Recently, in the course of editing a new collection of profiles written by my late wife, Marjorie Williams (titled, if you must know, Reputation and due out this November), I had occasion to reread a cover story about President George H.W. Bush that Marjorie published in the Washington Post Magazine in August 1992. One passage in the piece jumped out at me, for reasons unrelated to the context in which it was written. Here it is:
[P]ublic opinion about George Bush has touched not one but two outer edges of the known galaxy of presidential popularity. First … he scored the highest approval ratings of any president since World War II. Then … he plunged to the lowest level of public esteem ever measured, in the same postwar era….
What struck me, of course, was that the same sentences could have been written yesterday about the George Bush currently serving out the final year of his presidency. Clicking onto this Web page for the University of Connecticut’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, I found the following chart:
Eerie, isn’t it? If you go by approval ratings, father and son are practically the same person. The only significant differences are that the 43rd president’s belly-flop was spread over two presidential terms rather than one and that it was a slightly exaggerated version of the 41st president’s trajectory.
Until 1991, the records for both the highest and the lowest presidential approval ratings in the modern era (i.e., from Roosevelt onward) were held by Harry Truman. Then George H.W. whupped Truman on the upside (89 percent to Truman’s 87 percent) and subsequently came within shouting distance of beating Truman on the limbo-contest downside (29 percent to Truman’s 22; the numbers Marjorie relied on to pronounce George H.W. the record-holding bottom-dweller applied only to presidents late in their first term, a qualifier I trimmed out somewhat dishonestly to capture your attention). That’s a 60-point spread! The fans didn’t see anything like that again until George W. arrived in the Oval Office. Dubya has always aspired to best his old man, and wouldn’t you know he did just that, beating dad’s record high of 89 percent approval with his own record of 92 percent approval. To see approval ratings higher than that you have to go to a totalitarian state, where they make them up. Then Dubya turned around and bested his old man at limbo, too, dropping one point below Poppy’s all-time low of 29 percent, thereby matching Jimmy Carter’s malaise (28 percent) and inching toward Nixon’s Watergate nightmare (23 percent). With the economy all-but-officially in recession, Dubya’s limbo game, which for the past two years has mostly hovered in the 30s and high 20s, may yet dip below Truman’s 22 percent before he packs his bags in January 2009. Already Dubya’s high-low spread, at 64 points, is within one point of beating Truman’s record-holding 65. (For some reason, any approval rating above 80 spells a president’s eventual doom; the sainted Ronald Reagan, for instance, never got above 68 percent.)
We are so accustomed to noticing the quite obvious differences between Bushes père et fils that we risk not recognizing the enormous difficulty that future generations of schoolchildren will experience when they try to remember which was which. Both presidents were fantastically popular and later fantastically unpopular. Both went to war with Saddam Hussein. Neither could recite a grammatical or even, at times, coherent sentence to save his life. (Before Slate’s Jacob Weisberg mined Dubya’s botched public statements for an endless series of “Bushisms” columns, books, and calendars, he and Andrew Sullivan, then both at the New Republic, published a Bushisms collection of Poppy’s fractured pronouncements.) Both had deeply Oedipal feelings about their fathers. (Even after he became president, Poppy worried that he was falling short of his very stern father, Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush.) Both went to Yale and joined Skull and Bones. Both wanted to be remembered as “education presidents.” Both were known for belligerence. Dubya’s belligerence is better-known because it was more authentic than his father’s, expressed when Poppy turned the 1988 election into a referendum on recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and a black murderer-rapist named Willie Horton. (Dubya never stooped as low in his political rhetoric as Poppy did during that campaign.) Both whored for big business (Dubya everywhere, Poppy through his White House Council on Competitiveness, chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, which eviscerated regulations proposed by federal agencies). Both ended their presidencies with a weak economy. (In Poppy’s case, the recession ended more than a year before the election, but that wasn’t established until after he left office.)
Jake Weisberg, in his excellent book The Bush Tragedy, argues that Bush came to believe he could succeed only by doing, in any given instance, the opposite of what his father did. In doing so, he presided over a presidency far worse than his father’s. But future generations may never notice, as they work laboriously to tell them apart.