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Misunderestimating History

The international media – Israeli media and elite opinion included – have adopted wholeheartedly the notion that George W. Bush was “the worst president in history.” As John Byrne sums up  at the Raw Story:

Papers in Canada and France say he’s the worst president ever. An outlet in Scotland says Bush drove the world to the brink of economic collapse. A pan-Arabic newspaper penned a headline, “The Joke’s On Us.”

“Goodbye to the worst president ever,” declared the Toronto Sun’s editorial page. “Bush was an unmitigated disaster, failing on the big issues from the invasion of Iraq to global warming, Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Of course, Bush as “worst president ever” is not a new theme for the American media. And one might assume that the international media is merely following the American lead. Here’s where U.S. opinion stands, according to a Gallup poll from last week

Although Bush is about tied with Nixon in perceptions that history will remember him as an outstanding or above-average president, he fares worse than Nixon on the basis of his “below average” and “poor” ratings: 59% for Bush vs. 48% for Nixon. As a result, Bush’s net positive score (total percent outstanding or above average minus total percent below average or poor) is worse than Nixon’s: -42 for Bush versus -33 for Nixon.

But this can’t fully explain Bush’s excoriation in media outlets all over the globe. When Americans were still with Bush, reelecting him in 2004, the international media was already vehemently against him. Now, with the American public turned against Bush, it appears that the “idiots” who voted him into the White House for a second term have finally wised up and confirmed international opinion. (I recently did an Israeli TV talking heads spot, and my hosts were amazed to learn that I did not necessarily share this well-accepted notion. For Hebrew speakers only: part of the show is here.)

Prematurely portraying Bush as the “worst president ever” is too easy. It is impossible to assess leaders without the broader outlook that only the distance of time can provide. The Bush-Truman comparison is already tired – which does not make it right or wrong.

Yesterday, in Slate, Christopher Hitchens asked why “[t]he crashing of two airliners into two large skyscrapers isn’t shown” in Oliver Stone’s movie W. – and then aptly answered his own question:

The answer, I am reasonably certain, is that it is the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that explain the transformation of George Bush from a rather lazy small-government conservative into an interventionist, in almost every sense, politician. The unfortunate thing about this analysis, from the liberal point of view, is that it leaves such little room for speculation about his Oedipal relationship with his father, his thwarted revenge fantasies about Saddam Hussein, his dry-drunk alcoholism, and all the rest of it. (And, since Laura Bush in the film is even more desirable than the lovely first lady in person, we are left yet again to wonder how such a dolt was able to woo and to win such a honey.)

So with Bush, history offers not one test but two. The first one will be the test of reality: will world events prove that Bush’s analysis of problems and recipes for cures were apt and courageous? The second test: assuming he passes the first, will the evidence be able to overcome the popular prejudice, misunderstandings, shallowness, and partisanship that plagued the President’s two terms.

In a final note: To his credit, Barack Obama has not participated in the whack-Bush-at-the-last-minute game. But one can’t escape the feeling that Bush is being denigrated today to make Obama’s victory even more profound than it really is – to make Obama bigger by painting his predecessor as being so very small. That’s sad: Obama’s historic ascendancy to the White House should be celebrated for what it is. If we rejoice in Obama’s triumph because he helped the world get rid of George W. Bush, it will make his extraordinary and historic victory less special, not more.