Historian Sean Wilentz looks at the Bush presidency in historical terms.
George W. Bush’s presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.
No historian can responsibly predict the future with absolute certainty. There are too many imponderables still to come in the two and a half years left in Bush’s presidency to know exactly how it will look in 2009, let alone in 2059. There have been presidents — Harry Truman was one — who have left office in seeming disgrace, only to rebound in the estimates of later scholars. But so far the facts are not shaping up propitiously for George W. Bush. He still does his best to deny it. Having waved away the lessons of history in the making of his decisions, the present-minded Bush doesn’t seem to be concerned about his place in history. “History. We won’t know,” he told the journalist Bob Woodward in 2003. “We’ll all be dead.”
Another president once explained that the judgments of history cannot be defied or dismissed, even by a president. “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” said Abraham Lincoln. “We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
Pundits and right-wingers used to mock Bill Clinton when he wondered aloud about what his “legacy” as president would be, but any president who does not approach his duties with an eye toward the future and the shape of the nation after he leaves office does a disservice to the country and its citizens. He may not be able to shape history once he’s gone, but he certainly must think in terms of the future. Great presidents of both parties have known this and tried to do right by it. Abraham Lincoln knew what the stakes were in winning the Civil War and bringing the union back together, even if it cost him politically. Franklin Roosevelt knew that the Depression would scar the nation for generations, and he knew that the Second World War — caused in large part by the short-sightedness and vindictiveness of politicians after the First — was going to literally change the world; the ripples of that conflict are still seen today in the Middle East, Asia, and the emergence of the Atomic Age in places like India and Iran. Neither of these men knew exactly what would come from their actions, but they at least had a sense of what their obligation was at the present in order to make the world a better place in the future. And most importantly, they knew enough about history to have learned from their predecessors.
That may be the greatest legacy any president can have: to be a lesson — for good or bad — for the men and women who follow him.