The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Texas, will soon be open to the public to reflect on the legacy of Bush 43. With this monumental exhibition opening, journalists, bloggers, and historians began to weigh in on Bush’s presidency. As Dave Weigel pointed out, the Republican Party is still divided on how to talk the issue (if you want evidence of that just watch how all the GOP candidates avoided mentioning Bush’s name, like Voldemort). If you ask most Republicans and conservatives, they will probably say that they liked the guy and agreed with most of his policies, even if not all their outcome turned out as planned. Most Democrats and liberals will probably say that the Bush years were a disaster and a black mark on the historical record.
Fair enough. Every person is entitled to their opinion. As a liberal, I had numerous problems with Bush’s policies: the careless, unilateral invasion of Iraq, the civil liberty violations of the Patriot Act, the cut backs in stem cell research, and the TARP bailouts. I could go on. Of course, I feel this way because I have a different political persuasion than the Bush team. It would be shocking for me to say that a Republican presidency was great, since they have different ideological goals than I do.
The point I want to make from this is that evaluating a presidential legacy, especially in the modern era, cannot be completely separated from the partisan glasses in which we see the world. Several bloggers, Dylan Matthews and Matthew Yglesias most notably have set this framework for viewing Bush’s successes and failures (both are left-of-center) from purely statistical means. So you can look at a chart and determine whether one policy worked over another.
While I have nothing against data analysis, it is important to note that politics is so much more than that. I’m a history major, and I like political history. In every presidential biography or political narrative, the events tell the story and the reader comes away with a sense of what a person did or did not do correctly during their tenure in office. There aren’t always charts and graphs to back up your claims. Even how I tell the story and the impacts that follow will matter. For instance, if I were to write about the Iraq War, I could make some fancy charts talking about GDP in Iraq before and after the war or about the number of homes with or with electricity to prove nation-building did or did not work. Those charts will never tell me about the personal story behind the Iraqis who suffered through the War, the infrastructure decimated by the aerial bombings, or even the story of Iraqis who got to vote for the first time in 2005. Notice how I tell that story and the words that I use matter. History is more complicated than a few numbers on a pie chart and the legacy of a president can’t be determined by just a set of data points.
Was Bush a good president? By my own partisan judgement, I don’t think he was. However, that narrative, depending on who writes it could change.
Update: Yglesias does get more narrative based with this post.