George W. Bush left Washington last week amid a hail of jeers. “The Frat Boy Ships Out” headlined The Economist. “Serially incompetent,” declared the Financial Times. “Worse than Hoover,” concluded Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley.
Bush arrived in Midland, Texas, to find a cheering crowd of 20,000.
For years now, persons close to Bush have been advertising him as resembling Harry Truman (1884-1972), thirty-third president of the United States, meaning that however unpopular he might be upon leaving office, they expect Bush to be viewed in historical perspective as having been a pretty good leader.
A more apt comparison is to Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) twenty-eighth president, about whom ambivalence remains great even after ninety years. Bush may be remembered with the same tincture of admiration and regret.
After all, Wilson is the only other American president who had a faith-based foreign policy, who asserted the president’s absolute primacy over Congress in foreign affairs, who initiated a crusade “to make the world safe for democracy.” He sent troops to invade one foreign country (Mexico), then, aided by a pretense (an intercepted German telegram fancifully offering to finance a Mexican war against the US), dispatched a million troops to join a European war, at the cost of 40,000 American lives and much domestic upheaval (after the home of the attorney general was bombed, in 1919, a young G-man named J. Edgar Hoover was appointed to gather intelligence on radicals). Wilson left his party in a shambles, and the country in a virulent 18-month recession. His successor, Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), won the presidency in 1920 on the strength of a promise to “return to normalcy,” and put policy on a laissez-faire tack for a dozen years.
At the same time, Wilson is remembered as a progressive, a man fundamentally in touch with the deeper currents of what would come to be described as the “the American century,” whose administration brought into existence the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the Selective Service System (the military draft) and the ptogressive income tax.
Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the response to Hurricane Katrina are indelible parts of Bush’s record. Yet he, too, may be remembered for his expansions of government’s role into new realms: a pharmaceutical benefit for Medicare, the Homeland Security Department, the humanitarian campaign against AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
Both presidents previously served as a governor of a major state. Wilson in New Jersey, Bush in Texas. Neither reached office with much of a mandate: Wilson waltzed in when Republicans split their vote between President William Howard Taft and third-party (Bull Moose) candidate Theodore Roosevelt; Bush required a boost from a divided Supreme Court after a tie election. Once installed, each man was guided to an unusual extent by a more experienced but somewhat shadowy adviser: Wilson by Col. Edward House, who was given an apartment in the living quarters of the White House; Bush by his vice president, Dick Cheney.
Otherwise, the two presidents defy mechanical comparison. Wilson had been a professor of political science, a former president of Princeton University. Bush, before he trained his sights on the White House, aspired to become commissioner of Major League Baseball. Wilson was a eugenicist and virulent bigot, whose glowing endorsement (and White House showing) of “Birth of a Nation” helped kick-start the revival of the Ku Klux Klan; Bush was thorough-going egalitarian and a generally open-handed friend of immigration. Wilson desperately wanted Congress to ratify a treaty (the Versailles treaty, which included membership in the League of Nations), Bush walked away from one (the Kyoto Protocol). Wilson was shattered by his failures, suffered an incapacitating stroke his last year in office and died five years later. Bush met a global financial crisis head on and left office in robust good health – but with the same sense, widely-shared among observers, that his presidency had failed.
At bottom, what the two men seem to have shared is religious conviction amounting to certainty. Early in his presidential campaign, Wilson stated, “There is a spirit that rules us. If I did not believe in Providence, I would feel like a man going blindfolded through a haphazard world.” At a National Prayer Breakfast, Bush said, “Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance. Behind all of life and all of history, there’s a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God.”
Is it too facile to equate the impact of their faith with the evangelistic zeal of their politics? Malcolm Magee, urges that the temptation be resisted. A religion scholar at Michigan State University and the author of last year’s What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, Magee writes in his book, “It is a different world, a different theological framework, and the United States is a different nation. Where the similarity does hold, however, is that both presidents viewed the world through the template of faith.”
A second scholar to have taken up the resemblance of Bush to Wilson is G. John Ikenberry, of Princeton University, who with a trio of co-authors has just published The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century. A third is Andrew Bacevich, of Boston University, who for several years has resurrected Wilson’s most discerning critic, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in order to teach about today’s intervention of Iraq. After years of sending students to used bookstores for their texts, Bacevich wrote an introduction when Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History was republished last year. “It is only through self-awareness that Americans can acquire a more mature appreciation of their place in history,” says Bacevich. “Those who pretend to understand history’s direction and ultimate destination are, in [Niebuhr’s] view, charlatans or worse.”
Any comparison of one president with another is really an implicit story about what comes next. In comparing Bush with Truman, the implication is that the US ultimately will prevail in a long twilight struggle with Islamic extremism by following a strategy that Bush established. With Hoover, the idea is that the present-day is, economically, like the 1930s. In a fit of inauguration exuberance last week, The New Yorker put Obama’s likeness on its cover in a wig, posed like George Washington – founding father of another era. By linking Bush with Woodrow Wilson, I aim mainly to emphasize how different were the presidencies of these two men are from those of others.
For what do we know with any certainty about the trend of history, about what will happen next? Who could have imagined, when Wilson returned from Paris in 1919, how disastrous would be the consequences of the peace treaty in whose negotiation he participated at Versailles? Who knows today what will happen next in the Middle-East? Much of the damage in Iraq cannot be undone. But vast learning takes place in the course of war as well. If the region finds its way to some more peaceful equilibrium in the aftermath of the US occupation, history may be more forgiving of the occupation’s appalling planning.
Similarly, what do we really know about the root causes of the current recession? Surely the rapid pace of global development had a lot to do with it. So much new specialization emerged so quickly, in the last thirty years or so, that the enormous imbalances that accumulated among China, the US and Europe were all but inevitable — the “savings glut” and all that.
At a certain point in the ’80s and early ’90s, the idea took hold in New York and Washington (and London) that financial engineering constituted an industry analogous in many ways to the personal computer and the Internet (or, say, passenger airplanes fifty years before), its techniques (mainly) invented by American companies, and that a race of sorts was underway to build out a network and secure the advantages that would come from being its major proprietor; and that, under the circumstances, very little thought was given to whatever might be the risks that were involved. Instead the Americans wound up with something more like a global version of the Chinese poison milk scandal.
No less than computers, financial engineering is here to stay. That much, at least, is clear; in due course it will come to be seen as generally beneficial. But a great re-regulation of global financial markets will be necessary first, probably requiring an international treaty. Add to that the problem of dealing with climate change, of the growing opposition of interests between the United States and China, and the eight years of the Bush administration may wind up looking more than ever like Woodrow Wilson’s time in office – an anomaly, a departure from trend, an interregnum dominated by the personal tragedy of one man.