A reputational rewrite for George W Bush proves that presidential pardons are all the rage

Out of America: As a poll shows that 'Dubya' is more popular than Barack Obama, Americans appear willing to forgive and forget

Click to follow
The Independent Online

“I forgive but I don’t forget,” Sepp Blatter, that Richard Nixon of international sporting officials, defiantly warned after his surreal re-election to Fifa’s presidency on 29 May – only to bow to the inevitable, like Nixon, and resign only four days later. But when it comes to their own presidents, Americans, it appears, are magnanimously inclined both to forgive and forget.

What other conclusion should be drawn from the poll here last week showing that George W Bush, he of the Iraq war and the Great Recession of 2008, is now more popular than his successor, Barack Obama, and, for that matter, his very possible successor-but-one, Hillary Clinton?

Remember those eminent historians a few years ago, who ranked him among the worst, if not the very worst, of the 44 men to have occupied the White House? Or how, in January 2009, during his final days in office, 66 per cent of Americans viewed him unfavourably, and only 33 per cent favourably? Now, we learn, that ratio has been turned on its head: by 52 to 43, Bush is seen favourably. Obama’s ratings, meanwhile, have slid in the opposite direction, as only 45 per cent look kindly upon him, against 52 per cent who do not. So, bring back Dubya? Not quite. Bush is merely, if unexpectedly quickly, benefiting from a phenomenon that affects most former presidents: a kindly reputational rewrite by posterity.

In Britain, it seems to me, the same generosity doesn’t apply. Yes, Churchill basks in eternal glory, but Neville Chamberlain is forever branded by Munich. To this day, Harold Wilson is mostly regarded as a disappointment, shifty and slippery. Those who loved Margaret Thatcher at the time still do. Ditto those who detested her. Tony Blair’s reputation has, if anything, sunk further. It’s hard to think of a recent former prime minister who looks better now than when he left office. John Major, perhaps; conceivably Gordon Brown. Here in the US, however, generosity is the norm.

In academia, ranking the 44 US presidents is something of a cottage industry. The top three, each of whom guided the country through existential crises, are set in stone: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, with the top spot usually accorded to Lincoln. Next come eight or nine or so “near greats”, among them Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson. Then the average ones, and finally the duds: Nixon, of course, as well as James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, who came before and after Lincoln respectively, and Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding – and, at least until very recently, Bush Jnr.

Some presidential reputations change little. Bill Clinton was popular when he left office and remains equally popular now – more so than Bush, Obama; more so than his wife. Likewise Jimmy Carter, whose single term is as poorly judged now as when he stepped down in 1981. The high regard in which Carter is now held stems from what he’s done since, rather than what he achieved in office. But other reputations have been transformed, and almost always for the better.


Exhibits A and B are Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. The former left office with an approval rating in the mid-20s, undone by the Korean war, charges of corruption and the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy. Today all that is forgotten; Truman is seen as architect of the security arrangements that kept the peace through the Cold War, and led ultimately to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Likewise, Eisenhower, perceived as senescent, indolent and out of touch when the torch passed to Kennedy in 1961, but who is now widely held to have presided over a golden era of prosperity, a wise old soldier who kept America out of bloody foreign conflicts.

Then there’s the elder Bush, accused in his time of wimpish east-coast elitism, and of not caring about the problems of ordinary Americans in a recession. Now he’s a bull stock in the post-presidential rankings market, seen not only as one the most decent men to have occupied the White House, but, as a result of his skillful handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War, as among the wisest.

Even the failures earn a measure of forgiveness. By the end of his life Nixon, albeit forever tarred by Watergate, won back some respect as a foreign policy sage. Even Warren Harding, who was engulfed in scandal when he died in 1923, has been in some measure rehabilitated (not least thanks to a biography by none other than John Dean, Nixon’s underling in Watergate).

Some reputations are still fiercely argued, most notably that of Lyndon Johnson: Vietnam villain or civil rights hero? But about the only president in recent times to have fallen in esteem is JFK, regarded as the youthful saviour of humanity when he was assassinated, only for the myth of Camelot to give way to the truth of serial adultery and concealed illness, and questions about what he actually achieved.

Why this constant tendency to upgrade? The main answer, of course, is changing perspectives. In the light of the current shambles in Iraq, the elder Bush’s refusal to march on Baghdad in 1991, much criticised at the time, now looks exactly right. By the same token, the rise of Islamic State has shifted attention away from the 2003 invasion ordered by his son. Indeed, some say, if only we now had Dubya the “decider” to sort out the Middle East, not Obama the ditherer. And one reason Ronald Reagan’s stock has risen – even, grudgingly, among some liberals – is that his brand of conservatism now seems moderation incarnate compared with that of today’s Republican party.

And a couple of other points are worth making. The rehabilitation of George W will surely make life easier for his brother Jeb as he chases the White House. Meanwhile, Obama need not be too worried about the slide in his ratings. Right now he’s usually ranked in the middle of the presidential pack. Precedent suggests there’s only one way to go – up.