Learning the wrong lessons
Days before the inauguration, websites, magazines, and television were discussing how George W. Bush's legacy as will shape out. Much of it has pointed to a likely scenario; with the Bush years seeing the executive's consolidation of power, the wrongful invasion of Iraq, the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, and the economic mess that was left for the current administration to handle. The former president has acknowledged these "disappointments", but insists the ultimate judgment of his presidency will be for the future to decide. His remaining proponents, such as Karl Rove, have reiterated the idea that history will give justice to Bush's virtues. The expected response to this is that they are effectively conceding the present, and would not had his administration ended on a higher note.
But there is some merit to Bush's argument. History often exonerates or rehabilitates figures who were controversial during their moment of relevance. Under certain conditions, history can cast a more sympathetic light on the Bush presidency in the future. However, if this happens, it would not be because of some deeper wisdom that the president somehow possessed that the American people just could not see. It would be because of how history is handled, written, generalized, used, and misused.
To say that George W. Bush is the worst president ever would be to rank him below men who tolerated slavery and waged war against the continent's indigenous Americans. Clearly, it's hyperbolic, but does shine light into the fact that when look at our history, we still largely see it as a narrative. It is a story of progress, challenges, and triumph, ultimately. More often than not, we focus on individuals rather than populations, which is why that one thread remains to "save" Bush's legacy.
For history to see Bush's presidency fondly, his actions and instincts would have to appear to be not that foolish in the long run. For example, if (it's a big "if") the middle east sees more liberal democracy and a decline of anti-western sentiment in the 21st century, whatever the reason, sympathy will be given to Bush's neoconservative dream, at least within the United States. Chances are, it would not be because of the Bush administration, but it really will not matter. People will see the ends before the means.
For people who were skeptical of idea that public opinion of Bush's war could dramatically shift, let me remind everyone of Iraq's first post-invasion election. After weeks of negative headlines, the images of resilient Iraqis lining up to the polls proved too powerful. While certain entire political and ethnic groups boycotted that election, the image of political progress caused even the war's strongest opponents to hold back criticism. For months, people thought things were getting better before the narrative moved once again back against the war. It could very well happen again.
Let me reiterate that this possible, yet still hypothetic scenario is something that could happen, not something that ought to happen. Any newfound sympathy would turn the blind eye towards the deceitful means his administration used to sell the idea of war to the public. It would look the other way about his divisive politics. It would rewrite the story of Vice President Cheney's rule of law. The federal government's failures with Katrina and New Orleans will be considered a distracting setback for Bush, instead of a true tragedy and failure of the nation.
The same would go for the economy. History likes to empathize with the individual over the society. How dare the American public be angry with the president! The American people deserve better than to be played as an impeding obstacle in tomorrow's history textbooks.
In contrast to his bumbling caricature that's been recycled for a decade now in political cartoons and stand-up comedy, Bush has shown a selective interest in history. It is reflected in his actions. He linked his foreign policy to past struggles for freedom foreign and domestic. He, like many Americans, saw the September 11th attacks as this generation's Pearl Harbor, and attempted to implement a vision for the world as ambitious as the WWII generation's. He constantly reminds the country, and himself, of the lessons learned from Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill's actions as Prime Minister, ignoring the obvious flaws of that metaphor. He equated the threat of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, confusing the symmetrical war between world powers with a counter-insurgency effort.
Ultimately, he saw history favor activism, and able to forgive of the flaws and mistakes made in the process. Instead of responding properly to the crisis of September 11th, he manufactured a crisis with Iraq. Despite the talk of "never again", we saw another preventable disaster devastate another U.S. city just four years later.
History is complicated, and we must caution ourselves before we try to draw too many lessons. It involves simplifying some truths and accepting many legends as facts. While there are genuine lessons to be learned and true heroes to venerate, we must not forget the mistakes either. How to make use of history is a challenging question, and the cloud of politics will only make it more confusing. How history is taught and appreciated should be reevaluated, before a future administration decides to "learn" from the lessons of the Bush years.
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studues. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays.