COMMENTARY | History is a fickle sort and open to revision once things unknown become known, such as presidential records and classified documents that reveal the inner workings of government. But that fickleness won’t matter much with regard to President George W. Bush, because, on the day of the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum , most of those revelatory documents still won’t be open to public viewing. And to get a more favorable viewing from history, something the 43rd president of the United States thus far hasn’t gotten from many historians , there will have to be reason to alter their current positions with regard to his administration. But some already see Bush as a two-sided president, most often splitting the different administrative styles by term and finding him a better president in the latter.
Could it be that he became a better president once he stopped listening to Vice President Dick Cheney?
Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, whose 2006 article asked whether or not Bush was the worst president in U.S. history, says he looks a bit more favorably on the president than he did then — mostly due to his actions in the last few years of his presidency. He told NPR : “I don’t think this administration is going to be judged terribly well, but it’s true that the last two years were different.”
During those last couple years, Bush oversaw better strategies with dealing with the quagmire that was the war in Iraq (by listening to his generals on the ground and not the civilians in the Department of Defense), pushed the idea of TARP (seen as a bulwark against the Great Recession descending into a second Great Depression), and initiated the highly successful bailout for the Big Three automakers in Detroit (that became a bailout for General Motors and Chrysler, as Ford declined the offer).
One might surmise that the difference in Bush’s methods of leadership might have come about as he grew more assertive in his role as president and less dependent upon the advisers like Cheney. Even Cheney himself lamented that Bush stopped listening to him during his second term. In his memoirs, Cheney, known as a conservative hardliner and to be hawkish, complained that Bush “went soft .”
Historians like Wilentz weren’t the only people that thought Bush was more effective later on. Former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., told CNN , “What Bush tended to do was to follow strong people. In Iraq, the strong man was Cheney and that led to one of the worst disasters I think in American history. In the financial crisis — the strong guy was Paulson … and the response is a much better one.”
But at present, the overall verdict is still out because time tends to soften views of former presidents, even those that left under a cloud of unpopularity.
A recent CNN poll showed that Bush has made a bit of a comeback since being out of office. Although 55 percent of all those surveyed still think Bush was a failure as president, according to the poll released on the eve of the opening of the library that bears his name, it is still 13 points better than when he left office in January 2009.
But disclosure will most likely stand him in good stead as well. When historians learn the reasons why certain unpopular decisions were made, there is sometimes room for revising harsh opinions. And the more historians see Bush’s second term as distinctive from his first (helped along by things like admissions from an unpopular former vice president that Bush no longer listened to his counsel — and was subsequently making better policy decisions), he might also get more passing grades from those who keep history’s records.
But even so, and if history shows that Bush was influenced more heavily by his aides and advisers (like Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, et. al.) in his first term as opposed to his second, it doesn’t look as if history will be as kind to Cheney for giving the president far from optimal counsel. And for that, for simply distancing himself from and ignoring the vice president and his neo-conservative views, the 43rd president just might get some extra credit as well.