- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Can a president use the levers of popular culture to restore, or perhaps burnish, his legacy?

Central to the drama of Ron Howard’s riveting new movie, “Frost/Nixon,” is that a disgraced ex-president hoped a successful performance in a series of high-stakes television interviews could be parlayed into a broader effort to rehabilitate his public image - maybe even restore him to the bosom of Washington’s power elite.

Similarly, outgoing President Bush has legacy on the brain, having sat for a series of exit interviews in which he reflected on his accomplishments, disappointments and failures. A memoir, too, is said to be on the horizon.

There’s just one problem nowadays: What the media potentially giveth, it may already have taken away.

Historian Barbara Kellerman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says the sheer volume of contemporaneous information that’s available to the public today stands to overwhelm any short-term re-evaluations of the Bush presidency.

Books by administration insiders such as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke; exposes published by investigative journalists like Bob Woodward; an intrusive, wall-to-wall 24/7 media culture that would have amazed even Richard M. Nixon, let alone Herbert Hoover - these factors militate against Mr. Bush’s ability to change people’s minds.

The president is, it should be said, not without champions or sympathizers. Rocker-turned-anti-poverty activist Bob Geldof has praised Mr. Bush’s policies to battle AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa - and specifically pressed the media to report the story more often.

Writing for National Review Online, historian Victor Davis Hanson pointed to “the removal of two odious regimes, and consensual governments in their places; a framework at home to stop 9/11-type terrorism; and good working partnerships with key allies abroad, such as Britain, Germany, France, Italy, India, et al.; and a pragmatism in handling rivals like Russia and China.”

The administration of President-elect Barack Obama, Mr. Hanson surmised, will benefit, ironically, from these overshadowed successes of the Bush presidency.

In the meantime, what’s an unpopular ex-president to do?

Presidents who have left office “under a cloud,” as Joan Hoff, a history professor at Montana State University and the author of “Nixon Reconsidered,” puts it, typically try to mount an offensive of “post-presidential good works.”

There’s the charitable-foundation work of Bill Clinton, who, though popular with the public, suffered the black mark of impeachment. There also are the not-entirely-noncontroversial diplomatic efforts of Reagan Revolution casualty Jimmy Carter.

A living ex-president exiting the stage under such circumstances can, most optimistically, hope for a resoundingly positive historical reconsideration, such as that afforded to Harry S. Truman, who left office in 1953 an extraordinarily unpopular figure.

Just as history bore out the wisdom of the Truman administration’s Marshall Plan to rebuild a devastated postwar Europe, among other key early Cold War policies, might hindsight likewise be kind to Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and his broader vision of democratizing the Middle East?

The trouble, obviously, is that can take years, if not decades - and still there’s no guarantee of how future historians will apportion the kudos.

“If Iraq turns out to be OK and the Middle East calms down, then Bush will be vindicated - I don’t necessarily agree with that,” says Harvard’s Ms. Kellerman, arguing that history is unlikely to directly credit Mr. Bush with any long-term benefits of a war that he’s widely seen to have mismanaged in real time.

Besides, she adds, there have been too many other high-profile disasters, including the response to Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing financial meltdown, in the past eight years.

Ms. Kellerman argues, too, that the Truman restoration was as much cultural as it was political. After the 1963 Kennedy assassination on through to Vietnam and Watergate, the public’s trust in government declined precipitously.

Mr. Truman, viewed through this lens, came to be seen, nostalgically, “as a leader who embodied some of the old verities,” she says. He was the man who, Cincinnatus-style, returned to Independence, Mo., and refused to cash in on his fame and stature. He and his wife, Bess, were paragons of probity and humility.

The flip side of the Truman restoration is the terminally tarnished name - James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover.

Mr. Nixon himself managed a partial rehabilitation - one that “Frost/Nixon” refuses to acknowledge in its on-screen postscript - through his own literary exertions (he authored nine books after resigning) and extensive worldwide travel and diplomatic contacts.

He never escaped Watergate obloquy but was nearly universally acknowledged for foreign-policy expertise (“guru,” he was called by Newsweek magazine at his 1994 death). Revisionist histories like Ms. Hoff’s “Nixon Reconsidered” (1994) praised him for boldness on such domestic issues as health care and welfare.

“Frost/Nixon,” adapted for the screen by playwright Peter Morgan, underscores the late president’s formidable intellect.

Mr. Bush, as even his supporters would concede, is unlikely to carve out such a niche - as elder statesman and scholar - for himself.

“For Bush to receive the partial rehabilitation that Nixon did, he would have to be capable of writing books explaining himself as well as discussing foreign-policy issues that will occur after he leaves office. I don’t think Bush has any intention or ability to do this,” Ms. Hoff argues.

Ineluctably, there’s the matter of luck.

Mr. Bush was a profoundly unlucky president “faced with singularly difficult circumstances,” Ms. Kellerman says.

“He may have been further unlucky,” she adds, “in having been succeeded by a president who may turn out to be one of the most striking figures in American politics. We don’t yet know.”

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