Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bush: Truman or Nixon

One hears rather often that George W. Bush has ended his presidency with record low approval ratings. Some articles I've read have said (apparently incorrectly) that they are the lowest ever.



The above was sent to me yesterday, and it provides an interesting comparison. Two presidents left office with approvals as low as Bush's: Truman, who faced a struggling post-war economy and a increasingly difficult situation in the Korean War; and Nixon, who was in the middle of being impeached when he resigned.

History has been far kinder to Truman, overall, than Nixon. Indeed, I suspect that few people know that Truman ended his presidency as unpopular as Nixon and Bush. Certainly, I hadn't realized it. It remains to be seen whether, in 50 years time, Bush will be seen as more like the former or the latter.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Future generations' opinion of Bush Jr. will probably be the same as future generations' opinion of torture. If they deem torture to be justifiable then they will approve him, since he is the one who made it respectable (at least in some circles). If they don't then Bush will be assigned to the bottom of the barrel with Nixon and Andrew Johnson, where torturers rightly belong.

Joel

Darwin said...

Perhaps, but by that theory wouldn't one say that FDR would be rightly remembered at the bottom of the barrel with other presidents who rounded up US citizens based on their nation or origin and put them in camps? The practice of rounding up and imprisoning (and allowing the informal confiscation of property from) US citizens of Japanese origin was far more wide ranging in its effects than the use of waterboarding and such on a small subset of Guantanamo detainees.

The fact that these methods were used on a very small group of people certainly doesn't make it right, but I very much doubt that the "great torture debate" will be remembered in much more than footnotes 40 years from now.

Anthony said...

Just you wait, in a few years time someone will write a book, do an interview or something with the thesis that George W. Bush wasn't such a bad guy after all.

It will happen, because thats the kind of narrative the media, marketers and politicians love. It justifies their existence.

That doesn't mean that any of it will be true.

Anonymous said...

At the time of the Japanese internment Jim Crow was still king in the South and most colleges didn't admit women. It was a different era.

That President Bush has today established torture as a policy throughout the world (not just Gitmo), and that prominent conservatives are openly defending it, is a stain on the soul of this country that we must all pray is purged in the near future. And not just so that future historians can rightly judge this awful president.

Joel

Anonymous said...

Joel,
Are you a moron in real life, or do you just play one on this blog?

Darwin said...

Anon,

I think Joel is wrong on this point, but calling him a moron is not a constructive way of discussing that fact.

Joel,

Well, I guess I can wait till I'm eighty and see if the general opinion of Bush is mostly focused around the torture issue, but right now one can only guess as to what people will see most at a half century remove. However, from where I stand now I think you vastly overstate your case when you say:

That President Bush has today established torture as a policy throughout the world (not just Gitmo), and that prominent conservatives are openly defending it, is a stain on the soul of this country that we must all pray is purged in the near future.

Some tactics that I think Ross Douthat rightly characterized as "torture lite" were authorized for use on "high value suspects" at Guantanamo. I think this was a political and moral failure, and I'm glad that due to people who spoke up within the military the DOJ rescinded those orders all the way back in 2003 and has never re-instituted them.

In the general "turn up the pressure and get results" climate of 2002-2003, combined with poorly trained and sometimes poorly led soldiers being put in charge of prisoners when they'd never had any training on how to deal with such situations, led to various abuses at US run prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq at around the same time. By the time the Abu Graib story broke in 2004, this situation had already been reigned in in most US-run facilities. (Having watched Taxi to the Dark Side last weekend with a friend, I was somewhat intrigued to find that even in a documentary entirely created to indict the Bush administration for torture, they basically didn't have anything after 2003 to talk about, so they just looped back and talked about how the same administration was still in power and we had to change our ways now -- even after covering the memo from the head of the Navy JAGs which make the DOJ rescind its interrogation policies.)

So no, I'm not seeing a pattern of Bush having "established torture as a policy throughout the world".

Certainly, there are those who loudly proclaim a "we have to do whatever it takes, even if that means getting our hands dirty, to keep Americans safe" approach to things, but frankly this is a standard temptation for all people in all times. Nor is advocating cruelty in the US under that justification new. I recall talking to a biker-looking guy in the supermarket during the Branch Davidian stand-off who assured me that what the government needed to do was "Get those sick SOBs, tie their hands together, stick dynamite up their asses, and light them a fuse a mile long so they can see it coming before it blows their asses out their mouths."

So I think you give America too much credit to say that this "whatever it takes" attitude wasn't common before, and too little to say that torture is "established" now. Un-dramatic though it is to say so, we remain very much whatever we were.


As for your FDR defense -- I'm unclear how the fact that he didn't mind blacks and women being treated badly makes forcibly interning an entire minority group in camps better. If we were going to remember any president for gross violations of civil rights during wartime, it would be FDR long before Bush on numerous fronts. Rightly or wrongly, presidents are judged on the war overall, not abuses that were incidental to it.

Because of that, I suspect that Bush's long term reputation will have much to do with whether his term is seen as marking the beginning of our problems in the Middle East, or the beginning of the end.

Anonymous said...

I still say you are being too hard on FDR and too easy on Bush Jr. FDR was acting before the Geneva Conventions, before the Civil Rights Act, and before the Anti-Torture Act. Given the social climate of the era - a climate that pointedly did NOT include respect for the rights of those different from the majority - his actions were understandable, if not excusable.

President Bush has no such excuse. If he authorized torture only once, on one person, then he is a criminal. His recent excuse for this ("We had legal opinions saying it was allowed") will not cut it when he stands before God.

You are correct in noting that the "whatever it takes" attitude among some Americans in nothing new. Sociologists are fond of pointing out that we are not as far removed from barbarism as we like to think. That's why it is crucial for our leaders to respect the law and the norms of civilization. On this measure President Bush is not just a failure, but an active and willing Vandal.

Joel

Todd said...

What Bush has done will be the new standard by which other poor presidents are compared. Torture is bad enough--lots of presidents authorized it or, at least looked the other way. It wasn't something you wore as a proud badge.

The Bush II presidency was singularly unprepared to defend the country, and 9/11 changed nothing if Katrina is considered any evidence at all.

People disliked Truman, but he possessed a competence Bush has never really shown. The difference is that people disagreed with Truman, and bitterly so, but they can concede the man was a leader and politician.

With Bush II, people who aligned with him were eager to jump ship. that kind of stain won't go away. He will be considered one of history's worst US presidents. A 22% approval rating in the era of extreme partisanship is incredible.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of presidential approval ratings - which after all is the topic of the original posting on the blog -

It is interesting to note that no president has ever been lower than 20%. It seems that this is the theoretical minimum. If a president were caught on camera giving drugs to an underage boy in exchange for sex, 20% is where his approval would go. No lower.

This makes Bush's 22% figure all the more amazing.

Anonymous said...

Jsut a quick fact check:

The First Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field" was adopted in 1864, last revised in 1949. The
Second Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea" was first adopted in 1906. The Third Geneva Convention "relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War" was first adopted in 1929, last revised in 1949. Only the
Fourth Geneva Convention "relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War" was not yet adopted when FDR ordered the interment of Japanese Americans, and it was based on parts of the 1907 Hague Convention IV.

Darwin said...

It is interesting to note that no president has ever been lower than 20%. It seems that this is the theoretical minimum. If a president were caught on camera giving drugs to an underage boy in exchange for sex, 20% is where his approval would go. No lower.

This makes Bush's 22% figure all the more amazing.


I'm not really sure one can conclude this since no president has ever been caught on camera giving drugs to an underage boy in return for sex. What we do know is that your approval rating bottoms out around 20% if you are:

a) In danger of losing a war to China and Russia

b) Caught having your campaign operatives steal plans from an election opponent you would have beaten easily anyway.

c) President when the economy falls to pieces.

d) Congress.

Fred said...

Interesting. I imagine that Obama's approvals will be similar to Truman's...

Donald R. McClarey said...

After the giant fiasco that I think the Obama administration will be, I suspect Bush will look much better by comparison. Another 9-11, a spending of several trillion dollars domestically with nothing to show for it, retreat and defeat abroad, and Bush will not look bad by comparison. However, for now, the Bush haters have their day. Enjoy it. I doubt it will last long.