In 2021, more than 140 historians participated in the C-SPAN evaluation of American presidents. The rankings haven’t changed much in two decades. The reputations of Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland have declined. Ulysses Grant’s approval rating has risen.
And George W. Bush moved from 36th place in 2009 to 29th in 2021 — just below Gerald Ford. It’s not a huge improvement. But it’s remarkable that Bush’s reputation improved at all, given the long-term consequences of his global “war on terror.”
This limitless war cost the United States trillions of dollars and the lives of more than 7,000 U.S. troops. Forget about “mission accomplished.” The Taliban has returned to power in a still-shattered Afghanistan, Iraq is barely holding it together, and al-QaIda and other radical jihadist forces remain viable. A flood of war refugees has poured into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and throughout Europe.
Moreover, the failure of the Bush administration to use the 9/11 attacks to promote cooperation with countries like Iran profoundly damaged the prospects of rapprochement within the region. The inclusion of North Korea in an “axis of evil” similarly undermined prospects of preventing that country from going nuclear.
And the opportunity costs of using all that money, military hardware and diplomatic persuasion to wage war instead of attending to urgent human needs at home and abroad have been staggering.
Given all of these failures, Bush’s reputation should have suffered a nosedive after he left office. Instead of doing good deeds like Jimmy Carter or playing the elder statesman like his father, Bush has spent most of his post-presidency painting and playing golf.
There’s only one reason his ranking has improved among historians: Donald Trump.
George W. Bush suddenly began to look presidential compared to a man who was impeached twice, attempted a coup to stay in power, and continues to try to overturn the 2020 elections and undermine the integrity of U.S. democracy.
In 2021, historians placed Trump in 41st place, just below William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia after only 31 days in office. Trump’s embarrassing post-presidency of incendiary statements and churlish conduct will likely cement his reputation among future scholars as the worst president ever.
In comparison, Bush has at least fulfilled the minimum requirement of ex-presidents. He attended Joe Biden’s inauguration and Congressman John Lewis’ funeral, which Trump skipped. With all the former presidents except Trump, Bush participated in an Ad Council video urging Americans to get vaccinated. He put out a statement condemning the Jan. 6 insurrection that Trump inspired.