Longtime pundit Jon Meacham is apparently writing a book about George H.W. Bush. But sometimes it feels like his real role is to act as a Bush family publicist.
Bushes move to new parts of the country; they work hard; they learn from their mistakes, particularly from failed campaigns; and they never, ever give up.
Of course, the most famous Bush was noted for what might generously be called a laid-back work style, couldn’t think of any mistakes he had made when asked for an example of one (Reuters, 4/14/04) and essentially gave up on the hunt for Osama bin Laden when he invaded Iraq (FAIR Blog, 5/2/11). It’s true that he did move from Connecticut to Texas–when he was two.
Meacham also claimed the family should be seen as “a line of related products that most Americans recognize and have chosen on three (1988, 2000 and 2004) of the four occasions they’ve been on offer.” Actually, in 2000, more Americans chose Al Gore; it was the Supreme Court that chose George W. Bush (Extra!, 1/02).
In the new issue of Time (4/7/14), Meacham has a piece about George H.W. Bush, who readers are told is “savoring a favorable shift in the popular view of his own administration’s performance while, in classically Bushian fashion, looking forward.”
Meacham doesn’t indicate what poll numbers he’s looking at to judge this shift in the popular view; in a Gallup poll taken six months ago (11/15/13), Bush came in sixth out of 11 modern presidents; the only president with a higher percentage rating him “Average” was Gerald Ford.
But it’s not just the elder Bush whose political tenure is being re-assessed by the public. Meacham writes:
As the years pass from the tumult of the first decade of the century, George W. Bush seems less polarizing, and his new display of paintings of world leaders at his own library, in Dallas, offers the country–or at least a small part of it–the opportunity to consider him in a different, less glaring light.
Though it’s not the most unusual take on the Bushes I’ve seen recently–that would be courtesy of the Washington Post, which declared that the family was “going through a renaissance of Matthew McConaughey-like proportions.”
It’s true that the younger Bush is viewed more favorably than he was at the end of his second term. But that has a lot to do with how low he’d fallen; one poll taken as he left office in January 2009 had with just a 22 percent approval rating.
Bush’s numbers have obviously risen since then–to 49 percent favorability–but as Gallup noted (USA Today, 6/12/13), “Opinions of Bush still show a high degree of party polarization, with a 60-point gap in his favorable ratings from Republicans versus Democrats.” And Bush’s recovery is slower than most other ex-presidents.
In the November 2013 Gallup poll comparing modern presidents, the younger Bush came in 9th out of 11; the only chief executive with a higher “Below Average” or “Poor” ranking was Richard Nixon.
But people like Meacham have always been trying to encourage everyone to look at Bush through what you might call a different light. In 2009 (FAIR Blog, 11/30/09), he wrote a piece advocating for a Dick Cheney presidential campaign in 2012. That would be “good for he Republicans and good for the country,” he asserted, in part because we’d find get to decide how we really felt about Bush:
A campaign would also give us an occasion that history denied us in 2008: an opportunity to adjudicate the George W. Bush years in a direct way. As John McCain pointed out in the fall of 2008, he is not Bush. Nor is Cheney, but the former vice president would make the case for the harder-line elements of the Bush world view.
Huh. Besides all of the the public opinion polls, it seems reasonable to assume that 2006 and 2008 elections went a long way towards settling the question of the American public’s view of George W. Bush.
Meacham also wrote a column (FAIR Blog, 6/4/10) looking back on some of the Bush-era wreckage–Iraq, Katrina, economic collapse–and advanced the theory that these failures were mostly about big institutions failing, having little to do with anything ideological: “The history of these years fails to fit neatly into the ideological categories of left or right, for both public and private enterprises have managed to miss the mark in hours of crisis.” As if the left were rooting for the “public” invasion of Iraq, or the devastation of Katrina reflected the “left” idea of neglecting to send emergency relief.
It’s not clear that the Bushes are actually enjoying a shift in the public perception of their administrations, but they can always bask in the glow of the unwavering flattery of journalists like Jon Meacham.