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Bush and history’s rearview mirror
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.
By Donald Lambro
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