WASHINGTON — If Harry S Truman did it, why can’t George W. Bush?
Truman came back from the political abyss — his public approval rating sank as low as 22 percent thanks in large part to America’s entry into the Korean War and his handling of labor disputes at home — to become regarded by historians as one of the nation’s top 10 presidents. Lately, some Bush administration officials and White House associates have predicted that President Bush — mired in an unpopular war in Iraq and saddled with the low Nixon-level approval ratings — will get the Truman treatment by historians after he leaves office in January 2009.
“I think when the history is written that, in fact, it will reflect credit upon this president and his administration,” Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN’s Larry King last month.
Will history really give Bush the Truman bounce? Several historians doubt it, noting that no other president other than the former haberdasher from Independence, Mo., has received such a 180-degree revision to the benefit of his legacy.
“I don’t think any president has had as significant a re-evaluation as Truman,” said Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. “(Dwight) Eisenhower has risen in historical evaluation quite a lot, but not to the same degree. (James) Polk was once ranked much higher than he now usually is. I suspect (Ronald) Reagan will fluctuate a good deal over time.”
Bush, Brinkley said, “does not seem to me to have many achievements that would earn him a high ranking — again, unless the Iraq war turns out, unexpectedly, to be successful in the long term.”
Historians tend to rank presidents as “great,” “near great,” “above average,” “average,” “below average” or “failure.” George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt routinely top most presidential surveys conducted every few years by historians and other experts.
Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt usually rank just below the top three. Truman, who produced the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-damaged Europe and the Truman doctrine to protect free peoples from falling under communism and who decided to desegregate America’s military, consistently appears on most lists.
Fading in and out of the top 10 list are James Monroe, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Eisenhower, Reagan and John F. Kennedy.
There’s almost no argument among scholars about failed presidents, with Warren G. Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan firmly ensconced at the bottom of the list.
Bush currently is in the middle of the pack of presidents in the most recent rankings. A 2005 survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society had Bush ranked 19 among America’s 43 presidents and a 2002 ranking by the Siena College's Research Institute listed him at 23rd.
But with 17 months left in his presidency, some historians already have predicted that Bush is destined for the failed presidents' club largely because of the Iraq war, his handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and his inability to get legacy-building Social Security and immigration changes through Congress.
Robert Dallek, a Boston University history professor and the author of the book “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,” said it’s too soon to call Bush a failure, but he added that the historical evidence is stacking up against the president.
“You bounce back if the person behind you is worse,” said Dallek. “Ronald Reagan had Jimmy Carter. Hard to imagine that there will be a series of presidents who will make Bush look better.”
Bush may not mount a Truman-like comeback, some presidential scholars say, but he may be able to inch his way up a spot or two in the rankings the way a few troubled presidents have.
Lyndon Johnson left the White House publicly and physically beaten down by his unpopular escalation of the Vietnam War. But time has helped Johnson’s place in history as scholarly reviews and several books have highlighted his domestic accomplishments, which included pushing civil rights legislation through Congress, the creation of the Great Society programs and his attempt to declare war on poverty.
“The comparisons between Bush and Johnson, the parallels in foreign policy are stunning,” said Robert Caro, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of the Johnson presidency. “But domestically, there’s no comparison at all. If you’re trying to assess presidents, you need something to assess. Lyndon Johnson had a long list of accomplishments. In Johnson’s case, no matter how you rank him with Vietnam, there are successes. With Bush, unless there’s a good outcome in Iraq, there’s nothing to buttress him.”
Bush, for his part, is taking the long view of history. He told a small group of historians during an Oval Office meeting last year that it’s going to take decades for the political dust to settle from his eight years in the White House before his stewardship can be assessed accurately.
“It’s going to take two generations before anyone can make judgment on the success or failure of his presidency,” recalled Forrest McDonald, a professor emeritus from the University of Alabama, a conservative and a highly regarded presidential historian, who attended the meeting. “You figure that it usually takes one generation, 20 years. He says it’s going to take 40. It was a strange stance to me.”
Bush has publicly stated on several occasions that the true history of his presidency will be written long after he is dead.
McDonald said the jury is still out on the Bush presidency, that it “could go either way between favorable and unfavorable.”
But not to Bush supporters, such as Jim Graznow, a Republican voter from Hubbard, Iowa.
“In the years to come, they’ll think he did a pretty good job,” Graznow said last week, “just like Harry Truman.”