitarianism, rather than his unsuccessful presidency; Bill Clinton’s portrays his impeachment as a politically motivated “fight for power,” and Richard Nixon’s initially sought to minimize the Watergate scandal.
Bush 43 has often said that his presidential record will speak for itself, and reports on the Bush library suggest its displays echo his 2010 memoir, “Decision Points,” portraying all sides of the controversies that marked his tenure. “People will have to make their own judgment,” he told Dallas Morning News reporter Tom Benning.
That echoes the views of close Bush advisers who say that time will justify some of his most controversial decisions and offset initial judgments by historians and the public that rated his presidency poorly. Indeed, some recent surveys show the public regarding him more favorably, and Stephen Knott, a professor at the U.S Naval War College, contended in The Washington Post last Sunday that initial views regarding Bush may reflect a “partisan rush to judgment” by liberal historians.
Still, a review of key moments in his presidency suggests it may be difficult for future historians to reach different conclusions, and there’s no guarantee the mass of documents and other data in the George W. Bush Presidential Center will necessarily make him look better.
On the domestic side, Bush’s reputation will suffer from the fact that he entered the White House at the end of the Clinton economic boom, with the federal budget balanced and the forecast for additional surpluses. He left amid the deepest economic recession since the 1930s, with budget deficits soaring after his tax cuts produced only modest growth.
Elsewhere, his record is mixed. Bush expanded Medicare to include prescription drugs but without revenue to pay the cost. Congress enacted his No Child Left Behind Education program, which enforced stricter standards on local schools. But its emphasis on expanded testing has created a nationwide backlash.
He was widely criticized for the slow response when the massive Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. His effort to add a private component to the Social Security system failed amid widespread bipartisan opposition.
Ultimately, though, Bush’s reputation depends mostly on how he handled events stemming from the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, such as his decisions to attack al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan and oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
Bush got high marks for rallying the nation after 9/11 and for the initial efforts in Afghanistan. But he was criticized for switching resources to attack Iraq before finishing the Afghanistan fight, and his claim that attacking Iraq was necessary because Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction proved false.
After Hussein’s ouster, both wars bogged down until domestic pressures forced Bush to agree to withdraw from Iraq and his successor, Barack Obama, to implement it. Most analysts now regard the war as a major disaster costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars while leaving Iraq a troubled, divided country.
One major unresolved question is whether Bush and his top advisers were asleep at the switch after they received reports of a potential terrorist attack using commercial planes a month before 9/11. After the attack, political reaction was muted, but ultimately historians will have to confront it.
An area that seems less likely to be known is the relationship between Bush and his presidential father, though we know some of the latter’s close advisers criticized the son’s decision to invade Iraq.
Some who have seen the museum have noted it plays down the roles of advisers like Vice President Dick Cheney who pushed for attacking Iraq and soft-pedals the conservatism that guided some domestic moves, including his two Supreme Court nominations.
“I felt the museum was trying to show him as more of a centrist president than an arch-conservative,” Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview with The News.
Bush loyalists often cited Harry Truman as the model of a president whose contemporaneous controversial decisions looked far better with time. Still, a lot of historical judgments will need to change for that to happen to George W. Bush.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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