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December 19, 2012 | 7 comments
Alvin Felzenberg rethinks the presidential rating game.
(Page 2 of 2)
But no matter. Feltzenberg’s rankings, which made the first edition of this book both predictably controversial and surprisingly popular, are a welcome release from the group-think evaluations imposed by several generations of Schlesingerite academics. This new and revised edition should also prompt strong reactions for its early assessment of the Bush years and its preliminary observations on the early days of the Obama administration.
“Forecasting how history will ultimately regard George W. Bush’s presidency so soon after he left office is a fool’s errand,” writes Felzenberg. “As Bush noted, what future historians will write about him rests to a large degree on his successor.”
An astute observation, borne out by the historic record. Had Eisenhower not found a way to bring the Korean War to a minimally successful end, for instance, history would probably have judged Truman, who committed us to participating in that war, much more harshly. Similarly, if Obama is able to hold the Bush-led victory in Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan, he will not only strengthen his own standing but validate the Bush approach, to which his escalation of the war has committed him.
As Felzenberg points out, much the same situation pertains in other aspects of Obama administration policy. Despite the campaign promises, Guantanamo remains open for business. Education programs are little changed, as are “faith-based initiatives.” On the economy, “Obama continued Bush’s policy of purchasing stocks with tax payers funds” and “expanded upon Bush’s initiative to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into Chrysler and General Motors.” Obama continues to draw on the economic advice of golden boys from institutions like Goldman also favored by the Bush economists. In other areas — immigration, executive prerogatives, “signing statements” — there seems little difference.
In short, at least for the first term, Obama, much to the dismay and anguish of his neo-romantic young supporters and most of academe, seems intent on bringing the programs and policies initiated during the Bush administration to successful conclusions. One school of thought has it that he doesn’t know what else to do. But whatever the motivations, an evaluation of Bush as president depends to a somewhat surprising extent on the successes or failures of the Obama presidency.
IN HIS PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS of Bush as president, Felzenberg enumerates those idiosyncrasies that so infuriated his enemies. At Andover, where he was known as “the Lip,” Bush “began a lifetime practice of addressing peers by nicknames, often derisive…He also acquired what appeared to be an omnipresent smirk.” As president, Felzenberg continues, mercilessly, “Bush occasionally reverted to the quirky behavior he had displayed as an adolescent.”
There was the wink at Queen Elizabeth and the “unwelcome back rub” administered to Angela Merkel. And in accepting his party’s nomination for the second time, “Bush drew attention to the strut some detected in his gait. ‘In Texas, they call this walking,’ he said.” (And good for him, some murmured, perhaps remembering Richard Nixon in Latin America, confronting rock-throwing demonstrators, climbing up on the hood of his car, grinning, flashing the victory sign, and telling an aide: “This’ll drive them up the wall!”)
But Bush was also a man who grew, writes Felzenberg, who developed considerable strength of character — an “attitudinal conservative” who despite a privileged upbringing instinctively and emotionally sided with “ordinary Americans”; an executive who “valued brevity and consensus”; a model husband and father who stopped drinking and sincerely embraced religion. “Religion…brought out Bush’s sense of empathy. Stories about his demonstrations of kindness and generosity toward wounded soldiers, surviving relatives of victims of terrorist attacks, and others abound.”
Felzenberg gives Bush a 3 out of a possible 5 for “Character” on his ratings chart, tying FDR and, of course, beating Clinton. He also earns a 3 for “Preserving and Expanding Liberty,” tying, among others, Jefferson, both Adamses, and his father. Under “Defense, National Security, and Foreign Policy,” he beats out Carter and ties with Nixon, Jackson, and others. His worst rating is a 1 for “Competence,” owing in large part to the Katrina fiasco.
In all, in his early assessment of the Bush presidency, Felzenberg leaves us with this: “However history may fault Bush for his decision-making process and his handling of the war in Iraq for much of his time in office, it may also credit him for the courage he showed in pressing for Petraeus’s surge in the face of almost unanimous opposition. Future president Barack Obama predicted in 2006 that the surge would fail and denied in 2007 that it was working.”
But it did work. And now, three years later, President Obama is pressing for his own surge in Afghanistan. And he has chosen General Petraeus to lead it.
“Finally,” writes Felzenberg, “while historians will for decades debate the soundness of Bush’s actions…they will note that Bush’s defenders were correct in at least one respect: after September 11, 2001, for the rest of Bush’s presidency, no further attack upon Americans took place within the United States. That too will remain an important part of Bush’s legacy.”
It most certainly will, especially now that it’s difficult if not impossible for academics to play the ratings game by simply echoing approved ideological judgments. Of course, as long as there are liberals and academics, the Schlesinger syndrome will be with us. But it will never again be as potent as it once seemed on that dreary December morning, when Alvin Felzenberg decided to take it on.
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