Thursday, November 11, 2010


The reputations of historical figures are not static things; sometimes they rise and fall, long after that person has exited the world stage.

Thomas Jefferson was revered for a century and a half after his death – he was considered the most brilliant of the Founders, an ideal for all Americans to live by. In 1962, John Kennedy, addressing a roomful of Nobel Prize winners in the White House, said that “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

But in the past twenty years his stock has taken a beating. Numerous scholarly and popular works of history have compared Jefferson’s contribution in the American Revolution to that of John Adams, and found that perhaps the Sage of Monticello had received too much credit and the Duke of Braintree too little. More devastatingly, the DNA test showing Jefferson did in fact impregnate his slave Sally Hemings was a blow from which his historical reputation may never fully recover.

Harry Truman, on the other hand, has seen his reputation soar. Truman left office in 1953 with staggeringly low approval ratings - his low of 22% "beats" the lowest of Nixon (24%) and Bush (25%). He was seen as something of a folksy bumbler, a nice enough man in over his head. But now, he is widely considered to have been the ideal steward of America’s foreign policy in a post-war world. The twin achievements of the Marshall Plan and NATO helped ease in a half century of (mostly) peace and prosperity. In polls of Presidential historians, Truman ranks as high as fifth, behind Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts.

(The historian David McCullough played a prominent role in both of these shifting reputations, through his biographies of Truman and Adams. He’s the E.F. Hutton of American historians.)

I bring all this up because George W. Bush has returned to our lives. The publication of his memoirs, the continuing measured success in Iraq, and the troubles of his successor has some wondering: can George W. Bush enjoy a Trumanesque revival?

It’s too early to tell, of course, and regular readers of this space know I am loath to make predictions. But I can, perhaps, give you a hint of what conditions will be necessary for a latter-day McCullough, writing in the year 2053, to write a book that will revive Bush’s reputation.

For that hint, we’ll turn to another President – one whose reputation as a great American has held steady: Dwight Eisenhower. In 1946 General Eisenhower was in command of the Allied occupation of Berlin, following the end of the Second World War. Ike was asked by a reporter, how we would know if the Occupation was a success?

Eisenhower said, “The success of this occupation can only be judged fifty years from now. If the Germans at that time have a stable, prosperous democracy, than we shall have succeeded.”

West Germany, of course, was a stable and prosperous democracy within 25 years. In 1990, West and East Germany reunified. By 1996 – fifty years after Eisenhower’s statement, Germany was indisputably a stable and prosperous democracy.

In the early days of the Iraq War, there is no question that the Bush Administration declared Mission: Accomplished too soon. But in the darkest days of the war, around 2005, the war’s detractors claimed defeat too quickly.

Will, in fifty years, Iraq be a stable and prosperous democracy? Forty years? If that democracy is an important part of the antidote to the sickness of radical Islam that infects the Muslim world; if, indeed, the scourge of Bin Laden and terrorism ends up in history’s dustbin along with Hitler and Nazism, will Bush enjoy a Trumanesque revival?

Stay tuned. For a really long time.

Update (6/12/13):  This doesn't mean much in the long run, but Dubya may have started his comeback already.  According to Gallup, his approval ratings today - 4 and a 1/2 years after leaving office, are at 49%.  As the article points out, former Presidents often do better after they go away a while.  But worth noting...


AnnoyingJoe said...

McCullough's Adams bio certainly did much for the myth of Adams, but I believe that McCullough was careful to point out some of Adams' glaring weaknesses and their effect on his popularity among his contemporaries. I also didn't find the book particularly disparaging of Jefferson although it did again (although through Adams' eyes) point out some of his deficiencies. Same with the Truman book.

With all of that said, I suppose it's best to take any work of history with a grain of salt. Perhaps the idea that any press is good press applies, and just the fact that a prominent author wrote their bios boosted their current images.

Caseyclark said...

For further reading, I recommend Dumas Malone's six-volume biography of Jefferson. But more to the point is "Jefferson and Hamilton," by the great Hoosier Claude Bowers.
Of course, neither are written for today's mass market, which of course is infinitely more interested in Jefferson's sex life, and unconcerned with his monumental defense of liberty in its infancy.