Five myths about George W. Bush

Nov 08, 2010

Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and editor of 'The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment,' will be online Monday, Nov. 8, at Noon ET to discuss his Outlook article titled 'Five myths about George W. Bush' and his first television interview with NBC's Matt Lauer.

I am very much looking forward to this chat about President George W. Bush and his legacy. In several of my recent publications, including an article in the Washington Post yesterday and a new book that I edited, The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment, I have tried to move beyond some of the existing debate. Rather than answer whether Bush is the "best or worst" president or to repeat discussions about why people hated or loved him, the time has come to start understanding what actually happened when he was in office, to place these events and personalities in broader context, and to start understanding his presidency in relationship to President Obama's.

Besides some of the more familiar issues that shaped his presidency, such as 9/11 and the war on terrorism, looking back from 2010 raises new kinds of questions that might not have been as obvious at the time that his term ended: What impact did Bush have on the conservative movement? What was the relationship between deregulation during these years and the economic collapse in 2008? How did the economic policies of the period influence economic inequality? What was the relationship between President Bush and congressional Republicans? How did Bush overcome some of the obstacles that Obama has struggled in the political process? Did the Bush Doctrine really constitute as much as a turning point in U.S. foreign policy as it seemed at the time? How do we evaluate the impact of the Surge--and what did the decision-making behind that policy tell us about how the White House worked? How did President Bush come to push for a substantial expansion of government--through TARP--in the middle of the economic crisis? What impact did the 2006 elections have on the politics of his presidency? Which policies will outlast his presidency and why?

Obviously these are just a few questions and there are many more to discuss. But the time has come to start thinking more seriously about this two-term president and the impact that he had on the nation. It is also to start developing a more sophisticated understanding of the roots of this administration rather than writing about these years as if everything started in 2001.



1. That he's not as stupid as people think. 2. That he's decisive. 3. That he isn't a real Republican. 4. That he's a self-made man. 5. That he did a good job as mayor of Texas. How about those? Somehow I don't think those are the ones you'll highlight. This seems to be a part of the Gore-Bush Non-Apology Apology Tour 2010.

I think some of the sentiment behind this question reflects the difficulty we'll all have in coming years in starting to work through the history of this administration. Feelings continue to remain very polarized over what happened and initial analyses will sometimes be attacked as being "revisionist," "partisan," "apologetic." Given how polarized the media has become, what will be extremely important to our understanding of political history will be our ability to have open and vigorous discussions without simply recreating the kinds of debates we have already been through.

Although George W. Bush knew that conservatives had to be part of his political coalition, does he share his father's contempt for conservatives?

President George W. Bush was much more a product of the conservative era in American politics than his father, President George H.W. Bush. President George W. Bush was profoundly influenced by the economic and national security arguments of the conservative movement. He generally bought the idea of supply side economics, which he advanced through his tax cuts. He also embraced a hawkish view of foreign policy and America's military role abroad. His father was more skeptical about both aspects of conservatism. The one area where he had a more ambivalent relationship with conservative activists had to do with social and cultural issues, broadly defined. As Gary Gerstle argues in my edited book, this partially resulted from his upbringing in Texas. Even with his stand on stem-cell research, Bush was never fully comfortable with what the right had to say. The tensions were most apparent with immigration.

You write about Bush's innovative "compassionate conservatism" agenda. His Faith-Based Initiative was related to that theme. How successful was the Faith-Based Initiative to most observers? I think it was at least important in a philosophical context as a way to encourage an expansion of voluntary, community-based social assistance spending outside ot the government welfare state. Thank you.

This certainly must be considered one of the failures of the administration. Although this was the centerpiece of compassionate conservatism, it is not clear that this was the most important initiative. Thus far, the rccord suggests that most people in the administration did not think this was a priority and certainly those responsible for the program felt it was impossible to run in such as political environment. But there were other aspects of his agenda, including the Medicare expansion and his unsuccessful drive for immigration reform that might be more relevant over the long term.

Does President Bush open himself up to any legal problems with his admission that he did indeed authorize waterboarding? Isn't this sort of an admission to war crimes? Or did his lawyers really find legal ways around the argument that will hold up in court?

Thus far there seems to be little interest in any kind of legal prosecution of anyone in the previous administration. Given that his legal team created a defense revolving around the nation being in a permanent state of war, there might be sufficient room to protect the president and many of his top advisors (though I am not a lawyer so can't really comment beyond this). More importantly, politically the will does not seem to be there to reopen these questions.

Bush never really seemed able to get a hold of government spending, even with his party in charge of Congress. Did he ever think there was a time to raise taxes to pay for the two wars?

This is correct. Bush did not make much of an effort to reduce the size of government, he allowed for its expansion, and he refused to push for higher taxes in times of war. None of this should come as a surprise. The history of conservatism reveals that the right has often been more supportive of "big government" than campaign rhetoric would suggest, especially on the issue of national security. The tax decision constitutes one of the more significant breaks with previous wartime presidencies who have all agreed on the need to raise taxes in times of military crisis. The combination left the nation in a condition that was similar to the 1980s when Reagan's combo of military spending and tax cuts resulted in huge deficits.

If Iraq becomes a stable country in the Middle East, how will this affect Bush's legacy fifty years from now?

That would certainly improve how historians evaluate his presidency. If there is a case that can be made in fifty years that stability resulted from his policies (rather than everything else which has come after 2009) then he could enjoy some of the benefits that Truman and Reagan experiences as a result of how the Cold War unfolded.

Bush has said that he believes history will vindicate him and his decisions. I personally don't ever expect him to land on a list of best presidents, but do expect him to move out of the list of the worst as time goes by. Do you agree with the former president's assessment of himself? Or do you think that his contemporary critics were right in calling him one of the worst presidents ever?

My answer to this has little to do with Bush himself. Most presidents go through huge swings over time in terms of how the public and historians perceive them. President Truman ended his term with very bad approval rates and was not considered to be very good. But over time this changed and now he is often discussed as one of the better presidents. The same is true with Ronald Reagan. Believe it or not there were scholars who provided a more favorable view of Herbert Hoover! Even with President Clinton, we have seen a change in how people view his presidency in recent months. So there will be cycles and I hesitate to think that any president will be stuck in one position.

Do you think George W. Bush, a scion of the establishment and a born-again Christian, hid certain divisions within the GOP that are now coming to the forefront?

Yes. I don't think the issue was that he "hid" the divisions though. He was able to contain the divisions for a certain period of time through national security. That said, a quick look back at the history reveals many fights among conservatives about issues like government spending, immigration, as well as Iraq.

I thought that Bush geeting involved with the Terri Schiavo case was a blunder.

Many agree that these kinds of social issues proved to be very costly to the GOP.  At a time when Republicans were doing well politically, around issues like economic policy and national security, they only opened themselves up to attack and criticism by taking on these kinds of issues.

The Iraq war decision was made from hyped intelligence. Dont you believe Bush was not inquisitve enough to challenge the wild, over the top insinuations that took place during the lead up to the war?

This will be one of the biggest and most difficult questions for President Bush and his historical legacy (it will also be a question when writing about the history of the Democratic Party during these years). The record is very  clear. The doubts about the WMD were there all along and openly debated. The Libby trial also showed that there were clear efforts to manipulate the data and intimidate opponents. The failure of the president to take these doubts more seriously and to challenge proponents of the war will continue to be one of the central issues that historians tackle when writing about this period.

The evidence you cite to dispel the myth that Cheney "ran the White House" all comes towards the end of Bush's second term. My understanding is that Cheney did have unprecedented power for a VP, and it was only late in Bush's presidency that he began to push back. Your evidence does nothing to derail this narrative, which is a more sophisticated version of the straw-man "Cheney ran the WH."

Cheney was very influential and a shrewd political operator. I don't have any disagreement with that. He was also one of the key forces behind the drive toward Iraq. But that has to be placed in context. Some people have taken the work on this, and then shaped a narrative about Cheney essentially running the White House and directing policy. Many early accounts, including by critics of the administration, show this was not the case. On key decisions, such as counterterrorism policy and campaign strategy, Bush directed his operations. So too did other figures like Karl Rove and even C. Rice. Moreover, Bush was aware of who Cheney was and how he operated. This was one of the reasons he selected him as vp. Often I think the Cheney running the White House analysis hides many of the key decisions that Bush actually made. It detracts attention from the actual source of decision-making.

You say "Republicans were doing well politically, around issues like economic policy ..." but didn't that policy lead to economic collapse and the 2008 recession?

Politically is different than how the policies were working. My point is that if you go back to 2004/2005, Republicans were in a very strong position. A series of mistakes in 2005 and 2006 really undercut Bush's standing.

Professor: I have long wondered about how Mr. Bush talks. I know he grew up in Texas, but he went to schools that are the foundation of the old Eastern aristocracy, of which is family is certainly a part. Do you think, or know, whether his twang is an affectation? I used to imagine him going upstairs to the family quarters at the White House when the day was done and speaking to Laura in a socially acceptable "east coast lockjaw" voice. Thanks.

I have never met the former president. But I do think that he identified with his Texas upbringing and, at least imagined himself to be more Lone Star than Blue Blood. Nor do I think he simply invented this character. Many people who worked with him or interacted with him saw the same person in private that came out in public. His campaigns amplified this part of his personality, which had some pretty negative political consequences over the long term.

One comment I have seen is that G. W. Bush would refer to The President whereas Clinton referred to himself. Do you think Bush put the job on a pedestal and felt unable to act in it?

This is an interesting question. I have not heard this before. It is true that Clinton was more comfortable in the role than Bush was. This might have something to do with Bush's personal story or simply his personality. But Clinton loved the political process and the politics of the presidency (in Lyndon Johnson like fashion) where Bush never was fully comfortable in his shoes. I think that some of the tensions Bush had with congressional Republicans reflected his feelings about the job.

why was the right fine with Bush expanding government, but so viserally angry at Obama for the same thing?

As I think I explained a little earlier, this is an old story. We have had big government conservatism since the end of World War II, when the modern right embraced an expansive national security state. Throughout the decades since that time, conservatives have been very effective at still going on the campaign trail and attacking liberals for using government. Some of the answer might have to do with priorities. Perhaps in campaign debates there is more support for the kinds of government Republicans have tended to support over what Democrats support. But that contradicts what the polls tell us about how Americans like many programs like Social Security. It could also be political. Democrats have never figured out a way (at least since LBJ), to develop an effective defense of government in the same way that Republicans defend using government for their own purposes.

While Bush II may not have shrunk government drastically, his budgeting policies with respect to agencies responsible for the social safety net led to insufficient staffing of those agencies, whose slow and apparently inadequate responses to their responsibilities fed the notion that government can't do anything well. The Social Security Administration, which fell years behind in processing disability applications on Bush's watch, is an example. To this extent, Bush was successful in advancing his not-very-compassionate agenda quite a bit, below the radar. Do you have anything to say about this.

This is a good point. This too is something that we have seen with Republican presidents for some time. Since Ronald Reagan, when conservatives found that it was very difficult to dismantle government programs and that public support for many domestic policies was quite strong, they looked at other strategies to weaken the state. Some involved placing people in key agency positions who were not supportive of the programs they were administering. Republicans also prevented programs, like the minimum wage, from being updated so that their value diminished over time. This is clearly much less than many Republicans wanted and the basic infrastructure of government remained in place. But this was how Republicans were able to reduce the scope of government without actually eliminating it.

Does GWB still think privatizing Social Security is a good idea?

Bush did not back away from privatizing Social Security because he had a change of heart. He backed off because it was a political disaster. Like Reagan, Bush discovered that Americans like government more than they let on. Pushing for this program was extremely costly in 2005 and undercut some of the gains  the GOP had made. I suspect he still supports the policy, as many Republicans do. But it is unclear that the politics has changed since then. Indeed, since the market collapse selling Social Security privatization will be even more difficult.

Not since Carter have we had a president as openly evangelical as Bush. Yet the evangelicals were let down by both. Bush restricted federal spending on stem cell research, but in a way that really didn't hamper the research. He took no steps on abortion or other cultural issues that evangelicals backed. So if we want someone who will support evangelical causes, perhaps we should pick non-evangelicals. Or is the evangelical movement and the remnants of the Great Revival in the United States a dying cause?

Evangelicals have struggled since the 1970s, even as they became more powerful politically. Under Carter two things happened. First, some evangelical voters felt let down. More important, however, there was a mobilization of more conservative evangelical voters who came out in the 1980 election and connected to the GOP. But consistently they have found that Republican presidents have not made their issues a high priority once in office. Evangelicals have thus been integral to the electoral coalition that brings Republicans into office but less important as part of the government coalition that shapes policy once Republicans are president.

Did anyone explore with Bush his views on torture beyond the specifics of waterboarding ? Does he think there are no limits to what the state should do if the goal is saving American lives ?

Not yet and we don't have the answers. In response to the arguments of his critics, this has of course been the central claim of President Bush and his supporters. Using methods such as waterboarding were essential to saving American lives. It is important to note that some journalists, such as Jane Mayer, have provided rather strong evidence challenging this claim. These were not the methods that made the nation more secure and often had negative consequences on our policy.

Regardless, as the archives open and the interviews are conducted it will be important to better understand what the limits were or did they really believe that the state could do, whatever necessary, to secure the nation?

I have always wanted to ask an historian this question, and here you are. So is the United States essentially a Republican country, where the Democrats gain only following an unpopular Republican president? Although we talk conservative, it looks to me as if we have quite generous and liberal social programs. Do you agree?

The polls have shown, at least since the 1960s, that Americans are philosophically conservative and operationally liberal. Meaning, when asked about the big questions --do you prefer government or private markets--they tend to come down on the side of conservatives. But when asked about specific programs they support government (from health care to Social Security). Democrats have often been very effective (such as Tip O'Neill in the 1980s or Clinton in 1995-1996) at turning this against the GOP. When Democrats can shift the debate to specific policies, Republicans often find themselves in a weak political position.

Was Bush forced into having Cheney as VP and did Cheney/Rumsfeld push Bush into certain decisions regarding Iraq?

I don't believe he was forced.  Cheney offered many virtues for Bush in 2000. Most important he helped to diminish some of the concerns about inexperience that were very prevalent with Bush. He also was a skilled Washington insider, with decades of experience, who knew how to move policies. Finally he was someone Bush trusted. In 2000, he was not seen as a hard right policymaker but rather as someone who could work with Democrats. As I have written, I think it is a mistake to argue that Cheney ran the Bush White House--rather he was one of the most effective players in a team that Bush ran. There were others inside and outside the White House pushing for Iraq.

In all those pivotal events, you never even mentioned his father's appointees stopping the recount so he *could* win that second term? Don't you think that was a defining moment in American history?

This was a defining moment and the questions/controversy that surrounded this election shaped the politics of his administration in rather profound ways.

Leaving aside for a moment whether the Iraq War was a good idea, I wonder how much 9/11 shifted Bush's legislative agenda. Obviously, the President spent a lot of political capital on security initiatives that he could never have foreseen when he first took office in 2000 (e.g., the creation of Homeland Security, prosecution and funding of the wars, etc.). Did he, and the Executive branch generally, feel that pushing additional efforts (e.g., immigration reform) would be impossible in light of the necessities of 9/11?

9/11 clearly shifted him away from some initiatives that he hoped to pursue. However, one of the more interesting findings though of those who look to the period before 9/11 is how many of the policies (from expanded executive power to the war in Iraq) were already circulating before this horrible tragedy happened. In some cases, the national security crisis resulted in Bush accelerating policy projects that were already in place. This often happens from crisis. In other cases, he continued with his agenda regardless of the war. If there was one area where I suspect Bush regrets that he could not make more progress and where the war on terrorism undercut his other efforts it is with immigration reform.

I ask this question in all sincerity. Bush was sometimes portrayed as not very smart. Is that the reality?

No I don't think this is accurate.

Thank you for a very interesting discussion. I hope that the conversation on President Bush can continue. It is clear that this was a presidency that will have a long-term impact on the nation and the time has come to start examining the history of what happened and how it happened. I look forward to further conversations.

In This Chat
Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and the editor of 'The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historial Assessment.'
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