NEW YORK – The dedication on April 25 of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was more than an opportunity for the five living U.S. presidents to compare notes on what Stefan Lorant called “the glorious burden” of the office.
It also was the beginning of Bush’s campaign for rehabilitation. As Bill Clinton said at the ceremony, all presidential libraries are attempts “to rewrite history.”
Bush’s ultimate goal — already hawked by his former political adviser Karl Rove — is to become another Harry S. Truman, a regular-guy commander-in-chief whose stock rose sharply about 20 years after he left office.
The superficial comparisons are intriguing. Vice President Truman only became president because Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. The failed haberdasher and product of the Kansas City political machine was unlikely to make it to the top on his own. He was a plain-spoken, unpretentious man who cared enough about racial injustice that he desegregated the armed forces.
Bush became president because he was born on third base, to paraphrase Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ quip about his father, and because of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000. An unexceptional man who drank heavily until he was 40 probably wouldn’t have made it on his own. He’s a blunt, compassionate conservative who, as Jimmy Carter pointed out at the dedication, saw the ravages of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere and did something about it. (Bush also appointed two black secretaries of state.)
Like Iraq in Bush’s era, the Korean War was hugely unpopular when Truman left office in 1953, and his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan was at least as controversial as Bush’s support for torture.
Still, you don’t have to be Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to know that the differences between Bush and Truman are much greater than the similarities.
In Korea, Truman was responding to communist aggression, not hyping unconfirmed stories about weapons of mass destruction.
While Truman’s “Marshall Plan” (named for his secretary of state, George C. Marshall) produced spectacular results in postwar Europe, Bush apparently didn’t even have a plan for postwar Iraq.
His decision to disband the Iraqi army was catastrophic. Iraq and the simultaneous neglect of Afghanistan are only the best-known Bush administration fiascos that are all but airbrushed out of the museum, though not out of the historical record.
A broader list would include weakening bank-capital requirements and prohibitions on predatory lending that helped pave the way for the financial crisis; botching the response to Hurricane Katrina; gutting federal rules on worker safety, education, veterans’ affairs and other protections; endorsing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; editing climate- change reports to the specifications of ideologues; reinstating the global gag rule on family planning in deference to rightwing anti-abortion activists, and politicizing appointments to the federal bench and federal law enforcement.
All this is ignored by Bush apologists. Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican operative who last year helped the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, offered a defense of Bush in National Review that sought to absolve him of any blame for the budget deficit. As if the trillion-dollar wars, unaffordable tax cuts, the $550 billion (unpaid-for) prescription-drug benefit and hundreds of billions of lost revenue in the recession that began on his watch could be erased from history.
The new museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas is cleverly designed to subsume Bush’s record within the burdens of the presidency. It includes a “Decision Theater” that puts visitors in the shoes of a president forced to make tough calls on a variety of pressing issues. The subtext is that this is an extremely hard job and that you, the visitor, couldn’t do it any better than Bush did.
While this may make for a thought-provoking museum experience, it’s a low bar for presidential performance. Allowing for some mistakes, we should admire our presidents not because they have to face tough decisions but for making the right ones. The “moral clarity” that is Bush’s claim to presidential respectability is only worth something if it results in clear achievement.
As a sign that even Bush knows his batting average on big decisions was low, the museum barely mentions Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials who helped him make them.
Cheney’s churlish behavior and frequent shots at President Barack Obama over the last four years have made Bush, who has refrained from criticism, look restrained and classy by comparison.
You can’t flush a disastrous war down the memory hole, yet at the dedication, the word “Iraq” wasn’t mentioned once, and the museum covers the subject in a section devoted to “the Global War on Terror.” Continuing to conflate Iraq with the 9/11 attacks is an insult to truth that historians will never be able to overlook.
On Sept. 14, 2001, I was in the White House press pool and was 5 feet from Bush as he stood atop a crushed truck as rescue workers at Ground Zero shouted that they couldn’t hear the president speak.
“I can hear you! I can hear you,” Bush said through a bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was a defining moment for his presidency.
The problem that Bush can’t get around is that “the people who knocked these buildings down” — Osama bin Laden — didn’t hear from Bush, while others unconnected to the attacks did. The bullhorn is in the museum; so is the bull.
Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.