It's not exactly about any one thing in particular, but just thinking about the horrific mistake that GOP governors made in 1999 to put some guy who had no real interest in government or public affairs into the Oval Office...well, it sure makes me cranky every time I think about it.
Fine, I suppose there's more; there's a news peg to it. George W. Bush's presidential library is about to open, and so we're getting Bush stuff all over the press, such as this National Journal piece on Bush's "Reluctant Re-Emergence on the Political Scene" with a subheadline that "these days he's more interested in painting, golfing, and enjoying time away from politics."
Which makes me cranky because as far as I can see, he was always more interested in golf, baseball, and pretty much everything except the world of public affairs.
Oh, I think he enjoyed the game of electoral politics (is it too mean to say that he enjoyed it especially when he was winning? Perhaps). As Richard Ben Cramer taught us, the Bush family is nothing if not competitive. But beyond that? I find it very, very, easy to imagine that he paid little attention to public affairs either before or after his political career.
And I think that's highly unusual for politicians, and pretty much unheard of for presidents. Granted, it's not as if they're all Bill Clinton, who seems to be almost pathological in his obsession about policy, by all accounts (then, too, Clinton seems pathological in so many obsessions). Plenty of politicians appear to be highly interested in one realm of public affairs but relatively indifferent to others. And certainly many are drawn to politics as a career mainly because they love the power that it gives them, or because they like the attention, or whatever. But there's normally a reason that they become politicians and not, I don't know, rock stars.
That's even true for most dynastic politicians; they may have gone into the family business simply because it was the family business, but most of them absorbed interest in the world along with their choice of career. I'm not much of a fan of JFK or Al Gore, but I don't think anyone would accuse either of them, or George H.W. Bush for that matter, of having little interest in the world of public affairs. There are some politicians who seem to be far more interested in the processes of policy-making than the outcomes...I get the sense that Bob Dole was like that, for example, and I think a lot of Congressional leaders have been like that to a greater or lesser extent. But for them, mastery of process makes mastery of substance necessary, so it doesn't much matter.
If I'm right about Bush -- and, to be fair, it's possible we'll learn more in the future that will prove me wrong, although I doubt it -- then I can't think of anyone at a high level of politics even remotely comparable. All of which made him ill-equipped to cope with the presidency. All presidents have to deal with insufficient knowledge about public policy; Bush had far less, on far more topics, than most. And he had fewer successful (or, to be blunt, sober) life experiences to fall back on.
Anyway, my guess is that Bush's reputation will wind up if anything worse, not better, than his current reputation. Why? Because I suspect that when we get more information, we'll see more instances where he was indifferent, uninvolved, unprepared, easily manipulated, and generally not up for the job and not particularly interested in doing anything about it. In other words, I'm guessing that the worst stereotypes of him as president will turn out to be true -- and that his reputation, currently hurt by outcomes, will stay lousy or get worse as we learn more about process. Note: I twice there said "guess," and I mean it; I could be wrong! But I've yet to see any evidence that pushed me the other way.
Dan Drezner, while hardly defending Bush, thinks that there is some reason to believe his reputation will improve. Drezner says that Bush has been a good ex-president...but he's been "good" more in the sense of Gerald Ford (staying out of the way) rather than a Jimmy Carter, doing good works. I sort of expect that Bush will wind up doing good works the way that his father has, eventually, but he certainly isn't going to be a Carter or a Clinton. Nor will he, obviously, spend his retirement writing books about important issues, the way that Nixon did.
Drezner also thinks Bush will accrue "credit" because of what came after him, at least when it comes to Republicans and foreign policy/national security. I disagree! I think that Bush will -- properly -- be seen as responsible for that poor quality. After all, most of it comes from Bush's administration promoting people who are now responsible for much of that poor quality, and discrediting or undermining those who were more sound on those issues. Going back to the previous paragraph -- Bush deserves some blame for this post-presidency, too. It's true, and as Drezner said to Bush's credit, that in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks Bush worked against "anti-Muslim hysteria." But it was Bush Administration veterans who encouraged that sort of thing during the Obama years, and George W. Bush sat by and did nothing, when it's quite possible he could have made a difference.
And then Drezner gives Bush, or at least his economic team, credit for their actions in fall 2008. I don't know...I think it's more likely that historians will focus more on inaction leading into the economic disaster (or policies which actively brought it on) rather than policies which avoided even worse outcomes. In that sense, it's much like the Bush Iraq policy in his last two years in office; whatever good marks he gets for changing course, it's all in the context of rescuing a self-made disaster.
A have to mention this somewhere...there's torture. I mean, first of all, that Bush's administration adopted torture as policy. Even if we want to give a very generous reading of things, it's still a terrible mark against him. And again: I do think that Bush is the one person capable of preventing the Republican Party from becoming the pro-torture party, or at least of dramatically changing the odds of it happening, and he hasn't done it. On top of that, there's the civil liberties record...yes, all presidents (Madison excepted) do poorly on that during wartime, and on civil liberties it's hard to say that Bush was the worst, but still he was pretty awful, and that's apt to look bad to future historians.
Despite all this, we're already seeing and are sure to see revisionist stuff about Bush, most of it perfectly evidence-free.
The whole thing is enough to make me very, very cranky.