Historians, WH Reporters: Press Shouldn't “Whitewash” Bush Record In Library Reports

As the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opens today, some in the press have been caught up in a swoon over the former president.

Pundits from the center and the avowed left called on critics to re-examine the former president as a “good man with a good heart,” while those on the right declare that “Bush is Back.” Political analysts are compiling lists of “The 7 best moments of George W. Bush's presidency” and highlighting polls indicating that Bush is more popular now than he was in office. And Fox News has pulled out all the stops, lining up their Bush-administration-officials-turned-Fox-employees to sing the former president's praises.

Presidential historians and veteran reporters who covered the Bush White House are speaking out, saying that reporting on the Bush library and legacy should put his failures in their proper context.

The academics point out that while some of Bush's defenders in the press have said that the Bush legacy is a question for history, historians largely pan his tenure. And the veteran reporters who covered Bush's presidency urge that coverage of the presidential library provide a complete accounting of his tenure in office, including its many missteps.

“The press needs to take a really cold-eyed look at the circumstances ... look at the state of the country and world on Jan. 20, 2001 and eight years later,” said Ed Chen, former Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg correspondent who covered the White House from 1999 to 2010. “Were mistakes made? Sure, the whole WMD fiasco ... it sure has a long way to go for anything close to a full rehabilitation.”

Chen later added, “Of the three [presidents] that I covered, we have to put Bush at the bottom.”

Several top presidential historians echoed Chen's low-ranking view, noting a week of positive coverage cannot erase that.

“Right now he's ranked as one of the lower presidents because of the War in Iraq and the economy tanking so he's got a long way to go to get rehabilitated,” said Douglas Brinkley, a top presidential historian and author. “It is a long revisionist road up from the bottom for George W. Bush. He is ranked toward the bottom rung of presidents.”

Indeed, surveys of historians regularly find Bush ranked among the worst of U.S. presidents.

Having toured the new library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Brinkley described it as having a “compassionate conservative motif” for Bush, adding, “I was surprised how much wall space was given to AIDS in Africa, marine conservation, No Child Left Behind. I got the feeling that the Bush crowd was trying to paint their president as more of a centrist than many people feel.”

But Brinkley stressed that whatever positive image is being attempted this week cannot rewrite his presidency.

“I don't think it matters two weeks from now, it is a building opening and people tend to be jubilant,” he said. “It's the beginning of revisionism of a presidency.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor at the University of Houston and presidential historian, offered a similar assessment.

“The Bush legacy is certainly one of increasing partisanship, he certainly presided over a country that became more polarized and didn't do much to try to alleviate that,” Rottinghaus said.

He noted much of the positive press for the library is a tribute to the office, not necessarily the man, but added that that could be a problem for real reporting of Bush's legacy.

“You can't get past the fact that some of these policies were obviously flawed, its hindsight to suggest it, but I think what will happen is that presidents are judged on the big moments of governing,” he said. “The big moments were the aftermath of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. In terms of the war in Iraq, there are some serious oversights and some clear failures.”

Cal Jillson, political science professor and historian at Southern Methodist University, said many in the press are tending to “bend over backwards to accentuate the positive.”

He cited the nearby Dallas Morning News as being “all very positive” in its coverage. Still, he points out Bush's image among historians remains poor, despite any revision attempt. “George W. Bush is ranked with the lowest of the lows in presidential rankings,” Jillson said. “He is always in the bottom 5 or 6 or 7.”

He added of the library coverage: “Most will miss that the most important element of the story is that we do have a presidency here with two wars, inconclusively fought at great expense and an economic collapse, the worst in 70 years, that is a huge legacy burden.”

Those who covered Bush in the White House say that legacy burden should be front and center as the media covers the opening of the presidential library.

“I would be surprised and disappointed if coverage did not include the War in Iraq,” said Steve Thomma, a McClatchy White House correspondent since 1997. "The coverage of a presidential library is the coverage of his entire record. I would hope it would include a big examination of the Iraq war."

He added that at the library opening, “the role of the press is to use it as an occasion to examine the presidency and the totality of the presidency. The number one thing is foreign policy -- from Sept. 11 on it dominated his presidency and the economy for what happened at the end of his term, the economy crashing, you have to ask if his policies were the right ones.”

Carl Cannon covered Bush's first seven years in office for National Journal and co-authored a book comparing him to Ronald Reagan.

He said reviewing Bush's record during a library opening allows for reporters to “humanize” him, but that they should not “whitewash his record.”

“I would simply say that we should evaluate George W. Bush--if that's what we're doing this week--as best we can, with benefit of what we've learned about him and his policies, good or bad, since he left office.” 

Jennifer Loven, who covered the White House from 2002 to 2010 for Associated Press, said the descriptions she has seen of the Bush Library sound like it is “overly defensive for Bush to present his big decisions the way he does.”

She added that seeing more positive coverage of this event is not a surprise, but points out she has seen good balanced coverage as well.

“I've actually been interested to see that the coverage of his legacy essentially boils it down to a presidency dominated by very bad things - basically bracketed by 9/11 and Iraq at or near the beginning, Katrina in the middle, and the financial meltdown at the end.”