George W. Bush has departed Washington fully cognizant of the low regard in which he is held by the vast majority of his fellow citizens, but apparently hopeful that he will be vindicated by historians in some not-too-distant future. He and his small but determined coterie of followers argue that with a calmer and more dispassionate assessment we all be able to see, as we have seen in the case of Harry Truman -- the Exhibit A of historical rehabilitations -- that Bush really was a good president.
Yes, historical reassessment of this sort is quite common, but it seems quite possible that Bush's reputation will actually further decline with the passage of time. There are at least two reasons, and probably more, why this might occur.
In the decades to come the issues of climate change, the preservation of resources and the reconstitution of our energy supply will almost certainly move to the very center of our politics, the domain previously dominated by jobs, taxes, and other traditional "bread and butter" issues. Energy and the planet will themselves become the "bread and butter" of popular consciousness and concern, as we try to preserve food supplies, coastlines and coastal cities, and all the other important tangible resources under immediate assault from climate change. As this happens, a historical narrative will emerge that will identify the Bush-Cheney administration as the last holdout of the Age of Carbon, using its eight crucial years to block almost every effort to end the reign of fossil fuels. Whether or not Barack Obama becomes the FDR of this new narrative, Bush will be its Herbert Hoover.
Historians are even now constructing a second narrative, consolidated from known elements of Bush administration policy. I refer to the politicization of law, science, and other arenas of professionalism within the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other government bodies, and to the subordination of Constitutional rights and traditional limits on executive power to national security and other policy agendas. Former Vice President Cheney calls the latter the "unitary" executive, but "all-powerful" and "undemocratic" are likelier terms as this narrative itself becomes more unified, and as historians work their way through administration documents that eventually become available despite Cheney's policy of classifying nearly everything in sight. (I am particularly eager to see what historians make of that national security memo delivered to Bush at his ranch in August of 2001.) A number of elements in the narrative will be reinforced and perpetuated, too, by Bush's willingness during much of his term in office to allow considerable operational latitude to Cheney and to the White House's senior political officer, the "architect," Karl Rove.
This second narrative might or might not gain as much "bite" as the first, but its reflection on Bush as a superficial thinker and a frequently detached manager makes his longing to become the next Harry Truman a good deal less realistic. Truman's latter-day ascendancy is in part the result of increased appreciation for such substantive achievements as the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the desegregation of the military. Close observers of history note also the prescience of his Fair Deal, including the call for a national health care system. But it is the tough-minded, plain-speaking, "give 'em hell, Harry," the man whose desk proclaimed "the buck stops here" --personal attributes, not public policies -- that form the core of his present popular appeal. Bush might well gain some traction for his folksiness and his self-proclaimed toughness, but the Truman model is more of an impediment than an opportunity with respect to Bush's long-term reputation. The second narrative I have described contains too many elements that point up the differences between the two presidents -- the "buck," for example, rarely found its way to Bush's desk; more often, the White House denied its existence.
One can imagine many other damaging narratives within the larger history that will later assess the Bush administration -- the neglect of the Middle East and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be criticized even if some of these troubled places somehow turn out well, and Bush's management of the current economic crisis, including the willful regulatory failures that helped produce the financial meltdown, will surely be condemned even when the pain is someone else's memory. These are the most obvious reasons for Bush's current unpopularity, and they may well retain their force for a very long time. And if we add to these indictments the rising influence of the narratives I have described, the result will be a presidency well settled into the bottom of the barrel.