As President George W. Bush departs from the White House, he leaves with the lowest public approval for any president since Harry Truman.
Public opinion, however, is fickle. Except in a few instances – such as the public opinion about Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal, or about Jimmy Carter undermined by the humiliation of American diplomats held hostage by Khomeini’s Iran – public opinion rarely influences the judgment historians reach with sufficient passage of time.
In a recent ranking of American presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton done for the Federalist Society by 78 scholars of American history, Truman was ranked in the company of the “near great” presidents that included Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Woodrow Wilson. The three “great” presidents in the view of the same group of scholars were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
I have no doubt that with the passage of time Bush will be viewed in entirely different light.
His presidency was transformed by the events of 9/11 as Bush went from being peace time president to becoming war time leader and commander-in-chief, just as Truman’s presidency was by the onset of the Cold War.
Through two world wars the United States mainland remained untouched by the reach of her enemies until 9/11. Since that September morning over seven years ago the Bush administration kept Americans safe and their homeland secure, and for this remarkable success history will judge Bush far more kindly than his contemporaries.
It was the Bush policy of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11 with the freedom agenda for the Middle East – with Truman it was the decision to save the Korean peninsula, or at least a part of it, from the Communist takeover – that made for the bitter controversy domestically and abroad.
But long after the critics of Bush have bitten dust and been forgotten, people will be talking about him, as they do about Truman, reflecting upon the consequences of his decision that brought freedom for 50 million people in the Arab-Muslim world. How these people build positively upon their freedom, or squander it, will be a commentary upon them and not Bush.
In bidding Bush adieu I am reminded of John Macmurray, a moral philosopher who taught in the middle years of the last century at the University of Edinburgh. In 1949 he spoke at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and his lectures were published in a small book titled Conditions of Freedom.
Macmurray asked his audience, “When we profess our faith in freedom we often mean only that we want to be free. What value, what honour is there in such a miserable faith?”
Macmurray answered his own question observing, “To believe in freedom, in any sense worthy of consideration, is to believe in setting other people free. This is to some extent within our power, and it is the greatest service we can render; even if it must be, at times, by the sacrifice of our own.”
Bush will be remembered long past the quarrels of his time in office, as is Truman, Reagan and the three “great” presidents in American history, for serving with courage and conviction the cause of freedom.