Outlook: Presidential Comparisons

Douglas Brinkley
Historian and Author/Director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University
Monday, December 4, 2006 10:00 AM

Author and historian Douglas Brinkley, director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University, was online Monday, Dec. 4, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article comparing President Bush's performance to that of other presidents in U.S. history. Brinkley says that while other presidents have waged unpopular wars ( James K. Polk with Mexico and William McKinley with Spain, for example), favorable outcomes have mitigated public perception of their leadership, while Bush's legacy has been damaged by the lack of improvement in Iraq.

Move Over, Hoover, ( Post, Dec. 3)

The transcript follows.


Arlington, Va.: You write that President Bush's "presidential library will someday be built around two accomplishments. . . ." That seems to be a reference to the museum rather than the archival side of such repositories. The blogosphere was full of jokes about the future Bush Presidential Library last week, illustrating the general public's ignorance of them. The jokes all centered on what "books" such a library will contain. Scholars know better. Presidential Libraries are staffed by government archivists whose job it is to release White House records in an objective fashion. But former Presidents and their foundations loom large over the libraries. Obviously, professional archivists and presidential partisans might have very differing views regarding what predecisional records should be disclosed to the public. Yet such records often provide new historical insights into key decision points during an administration. Why did you not mention scholars' future access to records, especially in light of the 2001 Bush order on Presidential Records (E.O. 13233)?

Douglas Brinkley: My guess is President Bush's library will be based at Southern Methodist University it Dallas, Texas. I'm told two other colleges are in the running: University of Dallas and Baylor University in Waco. Bush's Crawford Ranch will probably someday be operated by the National Parks Service.

I'm a great fan of all the Presidential Libraries - the archival part, that is. The museum displays error on the side of hagiography. It'll be twenty-five to thirty years until scholars have access to War on Terror documents. Even then, many will be sanitized.


Annandale, Va.: Doug, the fact that you've been selected by the Reagan family to edit Pres. Reagan's private White House diaries gives you a unique perspective. Given the apparent duplicitous nature of the current administration- saying one thing publicly while saying and believing something else privately- was there anything in the Reagan diaries even remotely similar to this?

Douglas Brinkley: Take him or leave him, Ronald Reagan was not a duplicitous man. The diaries show him to be more pragmatist than ideologue. With that said, the Iran-Contra scandal still hangs over his administration.


Houston, Tex.: Mr. Brinkley

Winston Churchill once spoke -

"In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days."

Why the rush to judge President Bush? Harry Truman left office with a 30% approval rating and has improved vastly in the eyes of historians. FDR's economic policies have drawn criticism and prolonging the depression rather than addressing its root cause (See James Powell, FDR's Folly).

So why the rush to judgment on President Bush? I would leave the current predication of his legacy to the pundits who have no accountability and whose predictions are never scrutinized or even remembered. You are a trained historian and to provide an assessment without major caveats and disclaimers (in the line of Winston Churchill's speech) puzzles me.

Douglas Brinkley: I like your Churchill quote. My entire first paragraph was a caveat that anything might happen. That someday Bush's statue may be erected in Baghdad. But it is not the job of a historian to constantly sit muzzled on the sideline while a debacle like Iraq is unfolding.


Maplewood, N.J.: Right now President Bush looks like the worst president since Hoover. Is it possible that in 50 years his reputation could improve as much as Truman's did in the half century since he left office?

Douglas Brinkley: Doubtful. Truman's list of accomplishments is astounding: winning World War Two, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, Berlin Airlift, creation of NATO, the Fair Deal, the list goes on and on. President Bush has put all of his credibility on democracy flourishing in Iraq. Unless that happens it will be very hard for him to pull himself up from the rank bottom.


Chicago, Ill.: What President do you think Bush looks to as far his public persona, statements, etc? Except for that one day, Nov 8, he has not changed his rhetoric on the war. Did Lincoln ever show public contrition, or "admit to mistakes?"

Douglas Brinkley: Without question, President Bush is a student of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. I said this in my article. The difference being that Truman made the right big decisions on the international sphere and Bush appears to be making the wrong ones. As for Reagan. . . he ain't that. Reagan knew how to talk directly to the American people to inspire them. Bush believes in bullying over the power of persuasion.


Arlington, Va.: How is the rebuilding of New Orleans going? It's rarely mentioned by the media, but I suspect there hasn't been a great deal of follow-through on the promises Bush made in Jackson Square.

How large a role will the Katrina response (during and post) play in Bush's legacy? And why is there no national outrage at his dismantling of FEMA, a government agency universally recognized as competent a decade ago?

Douglas Brinkley: I'm baffled that FEMA is still part of Homeland Security. It needs to be standing on its own with a cabinet member. We are still hurting terribly in the Gulf South. The crime rate in New Orleans is beyond imagination. Yet slowly, people are pulling their lives back together.


Anonymous: Is it possible that Iraq conflict will be remembered as a bigger blunder than Vietnam?

Douglas Brinkley: I don't think it will be seen as a bigger blunder. But it's of Vietnam caliber. Remember, in Vietnam we lost 58,000 soldiers, while in Iraq we're approaching 3,000. That said, Iraq was a bigger geo-political blunder than Vietnam.


Alexandria, Va.: If I had to try and elevate my concerns about the current president above the individual issues of the day, even excluding Iraq, I'd say that my biggest criticism of him is that he has not tried to act as President of the United States but rather President of those who voted for him.

Did you see this and if so what part does it play in your evaluation of him ?

Douglas Brinkley: Excellent point. I agree completely. The tragedy of the Bush presidency is that he represents his constituents, and purposely tries to brutalize his opponents. He seems completely uninterested bipartisanship or legislative accomplishment.


Berlin, Germany: Of course it will take years or decades before the clear assessment of the Bush administration is possible. But your Outlook article tries a bit too hard to find things upon which a positive assessment might be based. None is evident at the moment, What is evident is misuse of government, undermining of the objectivity of government, dishonesty and probably corruption, lack of any real domestic accomplishment and a truly disastrous foreign policy. However bad the Iraq war may be, Bush's broader legacy will be the near destruction of American credibility overseas. Without this credibility we cannot carry out our essential role in helping to pursue stability in a very dangerous world. How can you overlook this damning evidence?

Douglas Brinkley: Because when you write Op-Ed pieces you are only given 800 words. I was not asked to bash Bush but to speculate on how future historians will rank Bush. My answer was very clear: low, very low.


Hanover, Pa.: Mr. Brinkley, Just this morning it has been reported that President Bush sought to extend his recess appointment of neocon Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations by creating some other title to the position and appointing Bolton to it. Bolton's well known views of the United Nations have made him antagonistic and ineffective in the role of Ambassador, and knowing this, Congress refused to confirm his nomination as our representative in the U.N. in the first place. Doesn't the Bolton episode illustrate just one of the aspects of the Bush administration that makes it one of the worst in our history?

Douglas Brinkley: Yes, in my opinion Mr. Bolton is not qualified to be UN Ambassador. It is hard to lead an organization that you wish would disintegrate.


San Antonio, Tex.: At the recent Texas Book Fair (I am really sorry to have missed you on Saturday), a woman asked Maureen Dowd and Gore Vidal, who were appearing together, to comment on her statement that Mexican-Americans haven't crossed the border, but the border crossed them, referring to Polk's war of aggression against Mexico. Both Down and Vidal declined to answer her question.

Doesn't history depend on which ethnic or tribal group that you're talking to? Are you at all surprised that memory and sentiment are this strong some 150 years after that particular conflict? What is the best way to present both sides of a story in the telling of history?

Douglas Brinkley: Glad you attended the Texas Book Festival. And you're lucky you got to see Dowd and Vidal interface. Mr. Polk's war will always be controversial. There is a desperate need for a full-length new biography of Polk. He left detailed White House diaries. And you're, of course, right. Mexicans view the war as one of U.S. aggression while Americans see it as one of Manifest Destiny.


Washington, D.C.: Hi there,

Both my father and I enjoyed the 5-part look at Bush's historical view. Yours really hit home when you mentioned Hoover. My dad was recently interviewed by a young student about growing up during the depression and dust bowl. He remarked "When the depression hit, people thought Hoover would be able to fix things because he was a financial wizard. But he did nothing, he did nothing." And I had just been listening the recording of it the other day when it struck me "That's Bush". So when I read your piece, it really hit home, and I'm shaping all kinds of similarities. But I guess part of what is forming is that he (Bush) didn't walk in a bad person, he just isn't, or wasn't up to the challenges that faced him. Fair?

Douglas Brinkley: Very fair assessment. You have to be flexible as president. Being an ideologue will get you into trouble unless your policies are absolutely correct.


Western Springs, Ill.: Events on the ground in Iraq will determine Bush's legacy. Short of personally arresting Osama bin Laden, what can Bush do himself, personally, legislation, bipartisan whatever, to improve his standing in history?

Douglas Brinkley: It may be too late. Iraq will dominate for the next eighteen months and then it will be the 2008 election. Remember there will be no such thing as a "Bush Republican." Nobody wants that label. McCain and Giuliani and Romney are all claiming to be "Reagan Republicans." They see Bush as a bad hiccup in the Conservative movement.


Rockville, Md.:"while a debacle like Iraq is unfolding."

You know this is not a proven point. Many military operations have had much greater losses and been winners. For the sake of discussion, what if what we have done so far has been the right track but just very difficult. Perhaps no other option would have lower losses or cost. I don't say that is the most probable path, but it is possible. We seem to be used to having no losses and low cost. I suspect that there are military operations where there is no easy way. If that is the case, future history will be kinder.

Also, changes in tactics in the war may turn out to cost more than we expect. They could be real disasters. What if we lose a base?

Douglas Brinkley: Virtually all sane Americans can agree that President Bush did not fully understand the ferocity of sectarian animosity between Kurds and Shiites and Sunnis. We can admit that up to now we have failed to have mission accomplished. But, yes, it's possible that a hundred years from now U.S. intervention in Iraq may be seen as an opening salvo in a new democratic movement in the Middle East. That would certainly bode well for an upward revisionism for Bush.


Oxford, Miss.: I wonder why you felt compelled to throw this line in your article: "I also believe that he is an honest man and that his administration has been largely void of widespread corruption."

For one thing, it's beside the point. For another, I couldn't tell if it was a backhanded compliment. "Largely void of widespread corruption" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.

Douglas Brinkley: The anti-Bush die hards are taking exception to this line. All I meant was that unlike Harding (who died in office) and Nixon (who should have gone to jail), Bush isn't tainted with personal corruption. Put more simply: he is not going to be spending his ex-presidential years trying to stay out of jail. I was not making a critique of Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, Enron, Halliburton or Cheney's Energy Task Force. I hope this clarifies this line. Remember, you only have 800 words in an Op-Ed piece to assess a two-term president. Obviously you can't analyze every bullet point.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hope this isn't too far afield, but... How do you think Cheney will be remembered as a Vice President, and how will that view affect the way George W. Bush's presidency is assessed in hindsight?

Douglas Brinkley: He'll be remembered as the most powerful Vice President of modern times. Yet, I believe, his neo-con critique of the Middle East will be seen as a failed strategy. Certainly it will be interesting to read documents pertaining to Cheney in coming years. He was not a Vice President who sat on the sidelines.


Baltimore, Md.: Thanks for hosting this forum, professor.

Drawing the analogy between the Depression and Katrina (Deluge=great book by the way), you rightly compare Bush to Hoover. But shouldn't he also be compared to Nixon in his level of regard for the Constitution, e.g., habeas corpus, veto process (vs signing statements), etc.?

Douglas Brinkley: Sure. The comparisons to Nixon exist. I chose the Hoover analogy.


Arlington, Va.: The really big historical puzzle may not be "how bad was Bush?" (answer: very!), but "given that it was clear how bad he was, why was he reelected?"

That's the question our friends overseas can't fathom, and I can't either. Do you have an answer, as a historian?

Douglas Brinkley: Because as a country we are living in the long shadow of Ronald Reagan. His conservative movement is still alive and well. Also Bush gained a lot of credibility by his emotional response to the 9/11 attacks. It was Katrina after the 2004 elections which showed Americans that Bush wasn't a strong CEO-like president.


Alexandria, Va.: I agree totally with your assessment of Bush and your article. I have never been an advocate of this man for President, as far back as the New Hampshire Primaries I remember thinking "He's not the right man for this job." He showed his mettle eight years ago, yet so many act surprised that today he has botched the job. Why do you think Bush was elected in the first place? What was his appeal?

Douglas Brinkley: People liked Bush because he seemed decisive and likable. His problem is that regarding Iraq he made the wrong decisions.


West Palm Beach, Fla.: You wrote in your book about Reagan and his speech about the Boys of Pointe Du Hoc of how he was able to rally America for the fight in the Cold War by reaching past Vietnam to WWII. Do you think there is a similar prospect for a future President to look past the failures of Iraq to rally Americans. Is it possible that a future President perhaps could look to the accomplishments of those who won the space race for instance to rally America toward the concept of energy independence as a way to win the War on Terror. Sort of a "Right Stuff" meets the Boys of Pointe Du Hoc?

Douglas Brinkley: Good question. Yes, of course. America is resilient. We have great days ahead. We can all be proud of our troops and the fact that after 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security has worked to protect our borders. Iraq was a misadventure. But it has not undermined our national will or greatness.


Douglas Brinkley: Signing off here. Hope everybody has a great day.


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