|Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis|
The idea that history might rehabilitate George W. Bush seems too ludicrous to be seriously entertained. His approval ratings have been so low for so long, it’s hard to remember that he was ever popular. The Iraq War, his signal endeavor, has lasted for more years than America’s involvement in the Second World War and seems likely to last longer; a fragile truce in a wrecked, misgoverned country is the best the next president can hope for.
Even many of the president’s ideological allies consider him a failure—either a false conservative who betrayed the Reagan legacy, or a blunderer who got the big decisions right but couldn’t follow through. His liberal foes, whose bill of indictments has swollen to the size of Gravity’s Rainbow, while away the hours until January 2009 by arguing over just how terrible a president he’s been. The worst since Nixon? Since Hoover? Since James Buchanan?
If Bush himself were confronted with this discouraging analysis, though, it’s easy to imagine his retort—delivered, no doubt, with a flash of that famous smirk: So you’re saying I’ve got nowhere to go but up.
Before you laugh, consider that nearly every presidential reputation, however tarnished, eventually finds someone willing to defend it. At the very least, some right-wing writers and historians will rise to defend Bush’s legacy. But something more than partisan apologetics will be needed for his presidency to be remembered as something other than a failure. Ronald Reagan’s status became secure only after left-of-center historians began to praise him; likewise, Harry Truman’s reputation has risen from the Bush-esque depths of his disastrous second term in part because Republicans as well as Democrats have come to claim him as a hero.