George W. Is No Martyr

Let me be blunt. Let me be blunt like Harry Truman was blunt: Comparisons between Truman and Bush are nonsense.
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Ordinarily we are able to limit the comparisons to Harry S. Truman to the campaign season. That's when, by annoying tradition, the presidential aspirant who is down in the polls always finds that he bears a remarkable resemblance to the plainspoken Missouri Democrat who, famously, came from behind to win the election of 1948.

But now we find that Truman has a second amazing historical quality: Not only is he the patron saint of floundering presidential campaigns, but he is the star of hope for presidents leaving office at the nadir of their public approval ratings.

As you may recall, Truman was extremely unpopular when he finally left Washington in 1953, thanks largely to the Korean War. Today, however, he is thought to have been a solidly good president, a "Near Great" even, in the terminology of those surveys of historians they do every now and then.

And if Truman made that grand comeback, then so can George W. Bush. That's why the Truman comparisons continue, although campaign season is long over, with the ever-dwindling supporters of Mr. Bush discovering significant similarities between their man and President 33. After all, both of them were in the White House at the beginning of big conflicts -- the Cold War, the war on terrorism -- that were not quickly resolved.

Let me be blunt. Let me be blunt like Harry Truman was blunt: Comparisons like this are nonsense. Not only do they depend on the hollowest, most superficial sort of resemblance, but they are easy to refute.

Faced with the Communist invasion of South Korea, for one thing, Truman did not make his stand against some uninvolved country, as Mr. Bush did with Iraq after 9/11. What's more, Truman fought Joe McCarthy and the other demagogues of his day; McCarthy's spiritual descendants, meanwhile, made up part of Mr. Bush's base. But let us take the one thing Truman was known for before he became Franklin Roosevelt's vice president: rooting out waste and fraud in defense contracting as World War II got under way.

Under the Bush administration, on the other hand, contracting waste was apparently so robust, so spectacular, that we might well think of it as an official element of administration policy: waste in New Orleans, waste in Iraq, waste in Homeland Security. And I say "apparently" because we will probably never know the extent of the problem. That quaint Trumanesque notion of accountability will almost certainly not be applied to the now departed Bush & Co.

The point of all the Truman comparisons, though, is not actually to compare anyone to Truman. It is to problematize the obvious verdict on the disastrous Bush administration and clear the way for a more flattering counter narrative.

Presidential legacies are valuable things, too valuable to be left up to historians. That's why one of the final acts of the outgoing administration was its "legacy project," an effort to manage perceptions of the Bush years by future historians.

Manipulating this audience is a different matter than, say, steering the news media. But it can be done. We know the species of historian that is always asked to come up with presidential ratings. We know what they value in presidents. We can be fairly certain of the gem-like banalities they will drop on TV when called on to compare yesterday's presidential inaugural to previous presidential inaugurals.

They will talk about character, and about leadership, and about tough decision-making. And George W. Bush has several thin volumes of propaganda to offer them -- until about noon yesterday you could download them from -- duly establishing his record on precisely these issues.

But gaming history is more difficult than, say, putting a few newspaper columnists on the government payroll. A president aiming for "Great" or "Near Great" status must do more. He must give lots of interviews, make records accessible, and heap the flattery on academia -- each of which Mr. Bush has signally failed to do.

What the former president is counting on instead, I think, is for the conservative movement to step forward as keepers of his flame. One Bush legacy booklet, for example, identifies "Fostering a Culture of Life" as one of his administration's greatest achievements, a phrase that readers outside the movement will scarcely even understand. The chapter about "Judges" seems to regard Mr. Bush's nominations to the Supreme Court as unambiguous triumphs. It then lapses into the usual complaints about the victimization of Mr. Bush's lesser judicial nominees by Congress.

There is a certain cynical brilliance to this strategy, as there was to so many of the Bush initiatives over the years. Woven into the conventional prose of these legacy documents are subtle little invitations to culture war forevermore. Just as they were during Mr. Bush's White House years, plain facts will be dismissed and disapproving experts forever brushed off as so much liberal treachery. Today is the first day of George W. Bush's life as a martyr.

Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at

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