Julian Zelizer: Assessing the Bush Presidency & "Decision Points" in the Media
By Bonnie K. Goodman
Ms. Goodman is the Editor/Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. Her blog is History Musings
This past week President George W. Bush released his highly anticipated memoirs,"Decision Points." To coincide with the release of Bush's memoirs, Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University has edited"The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment," (Princeton University Press, 2010). Zelizer's book released last month is the first scholarly work that attempts to analyze and place Bush's presidency and legacy into historical perspective. Zelizer this past week has also been the media's number one scholarly source as they attempt to put Bush's memoirs into a broader context. He has given a live chat on the Washington Post's website, has given radio interviews, was interviewed by BBC and the Danish media, been quoted on MTV, has hosted a book signing of his own book, and has analyzed Decision Points in an TV interview on PBS's Newshour.
Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University, 2007-Present.
Faculty Associate, Center for the Study for the Study of Democratic Politics, 2007-Present.
"I'm a true historian, but I never like to be confined by boundaries. I've learned from social science,
political science, social history. To do it right, it has to be done without any rigid disciplinary boundaries."...
Originally published as part of Political scholar Zelizer goes beyond disciplinary, academic boundaries, News at Princeton, 3-8-08
"What policy history does nicely is to look back to alternatives that were not taken. We can look at the New Deal
to understand current economic policy. Decisions that weren’t taken might offer guidance to where we should be
By Julian E. Zelizer
The historians whose essays appear in this book do not attempt to resolve this debate. The chapters catalogue some of the successes of the administration, ranging from counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda between 2001 and 2003 through AIDS policy in Africa to the appointment of minorities to prominent government positions. They also examine some of the failures, including the damage caused by the war in Iraq, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, and the devastating collapse of financial markets following years of deregulation in the fall of 2008. Rather than speculate whether he was the worst or the best president in U.S. history, the contributors have attempted to place the Bush White House in a broader historical perspective by understanding his presidency in relationship to the conservative movement.
The authors of the essays in this book are trying to write a first take on the history of this period, but one that builds on the rich literature on the history of conservatism in modern America. We hope the essays provoke further investigation. Since this is an early effort to write the history of the George W. Bush presidency, the work is necessarily incomplete. We do not yet have access to some archival materials that will become available in the future. Yet, in addition to the substantial documentation instantaneously available in the age of the Internet, the contributors also have the advantage of producing this interpretation at a time when the emotions and sentiment and context of President Bush’s actions are still vivid. We hope these essays offer the opening to a conversation that will continue for centuries. -- Julian E. Zelizer in"The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment"
As a historian, what's your opinion of Bush?: My opinion is that he will go down as a transformative president. He was saddled with the image of an accidental president, the son of a president, someone not who’s serious. But when you start looking back at his tax policies, his war policies, his counter-terror policies, he’s enormously consequential ... Right now, as Obama is struggling with each item on his agenda, we’re starting to appreciate the scale of what happened under Bush, whether you agree or disagree with his polices. Obama is living and dealing with what a lot of Bush did. Afghanistan, Iraq, tax cuts ... a lot of Obama’s time in the White House has been defined as a response to what Bush did ... Bush was a serious political player and was not taken seriously to the mistake of many people.
So what's going to be Bush's legacy?: He was very successful in terms of shaping public policy. He's got a pretty big record. There were failures; Iraq really didn’t work out the way he thought, and some would argue his tax polices caused the meltdown. But every president goes through tons of revisions. Truman was seen as a failure when he left office, now he's the architect of the Cold War. Reagan was seen as a bumbling figure, now he’s seen as a shrewd leader who helped end Communism ... Bush had the ability to move Washington and to move public policy, and it's hard to deny that he did that and did it dramatically.
So. The reason for the book?: Bush still looms large. He's so polarizing, so controversial. Been a few quiet years, but people are thinking about him again. It's fun for people to look back on a period they lived through and to start to think about it as a moment in history. -- LOOK WHO'S TALKING Interview: Julian Zelizer, professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University Discussing"The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment," The Trentonian, 9-13-10
Of all the facts, this is one we didn't know about, that there was some discussion and consideration of replacing Vice President Cheney with Senator Bill Frist to be the vice presidential candidate. Part of the reason he wanted to do it was to demonstrate to the public that he was, in fact, in charge of the White House and that Vice President Cheney didn't run the show behind the scenes. So, this is a revelation. Again, it's not uncommon for people to talk about changes in the tickets behind the scenes, but it still is some news.
I think, the more we learn from journalists and from historians about what went on in the White House, and from what we're learning about people who left the administration, most don't agree with that assessment. Whether you disagree or agree with his policies, this is someone who is intelligent and who was capable and who could be politically skillful at various times. I imagine there will be a bit of a revision, like you had with Ronald Reagan, who originally was thought to be not very intelligent, more an actor than a policy-maker. But the more we learned, we learned there was someone pretty cunning in the White House.
I do think, like many presidents, he wants to get a first cut of the history. He knows that historians are coming. He knows that the historians are going to start investigating what went on. I think this is his effort to offer a defense and an explanation of what he did during his administration. And even on controversial issues like Iraq, where he acknowledges his regrets, he still stands by the decision. So, this is his kind of last argument before the historians start the debate.
I would disagree only in that there really never is a final verdict. First of all, the historians have already started to write about him. And what will happen is, there will be multiple interpretations. There will be cycles of when people are negative or -- about his policies, when they see more accomplishments than we noticed at the time. You know, a president like Ronald Reagan has gone through many ups and downs in terms of how we view his character, his skills, and the record and legacy of his policies. So -- so, it's an unending debate that is about to start. And I don't think there will be any point in time where anyone issues a verdict. And I think that's a healthy way to treat a presidency. -- JULIAN ZELIZER, Editor,"The Presidency of GEORGE W. BUSH: A First Historical Assessment", in"Bush Releases Memoir: 'He Knows the Historians Are Coming'" Interview with PBS Newshour, 11-9-10 -- Mp3
1. George W. Bush was an uninformed Texas cowboy....
2. Compassionate conservatism was just a campaign slogan....
3. Bush committed America to nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan....
4. Dick Cheney ran the Bush White House....
5. Bush left conservatism in ruins.
-- Julian Zelizer,"5 myths about George W. Bush," WaPo, 11-3-10
Besides some of the more familiar issues that shaped his presidency, such as 9/11 and the war on terrorism, looking back from 2010 raises new kinds of questions that might not have been as obvious at the time that his term ended: What impact did Bush have on the conservative movement? What was the relationship between deregulation during these years and the economic collapse in 2008? How did the economic policies of the period influence economic inequality? What was the relationship between President Bush and congressional Republicans? How did Bush overcome some of the obstacles that Obama has struggled in the political process? Did the Bush Doctrine really constitute as much as a turning point in U.S. foreign policy as it seemed at the time? How do we evaluate the impact of the Surge--and what did the decision-making behind that policy tell us about how the White House worked? How did President Bush come to push for a substantial expansion of government--through TARP--in the middle of the economic crisis? What impact did the 2006 elections have on the politics of his presidency? Which policies will outlast his presidency and why?
Obviously these are just a few questions and there are many more to discuss. But the time has come to start thinking more seriously about this two-term president and the impact that he had on the nation. It is also to start developing a more sophisticated understanding of the roots of this administration rather than writing about these years as if everything started in 2001.... - Julian Zelizer: Five myths about George W. Bush Live-Chat, WaPo, 11-8-10
About Julian E. Zelizer
Princeton University Press has already beat him into print with The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment, edited by Julian E. Zelizer, who is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. The other 10 contributors are professors of history, international relations, law, and political science, and they cover the expected bases -- the"War on Terror," the invasion of Iraq, social and economic policy, religion and race. It is a scholarly book, which means that it is bound to make everybody mad. People on the left get angry at remembering the Bush years, while those on the right grow indignant that anyone still wants to talk about them. So the notion that they were consequential is perhaps not totally uncontroversial after all.
The contributors make three points about the Bush administration's place in the history of American conservatism that it may be timely to sum up, just now.... -- Inside Higher Ed, 11-3-10
A strength of this book is that it seeks to place the Bush presidency in the context of earlier Republican administrations. There is a peculiar conservative American perspective on the exercise of presidential power and the limits that should apply to the government....
The Bush presidency is entitled to the passage of time and the scholarship of a generation....
Truman now rests easy; his reputation polished. For Bush, despite Zelizer's early conclusions, authoritative judgment is still some distance away. -- The Australian,"A legacy in progress," 10-9-10
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