Monday, June 23, 2008

Will historians learn to love George W Bush?

Who said this?:

"There are many, many who can recommend, advise and sometimes a few of them consent. But there is only one who has been chosen by the American people to decide."

Why, that's obvious! It's the decider, of course. Only President George W. Bush could have such hubris as to describe himself in such imperial terms.

Or is it?

Actually, that's Lyndon Baines Johnson, another president who launched the United States into undeclared military conflicts on the basis of little more than open-ended congressional approval rooted in a dubious military threat. Johnson and Bush share other similarities; they both oversaw massive boosts in federal spending and increases in the size and role of the federal government. For Johnson, it was the "Great Society," the effects of which linger on today. For Bush, it's been No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Bush's record on spending, in fact, is often compared to that of LBJ, with the current president presiding over an even larger increase in discretionary spending than LBJ.

And Johnson, like Bush, ended his presidency on a wave of unpopularity, declining even to seek a second complete term.

Today, Johnson is generally ranked by historians as an "above average" president. A Wall Street Journal-Federalist Society poll that sought to balance (PDF) input from conservative and liberal scholars ranked him at 17, below James Monroe and above John F. Kennedy.

How can that be?

To be blunt, historians tend to smile fondly on presidents who overstep their power, send armies to kill and maim and run roughshod over the Constitution. In his excellent book, The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy writes:

Summing up the results of his 1962 survey, Schlesinger Sr. noted that "Mediocre Presidents believed in negative government, in self-subordination to the legislative power." And scholars continue to see it that way. Thus, in Schlesinger Jr.'s 1996 survey, 5 of the top 10 presidents were war leaders: among them James K. Polk, Harry Truman, and Woodrow Wilson. Polk's major achievement was starting a war of conquest. Truman launched our first major undeclared war and had to be rebuked by the Supreme Court for claiming that his powers as commander in chief allowed him to seize American companies. After running for reelection as a peace candidate, Wilson took the country into the pointless carnage of World War I and carried out perhaps the harshest crackdown on civil liberties in American history.

Warren G. Harding, who freed Wilson's political prisoners and presided over a period of peace and prosperity, is rated near the bottom of the pack by historians in almost every survey.

All of which is to say: George W. Bush, who has overseen civil liberties violations, massive expenditures, war, metastasized federal government, and who has propounded a near-dictatorial view of presidential power, is exactly the sort of president that historians tend to rate very highly.

There is a very good chance that the current president, soon to leave office with approval ratings so low they have tainted his entire political party, will be added to the pantheon of "good" presidents lovingly worshipped by the very academics charged with teaching the country's youth about the nation's successes and failures.

There are other ways of rating presidents, of course. In a chapter in Reassessing the Presidency, economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway ranked the nation's chief executives according to criteria including reining-in government spending and controlling inflation. According to one of their measures, poor, oft-neglected Harding comes in first. LBJ ranks at number 33.

It would be interesting to see a similar ranking done incorporating civil liberties criteria along with the economic ones.

Is it too much to hope for a president that historians will hate?

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Blogger Ben said...

I am surprised LBJ is only 33 in that reassesment.

June 23, 2008 9:36 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Do you mean you think he's ranked too high? Or too low? ;)

That's 33 out of 39, by the way.

June 24, 2008 10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 19, 2009 1:00 AM  

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