Jacob Heilbrunn

Nostalgia for George W. Bush

 Last night George W. Bush officially began his comeback at the University of Texas at Tyler's Distinguished Lecture series. Before an ecstatic audience that gave him no less than three standing ovations, Bush promoted his forthcoming book, Decision Points, which is sure to be a bestseller. It may also go a long way toward restoring his reputation. "Bring back Bush!" one member of the audience yelled.

Why not? Compared with the current batch of Republican candidates Bush might look like a model of cool judgment and circumspection. Compared with Obama, he may look like a success story as well--like it or not, he was an extremely effective president who catered to his base and got Congress to approve most of his programs. By contrast, Obama's supporters appear to be deserting him, not to mention independent voters.

Bush apparently stuck to his familiar themes about having to rescue the economy--"I made the decision to use your money to prevent the collapse from happening"--and about waging the war on terror. "I believe this country is engaged in an ideological struggle of a kind we have never seen before,” he said. Actually, this sentence goes a step further. An ideological struggle beyond that against Nazism or communism? I would suggest that Bush might consult Ian Buruma's essay in the latest issue of the National Interest, which cogently explains why such comparisons are overwrought and counterproductive. It's also the case that the collapse occurred in part because Bush mismanaged the economy in the first place.

Still, it is encouraging to see that at least one American tradition is being upheld, which is that formerly vilified presidents can resurrect their reputations after they leave office, especially if their successors are having a rough time. Nostalgia for Bush is beginning to grow already. If Obama fails to win a second term, the process could begin even more quickly in his case. Though making the case for one-term presidents seems to be a lot tougher. After all, neither Herbert Hoover nor Jimmy Carter has been successfully restored to their initial luster. Perhaps Bush, by contrast, will indeed become one of the most fondly remembered American presidents in history. It would be a stunning turnabout for a man widely reviled at the end of his presidency.


(Illustration by Jeff Rankin)