Weighing Bush's View of His Own Legacy President Bush has recently turned to history as a way to prove that in time, he will be remembered as a great president. He has 217 days left in office. How accurate are his historical comparisons? NPR reviews with presidential historians some of his remarks.
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Weighing Bush's View of His Own Legacy

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Weighing Bush's View of His Own Legacy

Weighing Bush's View of His Own Legacy

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, what not to wear to your gay wedding. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's" Carson Kressley, coming up.

COHEN: But first, 217 days. That's how much time President Bush has left before his two terms in office come to an end.

BRAND: It's not a lot of time, but President Bush has his eye on the years ahead, on his legacy and how people will assess his presidency. Right now, it's not looking positive. Mr. Bush's approval rating is hovering at around 28 percent.

COHEN: But that could change over time. At least, that's what the president himself has been suggesting. And he's tried to back up that thesis with history, a subject he majored in at Yale. Lately, in speeches and interviews, President Bush has been drawing parallels between current events and those of the past. He's referenced Abraham Lincoln's inaugural speech and Franklin Roosevelt on D-Day. Then there was this speech President Bush delivered just last week in Paris while commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We must go forward with unity. Over the course of the Cold War, the Transatlantic Alliance faced moments of serious tension, from the Suez Crisis in the 1950s to the basing of missiles in Europe in the 1980s. Yet with the distance of time, we can see these differences for what they were, fleeting disagreements between friends.

Professor ROBERT DALLEK: (History, Boston University; Presidential Historian): This sort of use of historical analogy is a very dangerous business. I say this as a historian.

COHEN: Presidential historian Robert Dallek says French leader Charles de Gaulle experienced a bit more than a "fleeting disagreement" with the U.S. during the Cold War.

Professor DALLEK: What he didn't remark upon is how distrustful de Gaulle was of the United States and whether we would come to their rescue if there was a confrontation with the Soviet Union. There was a lot of animus toward France on the part of U.S. government, so it's not quite that simple.

COHEN: To be fair, George Bush isn't the only president who's reached back in time to prove a point, and Robert Dallek isn't the historian who thinks some of President Bush's analogies gloss over some key points. Take a listen to this commencement address delivered two years ago at West Point Academy.

President BUSH: President Truman positioned U.S. forces to deal with new threats despite enormous pressure to bring our troops home after World War II. He kept American forces in Germany to deter Soviet aggression and kept U.S. forces in Japan as a counterweight to communist China. Together with the deployment of U.S. forces to Korea, the military footprint Truman established on two continents has remained virtually unchanged to this day.

COHEN: When he uses the phrase bring our troops home, Bush seems to link Truman's war to present-day situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University. He says if that idea showed up in a student paper, he'd give it a C.

Professor SEAN WILENTZ (History, Princeton University): The Cold War was the same thing as the war on terror would - it would be - it would make sense. But they're two different entities, two different things, two different wars we're fighting.

COHEN: Wilentz says the war on terror is a war based on speculative threats, and that President Bush ignored the warnings of fellow leaders. To borrow from yet another politician, "You sir, are no President Truman," Wilentz says of Bush. Sure, Harry Truman did have incredibly low approval ratings when he left office.

Professor WILENTZ: But you know, in retrospect he looks better, not so much because of the Korean War, but because of other things he did.

COHEN: Things like the Marshall Plan, desegregating the armed forces. But, Wilentz says, so far the current administration hasn't made that kind of mark on history.

Professor WILENTZ: He doesn't talk about, you know, Hurricane Katrina and the Justice Department and all the rest of the things that have been more typical of his administration. On that basis, I think it's going to be much less likely that, you know, President Bush is going to be able to pull a Harry Truman, as it were.

COHEN: And many historians agree. In a survey conducted by the History News Network of George Mason University this spring, only two out of a 109 historians said Bush would be judged a success. But some argue those numbers say a lot more about historians and how their individual political views can taint their assessments of a president. Critics say overall, historians tend to have a liberal lean.

Dr. LARRY SCHWEIKART (Professor of History, University of Dayton): I wouldn't call it a lean. I'd call it almost falling over.

COHEN: Larry Schweikart teaches history at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He argues that had the same survey been done 20 years ago, you would have seen similar low ratings for Ronald Reagan.

Dr. SCHWEIKART: And look at how history, even now, has come to view him. Even some of the more liberal textbooks have started to slowly change their view of Reagan, and he's turning out to look like one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

COHEN: Of course, no one is sure what history books will be saying about President Bush in 2028. As the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once said, history is argument without end.

BRAND: Thank you, Alex. Health care costs keep rising, when Day to Day continues.

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