President Bush last week continued his rather pathetic tour of former presidents, stopping at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home on the Potomac, to deliver a speech that tried, with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, to compare the current occupant of the Oval Office with the Father of His Country. This is not a new phenomenon, though a bit more unwarrantedly arrogant than some. Recently the Bushlet has compared himself to Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy and some of his supporters have invoked Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson.
The move, if riddled with signs of desperation, is a fairly obvious one. Most wars have their down periods, when things look close to hopeless. But leaders who persevere through the tough times tend to be viewed favorably by history or at least by historians. However divorced from reality in Iraq Bush may be, he is a thoroughly political creature and he must be aware that his standing with the American people is not exactly high just now. Trying to shape his legacy by invoking previous presidents is something most decent people leave to surrogates; doing it yourself is more than a little tacky. But Bush doesn’t have a whole lot of credible surrogates to do the job for him.
What Bush is banking on is the fact that, as Robert Higgs and many others have noted, when historians poll other historians on presidential “greatness,” they tend to discover admiration for presidents who have conducted wars and expanded the powers of the office. Historians, like most other people, tend to worship power and activity.
There is a chance, however, that George W. Bush will break this pattern. Even though it is early to be assessing him from the long perspective, historians and other observers are calling him one of the worst presidents. Starting a war just might not save him from harsh judgment. The war in Iraq was a war of choice rather than necessity, and the consensus among most observers to date is that after the initial invasion it was improvised rather than planned and conducted with uncommon incompetence, not so much on the part of the soldiers and Marines tasked with carrying it out but on the part of the planners and strategists.
The planners and strategists, and most signally George W. Bush himself, as commander in chief and “the decider,” chose not to recognize the fact that an insurgency was in place until long after it was obvious to almost anyone else. They fought against using the words “civil war” which might have been somewhat accurate, ironically enough, given that the current situation in Iraq is more complex and fraught with danger than a standard-issue two-sided civil war but they erred on the side of insisting on simplicity rather than acknowledging complexity. To Dubya, it was always only “the enemy” rather than an array of enemies, each with its own motivations and capabilities.
Robert Higgs notes a 1996 poll of 30 historians that ranked Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt as “great.” Those ranked as “near great” were Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman. The recognized “failures” were Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Harding, Hoover, and Nixon. Higgs points out that “all but one of the presidents ranked as Great or Near Great had an intimate association with war, either in office or by reputation before taking office. Of the top-ranking ‘nine immortals,’ five (Lincoln, FDR, Polk, Wilson, and Truman) were commanders in chief when the nation went to war, and three (Washington, Jackson, and Teddy Roosevelt) were best known prior to becoming president for their martial exploits. The one exception, Jefferson, confined his presidential bellicosity to authorizing, with congressional consent, the naval engagements against the Barbary pirates. (Of course, he had been a revolutionary official during the War of Independence.)”
By contrast, the 11 presidents ranked as “below average” or “failures” held office in times of peace with the exception of Nixon, and even he eventually ended a war begun by others.
As Higgs puts it, then, “any president who craves a high place in the annals of history should hasten to thrust the American people into an orgy of death and destruction. It does not matter how ill-conceived the war may be.”
So perhaps it is not surprising that President Bush, no doubt aware at some level that most Americans now consider him a failure as president, looks to posterity to be kinder. There are precedents. When Harry Truman left office he faced unpopularity bordering on disgrace. But historians now view him with much more admiration, perhaps (to be a bit cynical) noting his resolve in starting the Cold War and his use of nuclear weapons.
So last week Bush cynically invoked George Washington, noting that “On the field of battle, Washington’s forces were facing a mighty empire, and the odds against them were overwhelming. The ragged Continental Army lost more battles than it won,” and “stood on the brink of disaster many times. Yet George Washington’s calm hand and determination kept the cause of independence and the principles of the Declaration alive [I]n the end, General Washington understood that the Revolutionary War was a test of wills, and his will was unbreakable.”
It’s obviously meant to sound familiar. But in fact the Revolutionary War was not won because of Washington’s “unbreakable” will (though that was a factor) but by less glamorous but more concrete factors like help from the French (who had their own reasons) and the British deciding, after having trouble with guerrilla fighting, that they had bigger fish to fry elsewhere.
Dragging Washington into the current war is especially inappropriate because it is hard to imagine a war Washington would have found more ill-considered. Washington did say “My best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever in any country I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom.” But the remark was a formal one when the French foreign minister presented him a tricolor flag. But in 1793, when France went to war with much of Europe, Washington issued a neutrality proclamation.
And of course, there is Washington’s Farewell Address, the product of a person who had actually seen war close up. Washington urged Americans to be leery of “overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.” He warned against “excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another,” and came to this bottom line: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connections as possible.”
That’s pretty much the opposite of George W. Bush’s stated policy of “spreading freedom” around the world by force of military might.
It all depends, of course on whether the president can salvage anything remotely resembling a credible military victory out of Iraq. If he does, his gamble could pay off, and historians 50 or 60 years from now just might rank him right up there with Truman.
I suspect, however, that Iraq will not be seen as a great and glorious victory, and that the aversion to Bush will last for a while. Thus his standing among historians of the future is likely to remain about where it is with the American people just now pretty low. It would not be unprecedented. Richard Nixon was a wartime president who is still ranked low by historians despite his obvious intelligence and greater facility in foreign affairs than most presidents.
If Bush continues to get low ratings, it would be even more helpful to the future of this country if it were accompanied by a reconsideration of the relation between presidents who lead the country into war and presidential “greatness.” Wouldn’t it be nice if greatness were instead associated with not violating the Constitution and keeping the country at peace? The putative sainthood of Abraham Lincoln is probably too securely ensconced in the American ethos, but it wouldn’t hurt if the standings of Wilson, FDR, and Truman were downgraded because of their bellicosity.