43: Is it time for a reassessment of George W. Bush?
As this year’s rough and tumble election cycle has run its course, one person has quietly reaped the benefits: George W. Bush.
The 43rd president, who left office with a horrid 22 percent approval rating, has rebounded enormously. A June 2015 CNN/ORC poll showed 52 percent of Americans viewed Bush favorably while 43 percent did not.
A February 2016 poll by Quinnipiac University was slightly more modest — a dead heat with 47 percent of Americans holding a favorable opinion of Bush and 47 percent holding an unfavorable opinion. Those numbers are still much improved from the time he left office.
These poll numbers were hardly the first sign that the revisionist public eye could prove to be kind to Bush. Separation makes the heart grow fonder, so they say, and the longer Bush has been out of office, the more steadily his approval numbers have climbed.
And when faced with the demagogic Donald Trump this year, many Americans have looked back at George W. Bush and thought, “I guess he could have been worse.”
Jean Edward Smith is not one of those Americans. Smith is a highly regarded military historian and an equally celebrated presidential biographer. He is particularly well known for shining a light on Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, two presidents that have grown to be more widely celebrated thanks largely to Smith’s revisionism.
Those excitedly wondering if Smith’s revisionist streak would continue with his latest work, an examination of the 43rd president simply titled Bush, will be set to rest by the book’s very first sentence: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.”
The book concludes on a similar note: “Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”
Perhaps one can consider this revisionism if you believe Smith is revising us back to the original perception of Bush.
But no matter how you spin it, Smith’s take on Bush is anything but pleasant. The book’s central thesis is essentially that the Bush administration was guided by the president’s belief that, like Jake and Elwood, he was on a mission from God.
“Believing he was the agent of God’s will,” writes Smith, “and acting with divine guidance, George W. Bush would lead the nation into two disastrous wars of aggression.”
Throughout the tome, Smith levies Bush and his policies with scathing denunciations.
On the Patriot Act: “The Patriot Act was a direct assault on the civil liberties Americans enjoy, particularly the right to privacy, and may be the most ill-conceived piece of domestic legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts.”
On his famous “Axis of Evil” speech: “Once again, Bush had spoken without weighing the consequences.”
Smith writes that Bush’s inability to fess up to the lack of W.M.D.s in Iraq “suggests a willfulness that borders on psychosis.”
He also states that 43’s second Inaugural, in which Bush espoused his desire to build democracies around the globe, “must rank as one of the most ill-considered of all time.”
Perhaps most controversially, Smith even tackles Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a decision supported by 80 percent of Americans in November 2001.
“The events of 9/11 were tragic,” he writes, “but scarcely catastrophic.”
This is one of the few major historical rewrites that Smith attempts to engage in, but it falls a little flat. Hindsight is certainly on his side, but he also seems to lose sight of the impact those attacks had at the time.
On the widely maligned conflict in Iraq, Smith lands his blows with greater ease.
Although that war started with a 72 percent favorability rating, per a USA Today/Gallup poll from March 2003, it was regularly earning the disapproval of 65 percent of the country by the end of Bush’s presidency.
Smith’s walk through the decision making process behind the conflict will do nothing to improve that reputation. Scenes include Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz pushing for a war on Iraq the day after 9/11 despite Iraq’s total lack of involvement in the attacks. Wolfowitz and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld then “used every available opportunity to press the case.” CIA Director George Tenet supposedly told Bush that convincing the public about W.M.D.s in Iraq would be “a slam dunk.” Smith’s portraits of these behind-the-scenes efforts to concoct a war where there needn’t be one are depressing to say the least.
The dreariness continues as Smith takes on Bush’s use of signing statements. In his first five years, Bush hadn’t vetoed a single piece of legislation passed by Congress. He had, however, issued signing statements that indicated how the executive branch would interpret the law. Bush’s 130 signing statements contain at least 1,100 challenges to the constitutionality of certain laws. For perspective, Smith points out that every president from Washington to Clinton had collectively issued less than 600 challenges.
Bush used these signing statements to circumnavigate legislation, such as the 2005 anti-torture law pushed through by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War.
This expansion of the presidential powers set a precedent that has been used further by President Obama and will almost certainly be continued by our next president.
Despite the barrage of verbal takedowns throughout the text, Smith is capable of a kind word or two about the Bush presidency, especially when the administration toed closest to its pre-9/11 philosophy of “compassionate conservatism.” No Child Left Behind, his response to the financial crisis in 2008 and an international initiative to combat AIDS all received warm praise. In fact, Bush’s work to fight the deadly immunodeficiency virus is the subject of an entire chapter, where it is crowned as “an amazing achievement.”
Smith also takes care (strangely, considering his tone elsewhere in the book) to paint Bush as a warm man who did his best to avoid mean spirited behavior.
He also makes sure to dispel the myth that Bush was an absent president who left Vice President Dick Cheney to run the show. Smith depicts Bush, who gleefully referred to himself as “The Decider,” as the master of his own fate, for better or for worse.
In spite of all this, eight years later and with two contentious choices knocking on the door, Bush looks to be the benefactor of Father Time, who many believe can eventually repair all reputations.
Things should get even more interesting for Bush with Obama leaving office. The New Yorker noted that one of the strongest facets of Smith’s book was that “it makes the reader continually consider whether the foreign overreaching of the 43rd President will prove more lastingly harmful to the country and to the world than the underreaching of the 44th.”
Smith’s critique certainly aims at Bush, but legacies certainly do see a wacky ebb and flow with time. With warmth being directed toward past Republican candidates in the wake of Trump, it is not hard to imagine that Bush will see even more good tidings.
In his post-presidency, Bush has taken up painting. One work in particular depicts Bush staring at a mirror in the shower, back turned to the viewer, with his eyes reflected back at himself in a contemplative gaze. It would seem even Bush isn’t quite sure what to make of himself just yet.