In his latest book, author James Mann takes on the George W. Bush presidency, a presidency defined by the terrorist attacks of September 11 and characterized by increasing controversy. Mann, a Fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and author of The Obamians, Rise of the Vulcans, and several other popular works, recently spoke at SAIS about his book, George W. Bush, the newest volume in The American Presidents Series.
Mann opened his discussion by asking if what he labeled the “Truman Syndrome” would be applied to Bush’s historical legacy. Harry Truman’s presidency, which ended amidst intense debate over his policies, has been the object of positive revisionist reassessment. Also, drawing parallels to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, both of whom left office under a maelstrom of popular resentment – Johnson for the Vietnam War and Nixon for Watergate—Mann observes that these presidents have also come to be remembered more fondly as the decades have passed. For LBJ it was passage of the Civil Rights Act and for Nixon the normalization of U.S. relations with China that earned them at least partial absolution. Mann expresses doubt that the nation’s forty-third president’s legacy will enjoy such redemptive reappraisal. President Bush’s leadership in the military sphere through the turbulent wake of 9/11 was no doubt an unprecedented test of resolve, but Mann argues that a verdict on how the Bush administration’s policies from its counterterrorism efforts to its other decisions is still out.
Mann focused in his talk on two of Bush’s decisions that he believes will shape the President’s legacy: the 2003-2011 Iraq War and the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Calling the U.S. involvement in Iraq a “strategic mistake of historic proportions,” Mann brushes aside folk-psychology explanations about why Bush went to war. The author contends that administration officials may have genuinely believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, but the road to Baghdad was not exclusively paved by this threat. Rather, the underlying motivation was to project American power in the region. Mann argues that administration officials mistakenly assumed there would be acquiescence and attendant diplomatic and military support for the Iraq War by its European allies, such as France and Germany, and believed that U.S. forces would be “greeted as liberators”— much as in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War. Though the initial ground forces that arrived in Baghdad may have been viewed as such, their welcome was short-lived.
As for Mann’s discussion of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, Mann notes, the rising budget deficits that they brought with them reflected a redistribution of wealth to the already wealthy. This transfer of wealth, vis-à-vis dividends and capital gains, stratified the President’s near-term legacy in terms of those who benefited. Wal-Mart’s founding Walton family saved an estimated $3-4 billion as a result of these cuts from 2003 to 2012, Mann notes. As the 2008 financial crisis broke, the US budget deficit was over $640 billion.
There is no question, Mann argues, that George W. was a better politician than his father. He suggests that there were political drivers underlying “W.’s” decision to cast aside his Andover/Yale education to become a self-proclaimed backwoods Texan. Once dubbed a “good-time guy” by a college friend (and appropriately – the title of Chapter 1 of Mann’s book), Bush sobered up and embraced evangelical Christianity as he joined his father’s presidential campaign. This is only part of the story Mann tells about how layers of experience and influence moved a mediocre businessman to the apogee of political success, and ultimately to post-Presidency retreat as one of American history’s most reclusive former presidents.
The portrait Mann presents of George W. Bush is of an exceptional politician who exhibited decisive leadership through an unprecedented time in American history, particularly in the security and fiscal policy spheres. But as Mann reminds us, these decisions Bush took were risky ones; indeed, he quotes the former President as observing when meeting with his military advisers, “ Somebody has got to be risk-averse in this process, and it better be you, because I’m sure not…”. The forces that these gambles unleashed have carried heavy costs, leaving what may be an enduring pall over Bush’s presidential legacy.