David Greenberg discusses what George W. Bush's legacy will be.

David Greenberg discusses what George W. Bush's legacy will be.

David Greenberg discusses what George W. Bush's legacy will be.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 9 2007 5:13 PM

Making Presidential History

David Greenberg discusses what George W. Bush's legacy will be.

Slate "History Lesson" columnist David Greenberg was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Aug. 9, to discuss how President George W. Bush hopes to shape his historical legacy—and how well that will work. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

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New York: How can you even discuss such things before the President has even left office? I am not putting President Bush in the same league necessarily, but many great President's were mocked and scorned (Lincoln, T.R., Truman, etc.) ... history over a century later continues to define their greatness, or to some extent lessens it.

I think once all of this seething hatred subsides, and when we see ourselves in 20 years as it relates to stability in the Middle East, and the threat of Islamic terrorism we can give an honest accounting of President Bush.

All you are doing now is reworking a SNL parody with no historical relevance.

David Greenberg: Wait a second. I think you misunderstood the article, which your comment is actually in agreement with. I agree that it's premature to say with confidence what historians will think of Bush's presidency. We're always revising judgments of presidents—the latest vogue is upward revision of Bush Sr.'s reputation, which has benefited from Bush Jr.'s blunders. Personally, I think Bush has made some terrible decisions, but that's a judgment I offer merely as a political observer, not as a historian per se. I hope my article made that distinction clear.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: I like to ask my friends this speculative question, "Fifty years from now, what will be the worst thing for which Bush is remembered"? The answers have ranged from Iraq to destroying the constitution. My answer is that the Bush Presidency marks the beginning of the decline and fall of the United States. The best answer I received was "since he is getting worse every day, whatever it is, he hasn't done it yet." What do you think is his defining low point as seen 50 years from now.

David Greenberg: Again, being a historian doesn't give me any special insight into the answer to this question--except, I guess, insofar as I have a sense of how other presidents' reputations have changed. And one thing that does seem to me to be fairly consistent is that presidents who restrict civil liberties, even in wartime, are usually judged harshly for it. So most people agree that one of the worst stains on the reputation of FDR, who is widely considered a great president, is the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Likewise, Lincoln is judged harshly for the suspension of habeas corpus. These historical examples inform my feeling—which is nonetheless just a guess—that Bush will be judged most harshly for approving torture, for restricting habeas corpus, and for kindred restrictions of our liberties that he has justified as necessary to defeat terrorism.

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Richmond, Va.: Well, it is my understanding that Bush uses the "legacy" thing to justify everything he does. Over 3,550 death of American troops? over thousands and thousands of Iraqis dead? The misinformation used to impose the so-called liberty plan in Iraq? Not a problem, let the future decide if I'm right or wrong. On that specific subject, do you happen to know whether any other presidents use their legacy as part of their decision-making process (e.g., did Lincoln say slavery was bad because he believed it to be bad, or whether it would look good on his legacy)?

David Greenberg: I think it's actually quite common for presidents to believe that future generations will render a verdict on their presidencies that is more lasting or definitive than the judgments of their contemporaries. The reason is that although history is certainly "an argument without end"—we're still debating many age-old questions—time does help settle others. Even with something as recent as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, virtually everyone today believes that it was on the "right" side of history, and people who opposed, say, the 1964 Civil Rights Act will admit they were wrong. I'm hard pressed to give an example on the spot of a president who explicitly spoke of the vindication of history, but I'm confident that there are many such examples. I should add that I find it hard to imagine that future historians will see the Iraq War as a big plus in Bush's ledger, but we have to admit that we simply don't know for sure.

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Belmar, N.J.: I think the world got a great look at the President's legacy earlier today when he was asked that final question about accountability and rambled on for five minutes about Iraq being worth it. His legacy will be about trying (and, unfortunately, largely succeeding) to keep his administration above the law and never being held accountable.

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My question for you is do you think the reporter would have had the courage to say "you never answered my question" if the President didn't close things out at that moment?

David Greenberg: Sure, I think it's fine for reporters to say things like that. To be fair, these press conferences are not the best way to elicit candid replies from any president. It's always easy for the president to dodge a question, and reporters don't always get to follow up. I don't think it's fair to blame reporters for not being "tough enough" on presidents in these situations, which are inherently difficult. The place for them to be aggressive is in their reporting that occurs out of the limelight.

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Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Adolf Hitler was Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" at least once. Perhaps Bush will be an outstanding historical figure for how badly he messed things up, not through malice, as Hitler, but through ideological blindness and incompetence.

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David Greenberg: It certainly seems likely that Bush's presidency--particularly the September 11th attacks, the Iraq war, and all the related events--will be of great historical significance. So, yes, Bush's actions will matter and will merit close study for a long time to come.

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Boston: Would I not be correct in noting that President Bush may know history, but he did not study the lessons of the Vietnam War, except to note that one should not allow the battles and images of the dead and wounded to be shown on television? There are many differences between Iraq and Vietnam, so comparisons are not fully reasonable. Yet, hasn't President Bush failed to realize the difficulties of placing foreign troops onto native soil, the failure to realize how to fight guerrillas/militias rather than a standard armed forces foe and that the dangers of placing insufficient troops with no alternatives on how to end the war should it fail to go according to expectations?

David Greenberg: On one level, I agree with the sentiments here. Although I've written a lot in Slate and elsewhere about the dangers of drawing facile analogies between Iraq and Vietnam, Bush and his advisers do seem to have overlooked the "lessons" of Vietnam that you refer to. But maybe they concluded that the situation was different enough that those lessons wouldn't be applicable. We should remember that when we invaded Iraq in 2003, the more recent memories were of the 1991 Gulf War and what seemed then to be the successful war in Afghanistan in 2001-02. Also perhaps Panama and Grenada. What I'm getting at is that from today's vantage point, it's easy to see that certain errors are being repeated. But many people--not only Bush--believed that Vietnam had made America too reluctant to use military force and that the above examples suggested that such force could work effectively. I personally opposed the Iraq invasion, and perhaps that opposition was informed by my knowledge of Vietnam, but "history" can be used to support or oppose all kinds of policy decisions. Where one person invokes the lessons of Vietnam, another cites the lessons of Munich. We don't always know in advance who'll be right.

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Washington, D.C.:"That Bush will be judged most harshly for approving torture, for restricting habeas corpus, and for kindred restrictions of our liberties that he has justified as necessary to defeat terrorism."

Okay, he hasn't done any of these things ... the media has said he has and people are stupid enough to believe it. We aren't torturing anyone (Bill Clinton started the policy of rendition), name one restriction on your liberty? Did you just close your eyes and cut and paste from moveon.org.

David Greenberg: This is the kind of vitriol that gives chats like this, and blogs and the like, a bad name.

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Stafford, Va.: How much will Bush get the blame for things that his administration had done and how much blame will Cheney get, if any at all?

David Greenberg: The buck stops here, as Bush's (sort of) hero Harrry Truman said. Cheney, I surmise from what I read, is very influential. But Bush is the "decider," and he is free to reject his vice president's advice whenever he chooses. I am always amazed at the degree to which Cheney gets blamed or described as more powerful than Bush. Yes, he has great influence on Bush--but only because Bush values his input. Colin Powell, in the first term, began as a man with considerable stature. But by and large Bush didn't follow his advice, and so he turned out not to have the power that many had predicted.

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Middletown, R.I.: I am 64-years-old. I was talking to a WWII vet recently and both of us came to the conclusion that George W. Bush is the worst president in our lifetimes. Both of us are mostly upset by the Iraq War Policy and its human and economic cost. I feel that he and Cheney deserve to be impeached but am not sure what that would accomplish except to show for the record how he abused his official powers and betrayed the values that our government was founded on. Bush and the neocons should reflect on the results of their policies and stop trying to justify them. They were wrong and should take responsibility for them! Do you think that the future conservative faction of the Republican party will ever admit this?

David Greenberg: Two point here. First, I hope it's clear by now that while I certainly judge the war and other actions of this administration harshly, it's simply premature to declare Bush the worst president ever, or the worst of our times. Back in December, I and several other historians were asked by the Washington Post's Outlook section to answer whether Bush is "the worst." I began my piece by noting how many other presidents, including Truman and Eisenhower, were called "the worst" in their own days. That kind of rhetoric is natural, but it doesn't mean much.

Second, I think that a lot of Republicans and conservatives are indeed admitting they were wrong about the war. If anything, there's sometimes an effort to make Bush shoulder all the blame. We forget how much support he has had from Congress, the courts, much of the media, and indeed much of the public, for many things he did that are now unpopular. Yes, as president, he bears chief responsibility. But he didn't cause all our problems singlehandedly.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: Letting history judge means letting historians look at the evidence, which Bush has never seemed interested in: one of his first actions as president was to protect presidential documents from inspection for the foreseeable future, wasn't it? Perhaps what he has in mind is more spinning the historical interpretation of his time in office than an objective examination?

David Greenberg: That's a very important point. Bush did expand the president's ability to close off presidential records, and to classify records, and that was reprehensible. In the long run (we hope) they will still become public, but what he's doing is affording himself protection for more than the 12 years that under Clinton had been (I believe; I haven't double checked this) the norm for disclosure of presidential records.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Is it Bush's or the neocons' legacy? The worst disasters of his presidency seem to have been the result of his advisors (and his inability to stand up to them). Bush's personal projects, such as lower taxes for the rich, disastrous No Child Left Behind, etc. will not have the lasting impact of the inroads on the Constitution and the Iraq War.

David Greenberg: I think we should avoid the term "neocon" here. Bush is not a neocon, nor is Cheney, nor Rumsfeld. They are conservatives. Neoconservatism was the name given in the early 1970s to thinkers like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz who grew disillusioned in the 1960s with liberalism and moved to the right. And while some Bush aides, such as Paul Wolfowitz, may have been influenced by neoconservative thought, the chief policymakers—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice—do not fit the neocon profile. Unfortunately, the term neocon has crept into the language to describe Bush. I think it should be avoided.

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New York: First, let's not forget Shopenhauer's view of Hegelian philosophy: "... a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage. ..." Yep! Sounds like the Bushies to me!

David Greenberg: I'm not familiar with that quote from Schopenhauer (sp?), but the more recondite continental philosophy we can bring to bear on this discussion the better!

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New York: Hi, David. Thanks for the chat. Wondered why in your Slate article you didn't touch on other historical world leaders and their affinity w/ Hegel's special brand of philosophy. I'm talking primarily about Adolf Hitler, of course.

If one needs an example of a philosophy which can lead millions of people into ruin, then one need look no further than the philosophy of Hegel; it has been "the justification of extremist authoritarian creeds from Fascism to Communism." (Chambers)

David Greenberg: Well, the article was meant to be about Bush, not about Hegel. I'm reminded of a quote from Ted Sorensen, JFK's old speechwriter, who said at a memorial service for the late Arthur Schlesinger (and I'm paraphrasing here) that when the two men were co-writing an op-ed piece about the Iraq War, Schlesinger suggested they add a quote from Hegel. When Sorensen then tried to throw in some German philosophy, Schlesinger clarified: "No, I meant Chuck Hagel!"

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Washington, D.C.: History will be kind to w. ...

Record low unemployment, record high stock markets and home ownership. Every time the stock market hit a new high under Clinton, it was a front page news story. Barely even a mention when it happened under Bush, and it has happened something like 35 times. If the media were more even handed, his image would be better. He got us out of the Clinton/Gore recession of the late '90s that was started after they taxed businesses into death, let china into the WTO, and brought us the dot-com bust.

History will be kind to W. ...

David Greenberg: I think this is a very partisan opinion. The recession, I believe, started in 2000, not the late 1990s, and the greater prominence of economic news in the 1990s surely had less to do with any lack of "evenhandedness" in the media than with (a) the productivity boom; and (b) 9/11.

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Jersey City, N.J.: President Bush has said that he believes God chose him to be our president at this time of crisis. Why does he think God hates America so much?

David Greenberg: Ouch! Get yourself a blog and press credentials and ask Bush at his next press conference!

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Fairfax, Va.: The idea of a serious discussion about Bush's "legacy" misdirects us from the harsh reality of Bush's impact on the past six years and the here and now. The fact that the MSM likes to promote discussions like this rather than talk about the really horrific state of our nation, or what the raging class warfare that Bush has visited on our people means on a day to day basis is so disheartening.

I suggest instead you click on weta.org and watch recent Bill Moyers Journal broadcasts to find out what's going on in America. Then see if you still want to postulate whether Bush is a man of history or simply an astounding failure who has hurt and let down his countrymen to an unprecedented degree.

David Greenberg: A fair point. Although I think you're mistaken (a) in treating the mainstream media as a monolith here with a single, unfied desire; and (b) in suggesting that real-world consequences of the war are somehow lacking in the media, I agree that the current sense of polarization, of rancor, and of despair is itself an important part of what Bush has accomplished, if unintentionally. We have to judge presidents not only by the long-term consequences of their actions but also by how they make citizens in their own day feel. One reason that Nixon never succeeded in his comeback campaign is that he had such a negative impact on public trust at the time of his presidency.

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New York: David: As a historian, as a country, would we not have a better debate if we all should the proper respect for the President and dispatched with such words as "W" or "Bushies" or even "Bush?" I mean, he is the President of the United States of America so we should debate his policies, debate them loudly, but always always show the proper respect that he and this country and this office deserve!

David Greenberg: I don't agree. Although I do get repulsed by a lot of the commentary--even from those whose politics I share--what bothers me more is when that ugliness is directed toward individual journalists or citizens voicing their views. In contrast, the president, by virtue of his office, is the object of intense feelings, from admiration to hatred. It's always been that way; it comes with the territory. Besides, "W" and "Bushies" are hardly the most pejorative of terms.

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Conservatism v. Neo: I think many movement conservatives these days would quibble with your view that Bush/Cheney are "conservatives." I still think they conform more to neo-conservative (and sometimes even neo-liberal) principles. What has been "conservative" about what Bush/Cheney have done to our nation? By the way, what's the defining principle of American Conservatism, anyway?

David Greenberg: The definition of conservative is a huge question that I can't answer here. But on the whole, conservatives have favored the more aggressive, unilateral, and unrestrained use of American force overseas—like Bush and Reagan and other Republican leaders. Conservatives have favored lower taxes, especially on the wealthy, and less regulation on business. Conservatives (apart from libertarians, a rather small minority) are more ready to expand wartime power and restrict civil liberties. Conservative are less concerned with taking steps to ensure equality for blacks and women.... and so on. I think we all share a working definition of liberal and conservative. To say that "Bush isn't a true conservative because conservatism implies humility..." or ".. because conservatism implies balancing the budget..." or whatever is specious.

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Oxford, Miss.: I think the "history has yet to decide" approach to the Bush legacy is sensible in terms of Iraq, which, unlikely as it may be, could still turn out a success in the long run. BUT, when it comes to the bungling of home-based disasters like Katrina and the wide-spread corruption and secrecy of the administration policies, I'd say the die is already cast.

David Greenberg: I agree that on some issues, especially the handling of Katrina, it's all but impossible to imagine a favorable verdict on Bush emerging down the road.

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Los Angeles: You said "the chief policymakers—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice—do not fit the neocon profile."

Can you elaborate on that? Both Cheney and Rumsfeld were actively involved with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), right? Isn't PNAC a de facto neocon policy approach?

David Greenberg: I don't see PNAC as neocon in particular. I think that by the 1990s, most of the significant distinctions between neoconservatism and straight conservatism had faded away. Paul Starr wrote an essay in The New Republic in the 1990s called "Nothing Neo" that captured this merging of the two streams of ideology under Reagan. In Jim Mann's excellent book The Rise of the Vulcans, he offers a much more fruitful way of thinking about the differences in foreign policy that emerged. They centered more on a willingness to use American military force abroad.

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New York: Wow David! I just lost tons of respect for you—you really do not love this country if you do not respect the flag and the office of the president of the United States of America. If you think name calling is healthy. Whose side are you on sir?

David Greenberg: This question is an example of the sort of name calling that I do not respect.

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Reisterstown, Md.: George Bush may indeed move history—just not the way he intended. Bin Laden successfully incited us into open aggression against the Muslim world. Conversely, Bush's off-kilter intervention in Iraq may yet embroil the Muslim world in all-out civil war. The immediate downside of that, for us, is that it affects our oil supply. But maybe that's a good thing, since burning oil is bad for the atmosphere, and we were running out of it anyway. Taking into account our dependence on it (my house will be worthless without gas for my car), the Bush Administration is accelerating tremendous change. I just don't think it's change they foresaw.

David Greenberg: Neocons warned against unintended consequences of sweeping policies. This may be one such unintended consequence.

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Philadelphia: Just gotta say to New York: Yes, we should show the office of the president respect. However, the man in that office prefers to go by Dubya, and flashed the Texas Hook'em Horns at his inaugeration, so I think we're okay using "W" or "Bushies" or just "Bush".

David Greenberg: Well said (if not well spelled). The general tenor of our political discourse has become much looser and more informal over the years. A certain amount of informality is fine and normal and shouldn't be seen as disrepectful. And people can also make distinctions between the office of the presidency and the person who occupies it. You can respect the office even as you lose respect for the individual.

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Arlo, Iowa: Mr. Greenberg:

What has the President, in your opinion, done right in his two and a half terms?

If the answer is "nothing" than you will be seen more as a political ideologue and not a historian.

I would like to hear from the later!

David Greenberg: Running out of time here, but the first thing that leaps to mind is the initial decision to go after the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Am I still a historian? Please let me know!

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Freising, Germany: Iraq and Middle East politics may still be up in the air, but in a hundred years from now, if pessimistic forecasts come true, it may actually be global warming that most defines this administration.

David Greenberg: Provocative thought. Of course, if global warming is going to be the end of us, it will require the continued passivity of future administrations as well.

Now I'm really out of time. So long, folks. Thanks for the questions; I hope at least some of you found at least some of my replies to be interesting.