David Greenberg: George Bush's kooky sense of his place in history

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, has two new books out: Presidential Doodles and Calvin Coolidge. ]

For a guy with a reputation as an intellectual slacker, George W. Bush has always professed a surprisingly strong interest in history—however politicized some of his takes on the past may be. Bush has likened the "war on terrorism" to the Cold War, compared the occupation of Iraq to that of Germany, endorsed the "stab in the back" theory of America's defeat in Vietnam, and fancied himself Harry Truman redivivus, standing firm in pursuit of noble goals while getting trashed as the worst president ever.

For all this attention to the past, Bush's study of history has recently taken a turn toward the philosophical, at least by his own standards. Instead of just grabbing for analogies to serve as talking points, Bush appears to have become a pensive, almost romantic thinker ruminating about the ultimate design of history. According to a series of recent articles, he has been summoning scholars to the White House, perusing chronicles of past wars, and mulling over his place in the grand scheme. "What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I'm facing?" Bush asks the historians at his intimate sessions, according to the Washington Post's Peter Baker. "How will history judge what we've done?"

In some ways, there's less here than meets the eye. Throughout his term, Bush has made clear that he likes to read history, as do many politicians. Other presidents, too, have shuttled in scholars in order to skim off their insights about a crisis—Jimmy Carter turned to Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, to make sense of his era's malaise, and the elder George Bush hosted Theodore Roosevelt biographer David McCullough to glean the secrets of TR's success. As for wondering how posterity will regard his actions—what leader hasn't? When we're feeling charitable, we refer to this kind of consideration of long-term consequences as "vision."

What's new and strange about Bush's latest turn to history is that it doesn't seem to stem from a desire to serve his policy-making—not even as PR. Historians' insights, after all, can have little practical utility now. A historian can't predict with more authority than any other informed observer whether jihadist radicalism will wax or wane, or whether a liberal democracy will eventually take root in Iraq. And while there's no harm in asking a scholar like Alistair Horne, author of A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-72, to parse the parallels between the Iraq war and France's effort to suppress terrorism in Algeria, such parallels rarely yield neat prescriptions. Besides, the historians who furnish advice in these contexts usually filter it through their own prejudices. Writing in the Telegraph, for example, Horne blamed Bush's Iraq misadventure on his decision "to heed too often the voices of the Zionist lobby."

But setting aside whether historians make for good policy advisers, it's doubtful that Bush will factor their analyses into his thinking. I'd like to applaud Bush's metaphysical forays as evidence of a searching mind. But do we really think his ongoing seminar will lead him to think in new ways about his challenges? Has the man who sneered at "revisionist history" regarding the Iraq invasion suddenly developed a humility about learning from the past?

As the late David Halberstam wrote in an impassioned piece posthumously published in Vanity Fair, the president's easy talk of history strikes many people as disingenuous because he has always seemed to choose his course of action first and to seek intellectual justification later. Moreover, Halberstam correctly noted, "Those who know history best tend to be tempered by it. They rarely refer to it so sweepingly and with such confidence." Bush, invariably described in these recent journalistic pieces as lonely, contemplative, and fatalistic, seems to be practically reveling in the image of himself as a solitary figure of destiny.

Weighing in recently on Bush's historical turn of mind, David Brooks (subscription required) of the New York Times recalled the old (and now rather tired) debate about whether "great men" (according to Thomas Carlyle) or "great forces" (according to Tolstoy) shape history. Bush, Brooks wrote, sees history as "the club of those in power" who, by their actions, "have the power to transform people." The contrary view holds, in Brooks' summary, that "the everyday experiences of millions of people … organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations—from the bottom up." Without taking sides, Brooks extrapolates, "If Bush's theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive."

But Brooks' gloss on Bush's theory of history is too simple. For although the president considers individual leaders the key to diplomacy, his thoughts about history—especially when he shifts into his philosophical mode—actually suggest he believes in a kind of determinism, in the inevitability of deeper currents. The twist is that Bush's deep forces aren't the organic social impulses that Tolstoy wrote about. Rather, they're the expressions of a spirit—a divine will.

"Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy," Brooks wrote, "or as he said … , 'I believe a gift of [the] Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me doesn't exist.' " Much more than the probing queries of a wide-eyed undergraduate, this defiant assertion of conviction sounds like the Bush we know. It's in keeping with countless other remarks Bush has made insisting that defeating terrorism is the "purpose" of his presidency. And it bespeaks a view of history that, while out of fashion for many decades, once enjoyed near-universal appeal.

Before the Enlightenment and the recourse to science and reason in historical explanation, most societies believed that the unfolding of events followed divine guidance. Even into the 19th century, chroniclers of the American story sprinkled their narratives with references to the hand of Providence. They interpreted the conquest of the West, the flowering of democracy, and the rise of the United States to greatness as the result of a supernal blessing. "A superintending Providence, that overrules the designs, and defeats the projects of men, remarkably upheld the spirit of the Americans," reads but one such passage, from Mercy Otis Warren's classic History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), "and caused events that had for a time a very unfavorable aspect, to operate in favor of independence and peace."

This faith-based theory of history resembles Bush's. In his Vanity Fair article, Halberstam interpreted Bush's recent talk of history as a puzzling departure from his previous inclination to cite "instinct and religious faith" as the underpinnings of his decision-making. If Bush sees history as a divine plan, the contradiction disappears.

But perhaps there's a more charitable way to think of Bush's understanding of history: as a Hegelian. (Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed, for one, has offered an intriguing Hegelian reading of Bush.) Like Carlyle, who was influenced by his work, Hegel venerated heroes who steer the course of events. After seeing Napoleon ride into battle to defeat the armies of Prussian monarchy at Jena in 1806, Hegel famously described the emperor as "the World Spirit riding on a horse"—a great individual shaping history. But Hegel also believed the battle at Jena to represent, as Francis Fukuyama stressed in his influential 1989 essay, the "end of history." History, Hegel argued, had an inner logic, a teleology, with the unfolding of liberty as the ultimate plan. For Hegel, Great Men like Napoleon don't just happen to find themselves as emperor of Europe; they're driven by an inner spirit that serves the aims of historical destiny.

I doubt that many Americans would share the view of Bush as a world-historical figure, possessed by the spirit of history. It does strike me as possible, however, that the president thinks of himself this way. Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History aren't likely to appear on Bush's nightstand next to the three biographies of George Washington he's said to have consumed, nor should we expect Bush to drop his comparisons to Truman and start talking about Napoleon instead. But that's because, after last summer's dabbling with Camus, and this summer's Gallic flirtation with big questions, he wouldn't want people to think he's French.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Greenberg is definitely on to something here, but there is much more to the story of GW Bush's (now more than 80% over) presidency than his "strange turn to History" in the recent past.

In the waning months of his administration, W probably does see his presidential leadership role as that of a "world-historical figure" persevering to fulfill divine destiny. But this was hardly in evidence before Sept. 11, 2001.

W was not prepared to win the presidency in 2000, did so through a series of flukes with little mandate and a bare minimum of legitimacy, and has proven extraordinarily incompetent at running things since then.

His foreign policy "vision" in 2000 and the first two-thirds of 2001 consisted of things such as limiting overseas interventions, economizing on military spending except for missile defense against China, and warmer relations with Mexico. A set of modest tinkerings and lackluster reruns of past Republican platforms, in other words, which were to be implemented by a team of retreads from past Republican administrations. At its inception, his was set to be a low-risk, low-return presidency.

9-11 changed that. It upped the political ante for Bush, and he rushed to raise the stakes much higher still with his asinine "war on terror,” followed by the even stupider and much more massively bungled attempt at nation-building-on-the-fly in Iraq, followed by one set of cover-ups and flopped course corrections after another.

GW Bush's self-perception as a great historical leader of great historical forces is at least as much an opportunistic (albeit reckless and inept) response to historical accident, as it is a reflection of any deep personal conviction.