Perhaps the best thing George W. Bush has going for him at this point is Donald Trump.
Mr. Bush, who will appear at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Wednesday to tout his new book of paintings of American troops, “Portraits of Courage,” is undergoing a small renaissance in the eyes of historians — and much of it has to do with the current Republican president.
“On style points alone, Donald Trump makes GWB look magnificently presidential,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential biographer and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
C-SPAN’s most recent survey of presidential historians this year showed Mr. Bush reaching 33rd overall, up from 36th place the last time the network conducted its poll in 2009, just as the former president left office. He leapfrogged Presidents John Tyler, Herbert Hoover and Chester Arthur.
By contrast, former President Barack Obama entered this year’s survey in 12th place, only three places behind Reagan and in the top third of the 43 former U.S. presidents.
Ronald L. Feinman, a history professor who wrote “Assassinations, Threats and the American Presidency,” said there is room for Mr. Bush to move, but only so much.
“I think over time he will go up a bit more, but honestly I don’t think he’s going to rise above Nixon,” said Mr. Feinman, who blogs at TheProgressiveProfessor.com.
He said the balance sheet for Mr. Bush is complicated: Two wars, the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, his opposition to gay rights and the devastating recession that struck at the end of his term all weigh against the former president.
But his aid to Africa, his approval of a prescription drug program as part of Medicare, his fight for an immigration overhaul and his No Child Left Behind education law go on the positive side, Mr. Feinman said.
The professor said Mr. Bush also should get credit for how he handled questions of Islam in the midst of the terrorist surge — and said it’s likely historians will give Mr. Bush credit for doing a better job than Mr. Trump.
“Everything I’ve said here, Trump is the opposite,” Mr. Feinman said. “I think Trump is going to cause everybody to rise. He will make Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan rise. He makes Nixon look good.”
Mr. Bush has followed the lead of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, in post-presidential life, picking a few causes but generally staying out of the public eye.
The younger Mr. Bush has taken to painting, and his new book is a portfolio of portraits of members of the U.S. military.
During last year’s campaign, Mr. Bush remained mostly in the background while his brother Jeb challenged Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. The former president did make one foray onto the campaign trail, in South Carolina, where he drew a large but flat crowd.
Now on a sort of book tour, Mr. Bush has been enticed into commenting on Mr. Trump and the state of American politics.
“I don’t like the racism and I don’t like the name-calling and I don’t like the people feeling alienated,” Mr. Bush told People magazine. Still, he said not to expect him to take an active role in second-guessing Mr. Trump and noted that he didn’t do that for President Obama, either.
Mr. Bush’s aides also made clear that he didn’t vote for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Brands said Mr. Bush is probably benefiting from handling his post-presidency period so well.
“Although this should not be so, historians reconsider presidencies based on how the presidents conduct themselves after leaving office,” he said. “George W. Bush has shown himself to be a decent guy, not exploiting his former office to make top dollars giving speeches.”
He also said the old battles lose their immediacy and new controversies come along to put things in a different perspective.
“What’s the ceiling? If somehow peace should come to the Middle East and do so in a way that makes the invasion of Iraq appear farsighted, Bush could crack the top 10,” Mr. Brands said. “I’m not holding my breath.”
Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, said Republican presidents in particular generally do better in the eyes of historians once they are out of office, and the historians turn their ire on their successors.
“Reagan started to look better when they were all against George W. Bush, and now Bush looks better when they all hate Trump,” said Mr. Latimer, who is now a partner at Javelin, a public affairs company.
“It’s a phenomenon where the hate and dislike of a president who’s there is so outsized that over time there’s a natural reduction,” he said. “It’s also a rebuke to the current Republican president to give past ones a better rating.”
Mr. Latimer said that has played out with Reagan, who was viewed poorly by academics during his tenure but over the years has been “turned into this gentle grandpa.”
“That’s absurd. That’s never who he was. And the reason why the left in particular likes to do that is because they don’t have to cope with the fact that Americans, twice, endorsed very conservative policies,” Mr. Latimer said.
George H.W. Bush, meanwhile, has gone from “laughed and mocked as this aristocrat, out of touch with the people,” to being seen as a statesman.
How much of that happens with the younger Mr. Bush, though, remains to be seen. Mr. Latimer said historians could look back and rethink how he managed the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the economic recession and decide that he staved off worse alternatives.
“I think in time it’s quite possible people say he managed both of those well, or better than others might have done. One factor will be how this presidency turns out,” he said. “If people start thinking back, there were a lot of things that were good and helpful to the country.”
For the public, though, feelings over Mr. Bush are still raw.
When The Atlantic magazine in its January issue asked opinion leaders to ruminate on the worst leaders in world history, Mr. Bush appeared up there with the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot and the devil.
When readers were then asked to vote on the best answers, one blasting Mr. Bush came in second: “Adolf Hitler was evil; George W. Bush’s policies produced evil results.”