Bush as Truman

Having celebrated Jonathan Alter earlier today, while also writing some more about the George W. Bush retrospective we’ve all been wallowing in, I want to call your attention to a new Alter piece at Ten Miles Square that looks at the Bush “legacy” from W.’s own point-of-view. He quite naturally wants to be remembered as a great president who was initially underestimated. And his model in that respect is Harry S. Truman:

Bush’s ultimate goal — already hawked by his former political adviser Karl Rove — is to become another Harry S. Truman, a regular-guy commander-in-chief whose stock rose sharply about 20 years after he left office.

The superficial comparisons are intriguing. Vice President Truman only became president because Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. The failed haberdasher and product of the Kansas City political machine was unlikely to make it to the top on his own. He was a plain-spoken, unpretentious man who cared enough about racial injustice that he desegregated the armed forces.

Bush became president because he was born on third base, to paraphrase Texas Governor Ann Richards’s quip about his father, and because of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000; an unexceptional man who drank heavily until he was 40 probably wouldn’t have made it on his own. He’s a blunt, compassionate conservative who, as Jimmy Carter pointed out at the dedication, saw the ravages of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere and did something about it. (Bush also appointed two black secretaries of state.)

But the analogy falls apart pretty quickly, as the Bush Library dedication itself demonstrated. For all of Bush’s let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may self-description as “The Decider,” Iraq was not even mentioned in the event. The Bush Museum it opened also gives Iraq short shrift, and barely mentions Bush’s vice president and secretary of defense. Truman was a “warts-and-all” kind of guy. W. requires a great deal of airbrushing. Alter concludes:

On Sept. 14, 2001, I was in the White House press pool and was 5 feet from Bush as he stood atop a crushed truck as rescue workers at Ground Zero shouted that they couldn’t hear the president speak.

“I can hear you! I can hear you,” Bush said through a bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was a defining moment for his presidency.

The problem that Bush can never get around is that “the people who knocked these buildings down” —- namely, Osama bin Laden — didn’t hear from Bush, while others unconnected to the attacks did.

The bullhorn is in the museum. And so is the bull.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.