Steinberg: Americans reflect on George W. Bush
BY NEIL STEINBERG firstname.lastname@example.org April 23, 2013 7:22PM
George W. Bush
Updated: May 25, 2013 6:25AM
Time softens. Passions cool, and history takes a more nuanced view. What seems one way now seems another.
It might soften too much, in the complex interplay between our own lives and the historical eras we pass through. I’ll never forget my father telling me, “People were kinder when I was growing up” and my reply: “This era of kindness of which you speak, dad, would that be the Great Depression, or World War II? Because I just don’t see it.”
I have done the same thing, though, with Richard Nixon, who proved as shifty in death as he was in life. In office, Nixon was a president I despised with all the intensity my little teenage Democratic heart could muster. It was a shock to me — a true, maybe-I-need-to-rethink-this shock — to watch his 1994 funeral, with honors, with Bill Clinton, for God’s sake, extolling him. Had the world gone mad? Nixon! But my opinion had begun to follow, in the wake of the presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — suddenly Nixon didn’t seem so bad. And of course George W. Bush, whose presidential library in Dallas opens officially Thursday and to the public May 1.
Thus, four years and change since he left office, Bush is being re-examined. In one sense, the consensus could hardly be worse than when he left — just 33 percent of Americans viewed him favorably, then, versus 47 percent who approve of him now.
What happened? Were Americans too harsh then, or are we too kind now? The facts themselves haven’t changed (though in these polls, they can seem to — the most glaring example I know is this: a poll taken in June, 1963, revealed that 59 percent of Americans say they had voted for the popular young president, John F. Kennedy; a year later, 65 percent told pollsters they had cast a ballot for their martyred leader, numbers which must give us pause, because the true figure of Americans who cast a ballot for Kennedy in November, 1960 is 49.7 percent.
That would suggest a drifting away from reality, a nostalgia, that when the spinning carnival wheel of history finally stops, Bush will ratchet downward again, for his unnecessary war in Iraq, his inept response to Hurricane Katrina, his economy-ruining folly.
Maybe it will. Maybe not. Too soon to tell — we can’t judge Bush while the wars he started still wind down. The best we can do is strike a balance, especially given how easy it is for us to gather at the extremes, like metal filings crowding the poles of a magnet. I am obligated to mention Bush’s achievements. He led the country well immediately after the shock of 9/11, making a point of rejecting the impulse to fan the flames of domestic hate, credit the war in Iraq doesn’t fully erase.. Before the attack happened, he had been taking a commonsense approach toward immigration, and he was right on international issues such as Israel and Taiwan. Even his worst blunder, the Iraqi War, has to be mitigated: we have no idea what future mischief Saddam Hussein, who had already invaded Kuwait, might have done, and seeing the threat the Iranians and the Syrians pose, we have to realize that all our problems wouldn’t have disappeared had we left him. Cold comfort to the loved ones of the dead.
Me, I have a hard time despising anyone, particularly over time. I like to be on good paper. Even colleagues stewing over some column I wrote years ago, I’ll try to chat them up, extend a hand. It doesn’t typically work, but that’s their business. Hating, as the saying goes, is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. You don’t want to give villains a pass, but it’s good to remember there are few true villains. Nobody is pure evil or, in Bush’s case, completely blundering, though he certainly did a spot-on imitation.
Facts remain constant, but the story of the past changes. John Adams rose in stature when historians decided to view him through the lens of his wife, Abigail.
We who lived through the Bush years can’t judge them because we were there. Our own lives obscure and confuse what happened. That is also typical. The best example of this is Samuel Pepys, the frank 1660s English diarist. Yes, he is eyewitness to key moments of his London era — the Great Fire, the aftermath of Cromwell — but he is so enthralled by his precious self he can hardly notice what’s going on. “These last three months, for joy, health and profit, have been much the greatest that ever I received in all my life,” Pepys writes in 1665. “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.”
That last bit refers to the Black Death, the bubonic plague that killed nearly 20 percent of his fellow Londoners. He hardly noticed.
Our egos rarely blind us to the extent of a Pepys, who would offer to buy the children of villagers as a lark. But we are all somewhere on the scale. Maybe Bush deserves to be considered a mediocrity at best — I’d put my chips there. Maybe unappreciated qualities will be discovered. It’s happened before.