The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened seven years ago and anchors the southeastern corner of campus at Southern Methodist University, where I teach history. In late November 2016, I took a tour of the facility with five college friends who were visiting from the East Coast. The recent presidential election was much on our minds as we wandered through the building, contemplating various artifacts from Bush’s two terms in office. Although we were hardly fans of his presidency, one of my pals—fearful, like everyone in our group, of a Trump administration—got misty-eyed when reflecting upon Bush’s obvious love of country. After an hour or so, with a requisite stop for photos in the museum’s full-sized and perfectly appointed replica of the Oval Office, we left in glum moods.
As was the case with my friends and me, the chaos of the past few years has caused some of Bush’s detractors to revise their assessment of W and his legacy. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, for instance, no longer regards him as the most likely modern contender for the worst president in U.S. history. Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a onetime Bush adversary, confessed to a journalist earlier this year that he often finds himself thinking, “ ‘Boy, I wish Bush were here now.’ . . . He was a patriot. I disagreed with him. But he was somebody you could talk to, joke with, had a good personality.” And many noted the heartfelt decency that Bush demonstrated during his brief but moving remarks at the recent funeral for Congressman John Lewis—who had declined to attend Bush’s inauguration in protest over the contested 2000 election.
Donald J. Trump’s calamitous administration has provided the Bush family with an opportunity to capitalize on this budding nostalgia. A pair of recent books by W’s late mother and his daughter reassert the clan’s reputation for graciousness and public service, implicitly suggesting that George W. Bush, the most prominent living member of the family, should be regarded as an heir to that ethos. But this effort at reestablishing a once-cherished brand has not gone uncontested. Two other volumes as well as a recent PBS documentary have insisted on reminding us of W’s grievous limitations and failures, offering evidence of why he left office as one of the most unpopular presidents of the contemporary era.
At the same time, the family has, in the political sphere, struggled to make the case for its continued relevance, which arguably reached its zenith during the presidency of W’s father. The relatively centrist George H. W. Bush was a skilled executive who ably oversaw the fall of the Soviet empire, acted decisively in defense of Kuwait against Saddam Hussein’s invasion, and saw through substantive domestic policies like a cleanup of the savings and loan crisis and comprehensive immigration reform. (This era of comparative consensus is vividly evoked in Susan Glasser and Peter Baker’s The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, an excerpt of which accompanies this review.)