Citing History, Bush Suggests His Policies Will One Day Be Vindicated

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

Meet George W. Bush, time traveler.

He's in Poland in 1939 as Nazi tanks advance on Warsaw, then flying with his Navy-pilot father to battle imperial Japan. He's alongside Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, William McKinley on his deathbed and Franklin D. Roosevelt on D-Day. He lingers with Harry S. Truman, another U.S. president deeply unpopular in his time.

President Bush leaps forward as well, envisioning a distant future in which Iraq is a tranquil democracy, Palestinians live peaceably alongside Israelis and terrorism is a tactic of the past.

"Imagine if a president had stood before the first graduating class of this academy five decades ago and told the Cadet Wing that by the end of the 20th century, the Soviet Union would be no more, communism would stand discredited and the vast majority of the world's nations would be democracies," Bush urged graduates at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs nearly two weeks ago.

As the door begins to close on his tenure, Bush is increasingly drawing on selected events of the past to argue that history will vindicate him on Iraq, terrorism, trade and other controversial issues.

Historical analogies have become a staple of Bush speeches and interviews this year, whether he is addressing regional leaders in Egypt or talking to workers at an office park in suburban St. Louis. Bush will continue this historical focus in a visit to Europe this week, where he will commemorate the Berlin Airlift in Germany and deliver a speech in Paris marking the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan.

White House aides say Bush, who majored in history at Yale, likes to emphasize historical comparisons because they are easy for the public to understand and illustrate in dramatic fashion how differently future generations may come to view him.

Unfortunately for the president, many historians have already reached a conclusion. In an informal survey of scholars this spring, just two out of 109 historians said Bush would be judged a success; a majority deemed him the "worst president ever."

"It's all he has left," said Millsaps College history professor Robert S. McElvaine, who conducted the survey for the History News Network of George Mason University. "When your approval ratings are down around 20 to 28 percent and the candidate of your own party is trying to hide from being seen with you, history is your only hope."

Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, who wrote a widely cited Rolling Stone essay about Bush in 2006 titled "The Worst President in History?," said last week that the president's historical arguments can be effective because they are difficult to disprove. "By just saying, 'In the long run this is going to look great,' it makes it very hard to respond to," he said.

White House officials dispute any link between Bush's recent emphasis on history and his disapproval rating, which is now the highest of any president since Gallup began asking the question in the 1930s. Current and former aides note that Bush is a longtime history buff who, in the middle of his presidency, met regularly with historians and other intellectuals to discuss predecessors including Washington and Nixon.

"His interest in history predated his low approval ratings," said Peter H. Wehner, the former White House aide who arranged those meetings. "It's not like he's grabbing for history; it's been a constant theme."

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