The Many Presidents of George W. Bush

Why the current president has more ghostly familiars than most.


If you had asked any other president in American history during a time of war whether they had a credibility problem because they had not foreseen changes on the battlefield, you probably would have had plenty of cause. I mean, Abraham Lincoln constantly guessed from Manassas straight through until the final months of the war.
White House press spokesman Tony Snow, Jan. 9, 2007

So now it’s Abraham Lincoln. Seems like only yesterday that President Bush was the reincarnation of Harry S. Truman, the patron saint of low approval ratings. Last month Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., * told reporters that at a meeting with congressional leaders, Bush compared his trials in Iraq to Truman’s at the dawn of the Cold War. Bush even gave Truman biographer David McCullough a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But that was last month. Maybe somebody in the White House read Slate’s Fred Kaplan, writing in his Jan. 3 column (“Iron Man“) that presidents who compare themselves to Truman were like “failing artists who take solace from the fact that van Gogh didn’t sell many paintings in his lifetime. … [M]aybe they’re just lousy artists.” Or maybe Bush’s handlers figured that if you’re going to be an unpopular previous president, why not be the best?

By my count, Lincoln is the fifth dead president who has inhabited the body of George W. Bush. First Bush was William McKinley resurrected. That was for the purposes of the 2000 campaign, in which Bush sought to move the GOP past Clinton-hatred in the same way that McKinley had tried to move Republicans past recriminations over Reconstruction and the Civil War. Karl Rove fancied himself the reincarnation of Mark Hanna, the inspired political hack who pulled McKinley’s marionette strings. This is of course somewhat insulting toward Bush, which may be why the comparison was eventually jettisoned. (Or possibly it was that unpleasantness at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition.)

Next, Bush was Ronald Reagan, who, though still alive in 2001 when the comparison began to catch on, was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Reagan’s spirit passed into Bush’s body as the press began to figure out that Bush was not the moderate he’d presented himself as during the campaign. Bush’s ideological stubbornness and his indifference to policy details invited the comparison, which was codified in January 2003 in the New York Times Magazine in an article by Bill Keller (“The Radical Presidency of George W. Bush“), who subsequently became that newspaper’s editor. A year and a half later, when Reagan died, Bush gave the eulogy at Washington’s National Cathedral, inviting further comparison. By that time, though, word had spread that Bush was even more closed-minded and further to the right than the Great Communicator. Since then, Reagan’s reputation has lofted heavenward, while Bush’s has taken a nosedive.

Early last year, the president became possessed by McKinley’s successor, Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s spirit had flitted in and out of the White House ever since Edmund Morris published Theodore Rex, the second volume of his Roosevelt biography, late in 2001. (Presidential shape-shifting is highly susceptible to the publication schedules of trade hard-covers.) Like Roosevelt, Bush was a blustery blueblood. But, as Slate’s David Greenberg pointed out in 2002, the comparison was inapt in many other ways. Among other difficulties, Teddy Roosevelt was a trust-buster, a prolific author, and a voracious reader. The Iraq war, however, revived memories of Roosevelt’s big stick and restored the word “imperialism” to national discourse, rendering the comparison more plausible. Earlier this year, Rove codified Bush-as-TR with an essay in Time magazine (“Lessons From a Larger-Than-Life President“) playing up Roosevelt’s fondness for big ideas, his eagerness to exert military power, and his generally combative temperament. In a later Time essay, though, conservative writer Andrew Ferguson found the comparison apt but not particularly flattering, reminding readers that TR has never been a favorite of small-government conservatives. As the Iraq war has grown more unpopular, the Bush White House has grown less enamored of the Bull Moose. And so to Truman, and, finally, Lincoln.

It isn’t unusual for presidents to conduct imaginary séances in the White House to commune with the spirit of this or that predecessor. I suppose it’s hard not to. But George W. Bush seems to have communed with more spirits than most. The reason, I suspect, is straightforwardly Oedipal. It’s a way to exorcise the spook he’s most haunted by, the president and father with whom he shares three out of four names. The antecedents Dubya has imagined himself to be have mostly moved up the greatness ladder—I’d flip Truman and Roosevelt—which reflects, I think, Bush’s growing sense that his presidency isn’t going very well. Who can afford modesty when your approval rating hovers in the mid-30s? At this late date, though, I think we’d all be willing to settle for the current president to emulate the prudent mediocrity of Poppy Bush. You can do a lot worse, and Dubya has.

Correction, Jan. 12, 2006: An earlier version of this column misspelled Sen. Durbin’s surname and misidentified his party affiliation. (Return to the corrected sentence.)