Jonathan Alter

You can’t flush a terrible war down the memory hole

Updated: 2013-04-27T22:45:02Z

By JONATHAN ALTER

Bloomberg View

The dedication last week of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was more than an opportunity for the five living U.S. presidents to compare notes.

It also was the beginning of Bush’s campaign for rehabilitation.

Bush’s ultimate goal, already hawked by his former political adviser Karl Rove, is to become another Harry S. Truman, a regular-guy commander-in-chief whose stock rose sharply about 20 years after he left office.

The superficial comparisons are intriguing. Vice President Truman only became president because Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. The failed haberdasher and product of the Kansas City political machine was unlikely to make it to the top on his own.

Bush became president because he was born on third base, to paraphrase former Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ quip about his father, and because of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000; an unexceptional man who drank heavily until he was 40 probably wouldn’t have made it on his own. He’s a blunt, compassionate conservative who, as Jimmy Carter pointed out at the dedication, saw the ravages of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere and did something about it.

Like Iraq in Bush’s era, the Korean War was hugely unpopular when Truman left office in 1953, and his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan was at least as controversial as Bush’s support for torture.

But the differences between Bush and Truman are much greater than the similarities. In Korea, Truman was responding to communist aggression, not hyping unconfirmed stories about weapons of mass destruction.

While Truman’s “Marshall Plan” (named for his secretary of state, George C. Marshall) produced spectacular results in postwar Europe, Bush apparently didn’t even have a plan for postwar Iraq.

His decision to disband the Iraqi army was catastrophic. Iraq and the simultaneous neglect of Afghanistan are only the best-known Bush administration fiascos that are all but airbrushed out of the museum, though not out of the historical record.

A broader list would include weakening bank-capital requirements and prohibitions on predatory lending that helped pave the way for the financial crisis; botching the response to Hurricane Katrina; gutting federal rules on worker safety, education, veterans’ affairs and other protections; editing climate-change reports to the specifications of ideologues and politicizing appointments to the federal bench and federal law enforcement.

All this is ignored by Bush apologists.

The new museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas is cleverly designed to subsume Bush’s record within the burdens of the presidency. It includes a “Decision Theater” that puts visitors in the shoes of a president forced to make tough calls on a variety of pressing issues.

While this may make for a thought-provoking museum experience, it’s a low bar for presidential performance. Allowing for some mistakes, we should admire our presidents not because they have to face tough decisions but for making the right ones.

But you can’t flush a disastrous war down the memory hole. At the dedication, the word “Iraq” wasn’t mentioned once, and the museum covers the subject in a section devoted to “the Global War on Terror.”

Continuing to conflate Iraq with the Sept. 11 attacks is an insult to truth that historians will never be able to overlook.

To reach Jonathan Alter, send email to alterjonathan@gmail.com.

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