I have been meaning to do a post on President Bush’s legacy and Jimmy Carter beat me to the punch when he called the Bush Administration "the worst administration ever." Now some might say that Carter is calling the kettle black in this case. His legacy isn’t so hot depending upon how you look at it. To his credit, however, he has some shining moments in international relations and he had the reputation of being a tireless worker when he was in office. Tireless. Endless days that exhausted him. George W. Bush does not have that going for him. In a society that celebrates rags to riches stories and a wholesome Midwestern work ethic I think that Carter’s background as a peanut farmer and his 20 hour days will compare nicely with Bush’s background as a ner-do-well son of a rich politician who went to bed by sundown every day of his presidency.
I never intended to compare Carter to Bush, however. I intended to compare Grant to Bush, because I think that is a more apt comparison. Both administrations have been characterized by rampant cronyism and a chief executive that left the business of the business to powerful, if somewhat corrupt underlings. As described in Wikipedia (as good a source of general opinion as any), "although Grant was personally honest, he not only tolerated financial and political corruption among top aides but also protected them once exposed." Sound familiar? No matter where you look -- Harriet Myers, pretty much every non-military employee in the Green Zone, the 150 lawyers hired from Pat Robertson’s law school, the K-Street project, the attorney general scandal, Jack Abramoff -- the list goes on, and it isn’t pretty. Still, politics have gotten neither cleaner nor dirtier over time, and Grant has a head start, so you might think Bush would have a chance. I don’t think so.
The administration’s message machine is in high-gear cranking out the line "only history will judge the Bush presidency". This is a classic Rove/Cheney tactic, hammering home a line ad nausea until it becomes accepted. Both McCain and Giuliani have been trotting this out on the campaign trail, Giuliani as recently as last night on Letterman. It does not matter how many times they repeat it, history is already judging the administration and it doesn’t look good.
First of all, Grant helped win the Civil War as the general in charge of the Union Army, while Bush sat out the war of his generation and then started two wars that won’t end well, at least not during his time in office. I don’t think you get credit for conflicts that someone else cleans up after you leave office. Grant has also benefited from recent work of historians revisiting the Civil War and the man himself. For example, the caricature of Grant as a drunk looks to be overblown at best, and possibly off-base entirely. He certainly drank much less than some celebrated Confederate generals, many of which attended a liquor and cigar-fueled card game in General Longstreet’s tent most nights early in the war.
Where Bush really loses out is how his moments in office will be preserved. The hundreds of hours of video footage of Bush will win him the prize. The legacy of most presidents is passed on through the written word, particularly in speeches, but also in personal and official letters, where ideas tend to be well-organized and thoughtful. People don’t send letters anymore, they appear on camera. And no modern president has been more poorly suited for video than George Bush. Even his most ardent supporters will admit Bush is a bad public speaker, particularly off-the-cuff. If he were a smooth public speaker, more comfortable off-the-cuff, had a more compelling persona, he would be judged, today and in the future much differently.
We don’t have original and edited video and audio from Ulysses Grant, or James Buchanan, or Warren Harding, or Franklin Pierce. But historians in the future will be able to sift through thousands of hours of George Bush on YouTube and it will tip the balance.
For those interested in the rankings of American presidents Wikipedia has a great page that aggregates many studies and polls.