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A Sitting (Lame) Duck: Bush, Truman, And The Question Of Legacy

October 2, 2008

I usually reserve political commentary for snarky asides in my Friday Fun history trivia posts. There I take brief jabs—both gratuitous and justified—at those with whom I disagree. But a recent historical comparison is prompting a one-time digression into “the swamp.”

A CBS News poll this week shows that George W. Bush has tied Harry S Truman for the lowest approval ratings since such statistics have been kept: 22 percent. Yet, the indefatigable contrarian Stanley Fish predicts that Bush’s legacy will be better than we think. Here’s how Professor Fish compared Bush to Truman and other past presidents and their legacies:

It took a while for Harry Truman’s feistiness to erase the memory of the 22 percent favorable rating he had at the end of his tenure. Richard Nixon had to make his way back from disgrace, and he did it being smarter than anyone else (he was, I think, the smartest president of the 20th century) and becoming an astute political commentator and historian. Jimmy Carter just continued being good and after a while it paid off in a Nobel Prize. Bush I’s basic, undemanding decency kept shining through after he left office. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan didn’t need rehabilitation; each would have won a third term easily and still could (even though Reagan is dead).

…Good one on Reagan.

But let’s focus on Truman. Being a native Missourian and having read David McCullough’s fantastic biography, Truman, I believe I have the knowledge to point out a few reasons why it’ll be harder for Bush to recover than it was for “To-err-is-Truman.” And since I have no intention of ever writing a biography of George W. Bush, I don’t have to worry about a future critic talking about my past predispositions. Here goes:

1. Harry loved to read complex biographies and histories, political and otherwise, from his youth forward. Although by no means learned, Truman appreciated the benefits of thinking through the lessons of the past. I’ve never heard anyone accuse Bush of being a lover of political history and biography. I can’t help but think that history is more likely to be kind to those who show love in return.

2. Harry’s story mirrored the mythic American self-improvement story. He as a farmer from Grandview, Missouri, who grew up, at best, in the lower middle class. Harry’s parents were poor. Harry was not the son of a past, rich president who benefited from Big Oil.

3. Harry’s character remained steady throughout his life. While he was not always liked, he never fell from grace and had to rehabilitate himself.

4. The police action in Korea involved helping a country that had been aggressively invaded by another state. The war in Iraq involved invading a country out of ignorance and fear. The Truman Doctrine did not involve preemptive strikes.

5. Truman had been written off politically in 1948. He miraculously recovered.

6. Truman believed in civil rights.

7. Truman believed in good government, as exemplified by his Square Deal plan. Or, in the language of ethics and philosophy, social justice mattered to Truman.

8. Truman never tried to publicly justify torture. It may have happened on his watch, but he never tried to make everyone believe it was okay.

9. Truman didn’t believe in deregulation.

10. Truman didn’t act, or ever propose to act, unilaterally in foreign affairs. He believed in diplomacy.

11. Truman served his country well during wartime—as a soldier. Granted, the circumstances were different, but there was no ~hint~ that Truman wouldn’t go.

Now I understand—fully—that Truman was not perfect. He’s not my hero, and I don’t believe he was the best president ever. Likewise I do not believe that Bush is a bad or evil person. I don’t know that Bush has been the worst president ever. But, with regard to comparing them, need I continue? Truman was clearly a person to whom history could be kind. His natural advantages, political and otherwise, outweigh Bush’s. And Truman’s baggage wasn’t as excessive.

Feel free to add to, or critique, my list in the comments. – TL

PS: Here’s another assessment of the Bush historical legacy from the New York Times‘s Timothy Egan.

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One Comment
  1. Thanks for penning an interesting read. I think that you're right in highlighting the differences there. I'm always a bit sceptical of assessing a legacy of someone while they remain in office. One imagines that it will quite depend on how things turn out in the long run!

    Like

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