So I am sitting here in my comfortable little writing study high above the bustle of Manhattan’s East Side contemplating, of all things, the legacy of President George W. Bush. In a brief few months he will be gone from the public stage and with his absence the vitriol, the adrenaline charged criticism, the often rabid animosity of most of the people in my social world will slowly diminish, and the memory of “W” will slowly dissolve like a lump of sugar in the liquidity of history.
I have channeled my reflections to be sober and neutral, free of bias and contemporary judgments, forcing a kind of emotional absence as I travel forward in time to say fifty or more years from now when all the smoke has cleared and George Bush’s exploits as our President have been exposed to the surgical ministrations of historians. It will not be enough time for a complete closure, for historians are a cunning lot and will continue to dig and dig to unearth the yet unfound discovery, the unknown kernel of a lost moment that will shed some new light on the strange, explosive and challenging eight years of the Bush Presidency.
To many, such speculations about the future have little value. But to those who value history as a harbinger of the future and who care about the fate of our progeny, such an exercise just might contribute to our collective wisdom.
What I am searching for is the one descriptive image, the log line, the quintessential essence of language that might best describe the narrative of the Bush Presidential reign say fifty or a hundred years from now. Since there is no way of knowing whether my prognostication will be right or wrong, I will have the freedom to fantasize and bring to bear the humble tools I possess, the experiences of a long life in present time and an acquired and somewhat incomplete knowledge of American history.
Bear with me on this mental tour.
When I was in the Pentagon as the Washington Correspondent for the Armed Forces Press Service during the Korean War in 1952, the prevailing opinion about President Harry Truman was exceedingly negative. At one point he had an approval rating of 22% and a disapproval rating of 62%. Although I was merely an Army Private in rank, I was able to circulate among the General staff and the large cadre of Colonels and civilians that were assigned to the headquarters of the various services.
To many of them, as well as in our social circle outside the Pentagon, Truman was characterized as a bungler, a fool, an inarticulate ingrate, a haberdasher way out of his depth who was ruining the country. He had fired MacArthur, tried to nationalize the steel industry and inflation was rampant. But his single most perceived egregious mistake was to get us into the Korean War, which had brought in China on the side of the North Koreans and, to many, had become a quagmire. Combat deaths were approaching the 50,000 mark. The Republicans were on his case, and there was a steady anti-Truman drumbeat in the Press. Change was in the air, palpable and inevitable.
Never mind that he had saved lives and ended World War II by ordering the use of the atomic bomb. Never mind that he had saved Europe by instituting the Marshall Plan. The end of Harry Truman’s administration couldn’t be fast enough for most Americans. The Democrats pinned their hopes on their elegant and eloquent egghead-like candidate Adlai Stevenson. The Republicans chose General Eisenhower whose main campaign promise was to end the Korean War, which he did in a stalemate which has resulted in the continued presence of a large contingence of American troops.
Today Harry Truman is a much revered ex-President, beloved by most living Americans and remembered as someone who marched to his own drummer, ended World War II, saved Europe and drew the line against the communist attempt to take over most of the globe. The Korean War, which cost 55,000 American lives, is a mere footnote in the Truman legacy.
A simple log line might be: He drew a line in the sand against communist tyranny, ended the war and saved Europe.
While I make no claim to be an expert historian, my work as a novelist has given me, arguably, some special insight into the human condition and the process by which we are manipulated to believe in the way the past is viewed by those who came later, long after the smoke of contemporary reality has cleared.
Take Abraham Lincoln as an example. He is revered as the great emancipator, the President who saved the union and his memory is preserved in a giant shrine of awesome proportions on the banks of the Potomac. It is literally impossible for most of my generation, including myself, to conceive that Lincoln was a hated figure among Southern Americans and many Northerners for presiding over a war that was responsible for the deaths of more than 620,000 Americans. There may even be relics of the past, people who still believe that he was the devil incarnate. Think of how many Americans might have said after his assassination: “Good riddance.”
Nevertheless his legacy, his log line, now and forever, will always be: He kept the Union intact.
Then there was George Washington, my all time hands down favorite American President whose courage and wisdom was the essential ingredient that insured the birth of our nation. Think of how many then citizens of the colonies hated the idea of severing their relations with their mother country. In the Tory press, published in America and in Britain, he was characterized as a rebel, a traitor, an evil man. Indeed, he was roundly criticized as a military leader, losing most of the battles of the war. Many of his men deserted, but he was steadfast, stubborn and committed. By dedication and sheer force of personality, he eventually made all his enemies stand down and, in his lifetime, became the most popular man in America and the only man who was the unanimous choice for the first Presidency.
But by the time his Presidency was coming to an end, he was beginning to face numerous critics. A number of historians cite Thomas Jefferson as intriguing against Washington to satisfy his own political ambitions and to thwart his arch enemy Alexander Hamilton. Today those bitter feuds and others have disappeared into the dust of history. Washington’s legacy is untarnished and unassailable, and those bitter criticisms that plagued his career are all but forgotten.
Unfortunately, the glorious legacy of George Washington is in danger of extinction as the generations pass and the teaching of American history is ignored in our school system. There are, of course, efforts to revive the legacy of our founding fathers, and despite recent efforts to popularize these early events in our national birth pangs through popular books and television, the effort is facing difficult odds against the rising ignorance of our upcoming generations.
There are literally thousands of monuments to George Washington, cities, schools, and other entities named after him including our nation’s capital. As a log line for Washington, one choice among many might be: He was the indispensable founding father of our country.
Jefferson, by the way, whose monument on the banks of the Potomac is yet another impressive shrine, will forever be remembered as the composer of the Declaration of Independence and the President who engineered the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of our country. Still, there is a persistent dark side that mars his image and corrupts any narrative of his Presidency, his relationship with teenager Sally Hemings, which some describe as pedophilia, impregnating her numerous times and the fact that he never did free his 2oo slaves. Let’s stick with his log line Composer of the Declaration of Independence and negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.
Then there is the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died at the beginning of his fourth term in office and somehow seems to be declining in Presidential importance. Despite having led us through the vicissitudes of World War II, although he was cheated out of living to enjoy the victory, the primary achievement of his administration seems to rest on his ending the Great Depression and the soaring words of his famous speech: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I suppose if we were to come up with a log line it might be: He ended the Great Depression.
John Kennedy, of course, will always be remembered as the young, dashing President with the beautiful wife who was gunned down by a very troubled loner. The disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco will probably long be forgotten, but his memory will always be suffused in a glow of romanticism and his administration characterized as a kind of Camelot on the Potomac with few memorable achievements, although the beginnings of the Vietnam War can be traced to his administration.
Lyndon Johnson’s vast expansion of the disastrous Vietnam War, which resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and more than 150,00o wounded, will eventually lose the traction of memory in the fullness of time, but his accomplishments in the field of civil rights will, in my opinion, ultimately define his administration. His log line might be: He was instrumental in improving America’s civil rights.
Richard Nixon generated visceral hatred by some of the electorate and was eventually disgraced by the Watergate scandals which caused his resignation. He brought an end to the Vietnam War and created a peace that ended in a resounding failure and humiliation for America, but it will be his opening up of a dialogue with China which has become his log line. He opened up China.
Ronald Reagan’s log line is an obvious choice: He brought down the Soviet Union. Some might carp at such a broad characterization, but then we are talking about how history will portray him, years in the future.
And how are we to cite how people of the future will mark the Presidential achievements of William Jefferson Clinton? Aside from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment, what log line would best characterize his Presidency despite the fact that he did achieve a monumental change in the welfare system and balanced the budget? But we are dealing here with legacy, some lasting description that will persist into the future. Is He kept the peace and balanced the budget accurate or inspiring enough for our offspring years hence?
So it goes. Grant was a great national hero when he ascended to the Presidency, and he left it a scandal ridden mess and might have been lost to any favorable memory if he had not written that outstanding autobiography. One would be hard put to think of a proper log line to mark his Presidency. How about: He created the Civil Service.
Presidential scholars who deal in such things could undoubtedly expand this cursory list, which I cite to make my main point after having wrestled with the original proposition in the Ivory Tower isolation of my study.
Fast forward to today and George W. Bush is suffering the same contemporary fate as Harry Truman. His ratings are the pits. In my circle, the very mention of his name makes people vibrate with disgust. He will leave office with a deep sigh of relief from most Americans.
Our great grandchildren will be reading what the historians of their day will offer, providing they are interested or care about such things. The raw hate and enmity will have long disappeared, and one can only speculate if there will be any institutions at all named after Mr. Bush. He will undoubtedly have a library, although one cannot fail to wonder about whether these self motivated Presidential Libraries will survive as individual entities into the next millennium. Perhaps school children will barely remember his name and, as most present day pundits aver, he will be dubbed the worst President in history.
At last the “eureka” moment did arrive. Mr. Bush’s log line emerged from the mud of my cogitations. I have expectations of being pilloried by my contemporaries for my choice, but I stand by it with the single exception of some nasty event occurring in the declining months of Mr. Bush’s term. Here is the log line:
After the worst attack on American soil in history, he kept us safe.