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During an April appearance on ABC News, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said something that would have sounded impossible to anyone who had followed American politics in the first decade of the 21st century.
“I’m sorry, President Bush,” said Pelosi after mistakenly invoking his name instead of Donald Trump’s. “I never thought I would pray for the day that you were president again.”
The Democratic leader in Congress repeated the sentiment in early June on MSNBC, saying that she wished George W. Bush were president. Pelosi — one of Bush’s main antagonists — benefited from his plunge in approval in his second term, which led to a Democratic surge in the 2006 midterms, making her the first-ever female speaker of the House. But in the age of Trump and his 60 percent disapproval rating, Pelosi is not alone in missing the last Republican president.
Earlier this year, when Bush was promoting his book of paintings and stories of veterans, “Portraits of Courage,” he went on Ellen DeGeneres’ show and shared a hug with the host. He had a cordial visit with Jimmy Kimmel, whose criticism of the Republican health care plan went viral this spring. At comedian Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner special, Will Ferrell strutted out to do his Bush impersonation, opening by asking the audience, “How do you like me now?” Actor Aziz Ansari praised Bush’s response to 9/11 during a “Saturday Night Live” monologue. The Guardian’s editorial board called Bush’s book tour “a welcome return,” while People magazine offered a glowing investigation into his friendship with Michelle Obama. “I like George Bush now!” exclaimed liberal comedian Joy Behar on “The View” after the former president had criticized the current one for attacking the media.
But the list of Bush’s transgressions, in the minds of his detractors, is long. There was the foray into Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the destabilization of an entire region, and the use of torture along the way. There was the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which led to two infamous quotes that will forever be associated with his presidency — one by Bush to FEMA Director Michael Brown (“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”) 10 days before Brown resigned, and one by Kanye West during a telethon to raise money for the hurricane victims (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”) The economy cratered in his final year, a Great Recession that wiped out retirement savings, housing value and jobs for millions of Americans. Then there were the proposals that didn’t become law: support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and a plan for the privatization of Social Security that, when combined with the crash of 2008, would have crippled the program.
The final Gallup poll of his presidency had Bush at a 61 percent disapproval rate versus just 34 percent approval. He did not speak at the Republican national conventions in 2008 or in 2012 when John McCain and Mitt Romney, respectively, were nominated, a break from recent precedent. A 2015 survey by the Brookings Institution ranked Bush 35th out of the 43 men to hold the office, and criticisms of Bush throughout the 2016 primary didn’t hurt Trump with Republican voters.
But is the thawing of public opinion on Bush a result of the contrast with the current Oval Office occupant, or does absence simply make the heart grow fonder for former presidents? According to historians, it’s a little bit of both.
“Americans are really nice to future and past presidents, but they’re pretty darn mean to incumbent presidents,” said Barbara A. Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Part of it is the rosy glow of nostalgia: ‘Those were the good old days and we just didn’t know it.’”
“It’s almost an American tradition to give presidents an upward revision after they leave office,” said Douglas Brinkley, an author and history professor at Rice. “Only Richard Nixon, due to the damage of the tapes, doesn’t fit that paradigm, so it only makes sense because once you leave office you’re no longer the bullseye of the opposition. A kind of nostalgia and fondness kick in, you open a big presidential library and write a best-selling memoir, and pick a few media shows to go on in which your interrogators are friends and you’re able to start rebuilding a post-presidential life.”
There is data to back up the anecdotes. In 2013, Gallup published a study that found “presidents’ retrospective approval ratings are almost always more positive than their job approval ratings while in office,” and that Bush’s mark was already better just a year removed from his final days in office.
There are two post-World War II examples of presidents who exited with approval ratings similar to Bush’s but who rebuilt their reputations — the beneficiaries of historical perspective as well as their own post-presidential activities. When Harry Truman left office, he was at 32 percent approval versus 56 percent disapproval. There were a number of factors at play in Truman’s lack of popularity, according to Perry, including the stalemate in the Korean War and the comparison to his overwhelmingly popular predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Truman left office in 1953, he moved to Independence, Mo., and began work on his library. Following his death in 1972, history did the rehabilitating for him. “Plain Speaking,” an oral biography of his conversations with author Merle Miller, was published, providing a stark contrast to the quagmire in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal swirling around Nixon.
“With Korea, 20 years later when Lyndon Johnson was having all the trouble he was having in Vietnam,” said Kurt Graham, director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, “people realized there was an outcome in Asia that was worse than a stalemate — you could actually lose. And as Vietnam became part of the American consciousness, people looked back and thought, ‘Maybe Harry Truman’s restraint in not getting involved, stopping at the 38th Parallel, not pursuing, not drawing China in — maybe he was wiser than we gave him credit for at the time.”
The Truman nostalgia grew to the point that a song by the band Chicago, with the president’s name as the title, reached the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975, with the opening lines “America needs you, Harry Truman/Harry, could you please come home.” By the time David McCullough’s bestselling and Pulitzer-winning biography was published in 1992, Truman had gone from 56 percent disapproval to consistently ranking near the top of presidential surveys.
Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency provides another example. He left office in 1981 with just a 34 percent approval rating versus 55 percent disapproval, having suffered a 9-point loss to Ronald Reagan in his bid for reelection in 1980. Carter’s term was marred by inflation as the result of an oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis and — according to historian Randall Balmer — Carter’s lack of tact in dealing with Congress. Balmer, who teaches at Dartmouth and is the author of “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter,” says that Carter’s strategy of post-presidential rehab via the Carter Center was deliberate.
“What Carter did when he left office, he could have gone into a golden retirement at that point, but he chose not to, and instead he followed an intentional and deliberate strategy to continue working on the things that he cared about. In some ways his post-presidency was his second term that he never was able to win,” said Balmer. “I think his reputation rebounded due to his long advocacy for eradicating tropical diseases, pursuing clean elections around the world and trying to be a broker for peace in various areas of conflict.”
In his post-presidency, Carter has contributed to building homes through Habitat for Humanity and working to eradicate river blindness and Guinea-worm disease. The center has monitored more than 100 elections, and Carter’s diplomatic work in Haiti, North Korea and across the globe helped earn him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. By 1990, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Carter to be more popular than Reagan, the man who had defeated him by more than 400 electoral votes a decade earlier.
Bush’s post-presidency seems modeled more on that of Truman, a personal hero of his.
“George W. Bush always admired Harry Truman, and the way Truman went back to Independence and became one of the folks,” said Brinkley. “If you spend time in Dallas, everybody has a sighting of George and Laura Bush, and they maneuver around town without any pomposity or feeling of self-aggrandizement, so a kind of folklore has grown around him in Dallas of being such a wonderful guy.”
Bush has not been entirely absent from the public scene. He has continued to urge support for AIDS relief in Africa, including a Washington Post op-ed earlier this year about the need to continue funding the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. He joined with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in 2010 to help raise money for earthquake relief in Haiti, and funds from the sales of his newest book are going to the Bush Center’s Military Service Initiative, which helps ease the transition for veterans coming back home.
“Before Trump, I would have said there’s a limit to the upside of Bush’s rehabilitation,” said Perry, “but if Trump forever alters the presidency, it’s possible that Bush and all the ‘normal’ presidents that preceded the shift would be viewed very favorably.”
But even if Bush continues to look more palatable in contrast to Trump, while benefiting from sepia-toned nostalgia, the multitude of mistakes he made during his eight years will likely put a ceiling on his approval ratings.
“It’s going to be a hard upward revision with scholars because of the Great Recession and the unpopular Iraq War,” said Brinkley. “The war in Iraq was Bush’s war of choice and it didn’t go well, and the Great Recession happened on his watch, so there’s only so much historical rehabilitation that can be done.”
“Historians in the future will surely focus on Bush’s significant failures: Iraq, Katrina and the financial meltdown, chief among them,” said Kevin Kruse, an author and history professor at Princeton. “But as time passes, they’ll increasingly be drawn to the differences between his presidency and his Republican successor, most notably on matters of race and religion. Bush sought to broaden the Republican coalition, softening the party’s stances on immigration and making room for Latinos and African-Americans as well. More impressively, his outreach to Muslims at home and abroad in the wake of 9/11 made for a notable departure on religious liberty as well.”
“But,” added Kruse, “there are significant failures on his watch that no amount of comparison will ever make good.”
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