September 11. Katrina. Iraq. These events will be forever linked with the presidency of George W. Bush. Now, with the release of his memoir, “Decision Points,” the former president has the chance to defend his record and explain his actions. But as historians and the public alike look back on the Bush White House, will we be able to move past the persistent myths that endure about those tumultuous eight years?
George W. Bush was an uninformed Texas cowboy.
Nobody loved this myth more than Bush himself. During his 2000 campaign against Vice President Al Gore, then-Gov. Bush went to great lengths to depict himself as a down-home Texan whom voters could relate to. Even on a weekend when he was considering as momentous a choice as his running mate, reporters watched as Bush climbed into his SUV and drove down the dirt roads of his Crawford ranch.
But that image was at odds with his upbringing. Bush was born in New Haven, Conn., and his family moved to West Texas seeking to establish an economic beachhead in the region’s oil industry. With a grandfather who served as a U.S. senator from Connecticut and a father who worked as an oil executive before leading the CIA and eventually becoming president, Bush had plenty of blue in his blood. (The Andover-Yale-Harvard trifecta didn’t hurt, either.)
Again in 2004, Republicans deployed the president’s folksy image and manner of speech, contrasting Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (the elitist who windsurfs off Nantucket) with Bush (the guy you’d rather have a beer with – even if he doesn’t drink).
Bush’s image backfired later, of course. As the administration stumbled in crises from Katrina to Iraq, the reputation that had helped Bush win office turned into a huge liability as Americans increasingly questioned his competence.
2. “Compassionate conservatism” was just a campaign slogan.
Many critics dismiss Bush’s talk about “compassionate conservatism” as nothing more than a cynical ploy to win over moderate voters in 2000. Liberals never believed that Bush truly wanted to bring racial and ethnic diversity to the Republican Party or that he accepted the need for the federal government to deal with entrenched social problems. The administration’s bungled response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, along with regressive fiscal policies that disproportionately benefited wealthier Americans, also seemed to contradict the promise of compassion.
Yet, as Vanderbilt University historian Gary Gerstle has shown, Bush was personally invested in compassionate conservatism. While growing up in Texas and later serving as governor, Bush constantly befriended and worked with members of his state’s Hispanic community and fought for the rights of immigrants. “Once children are in Texas,” he said in 1995, “Texans know it is in our best interest and their interest to educate them, regardless of the nationality of their parents.” In his gubernatorial reelection victory in 1998, Bush won 49 percent of the Hispanic vote and 27 percent of the black vote – a strong showing for a Republican in Texas. (It is unsurprising that, in his memoir, Bush reportedly describes the accusations of racism he experienced in the aftermath of Katrina as “the worst moment of my presidency.”)
Bush’s experience as a born-again Christian led him to empathize with individuals’ personal struggles and to respect the role of religion in civic life. As president, he insisted that the war on terrorism must not become a war against Muslims. And his signature legislative accomplishments included expansive domestic programs, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (a huge extension of the federal government into primary education) and the Medicare prescription drug benefit (the biggest expansion of the system since its creation 40 years earlier).
Compassionate conservatism struggled not because Bush lacked conviction but because the GOP turned against it. Hard-line congressional Republicans stifled his efforts to liberalize immigration policy, for example. By 2006 and 2007, with his political capital rapidly diminishing because of the war in Iraq, Bush had little ability to fight back.
3. Bush committed America to nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush appeared to commit the United States to remaking enemy nations into pro-Western democracies. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States destroyed the governments in power and touted an ambitious “freedom agenda” far exceeding anything even Woodrow Wilson ever conceived. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” Bush said in November 2003.
Yet in many ways, Bush’s commitment to nation-building was primarily a rhetorical tool to build domestic support for military operations. In the minds of key foreign policy players on Bush’s team, regime change, not rebuilding civil societies, was the real goal. Memories of the fall of the Soviet Union made officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney optimistic that such transformations were possible on the cheap. This lack of commitment became clear when U.S. resources were hastily diverted from Afghanistan toward Iraq, and when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emphasized in the spring of 2002 that the Afghan people would have to handle most of the reconstruction themselves.
Ironically, President Obama now finds himself deeply involved in nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the ambivalence of the president who launched those wars.
4. Dick Cheney ran the Bush White House.
The Bush era produced a stream of good books examining the vice president’s hidden influence. We learned how this crafty insider expanded executive power and shaped foreign policy by relying on a network of loyal advisers. In these accounts, Bush appears as a puppet to the real leader, Cheney, who lurked in the shadows.
However, much of the subsequent writing about the Bush presidency – including works by journalists such as The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward – challenges this portrait. We have begun to see instead that Bush, surrounded by political advisers such as Karl Rove, didn’t allow power to move too far away from his control.
Cheney opposed Bush’s decision to fire Rumsfeld and resented the fact that the president would not pardon “Scooter” Libby, a Cheney aide who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Bush rejected the vice president’s preference for a hard-line stance toward North Korea and Iran, and it was Bush, not Cheney, who pushed for the troop surge in Iraq in 2007 as well as the TARP bailouts in 2008. And according to reports on Bush’s memoir, the president even considered removing Cheney from the 2004 presidential ticket, given the vice president’s “Darth Vader” reputation.
5. Bush left conservatism in ruins.
On election night in 2008, the conservative era appeared to be over, and the age of Obama seemed set to begin.
Except it didn’t happen that way. From the early months of the Obama administration, congressional Republicans proved remarkably disciplined. Only a few broke ranks by voting for the stimulus bill, and frustration over the economy and health-care reform – together with effective lobbying by conservative organizations – contributed to the strength and reach of the tea party movement. A recent poll by The Post, the Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University found that Americans dislike government more now than they did 10 years ago (though they support many specific programs).
A powerful network of conservative donors and political operators, ranging from the Koch brothers to Dick Armey, have offered organizational and financial support to conservative activists and politicians, while conservative media outlets have given the right a powerful base from which to attack Obama. The Republican victories in the midterm elections suggest that, for all the problems that still face the GOP, conservatism is alive and well – even if it is a far different brand of conservatism than the kind Bush championed when he took office in 2001.
Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, is the editor of “The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment.”