The Perspective of Hindsight

By Jack Goldsmith
Sunday, November 14, 2010, 1:24 PM

President Bush’s new book Decision Points, and the interviews Bush has given in connection with the book, have caused some commentators from different parts of the political spectrum to suggest that Bush’s rhetorical and decision-making style – quick, intuitive, blunt, terse, reductive, non-self-reflective, anti-intellectual – seems more attractive now than when he was president, in part because of the contrast with President Obama’s opposite rhetorical and decision-making style, which has lately been the subject of much criticism.

These reviews reminded me of some points Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made in his essay, “Vicissitudes of Presidential Reputations.”  In the course of explaining why Eisenhower’s reputation rose in the decades following his presidency, Schlesinger said: “[T]he successive faults of Eisenhower’s successors – Kennedy’s activism, Johnson’s obsessions, Nixon’s crookedness, Ford’s mediocrity, Carter’s blah, Reagan’s ideology – have given his virtues a new value.  Historians should not overlook the capacity of Presidents to do more for the reputations of their predecessors than for their own.”  Schlesinger noted earlier in his essay that “[r]eputations rise and fall like stocks on Wall Street, determined by the supply and demand equations of a later age.  The reputation of American Presidents is particularly dependent on the climate in which historians render their verdicts.”

Anne Applebaum made a similar point in her analysis of Decision Points:

Unfortunately, neither Bush's book nor his publicity blitz can help him attain his real goal, that elusive place in history. In fact, Truman's rehabilitation came about not from his memoirs, but because the unfolding of the Cold War proved he had been right about Stalin, right about Soviet intentions, possibly even right to fight back in Korea. A later, less stuffy generation of Americans was less bothered by Truman's humble origins, and more impressed by his honesty and humility.

Subsequent events – in Iraq, Afghanistan, the US itself – will also determine the way Bush's presidency is perceived, possibly in ways we find hard to imagine. The results of future American elections will matter a good deal: if Obama is a one-term president, and if he is replaced by a Republican who considers himself Bush's heir, then Bush may well get a full-fledged rehabilitation.  If not – and if the recent midterm elections turn out to be a Republican high water mark – Bush may look worse even to historians of a conservative persuasion.

President Bush himself commented on the significance of the perspective of hindsight for counterterrorism policy, at the end of chapter 6 in Decision Points:

From the beginning, I knew the public reaction to my decisions would be colored by whether there was another attack.  If none happened, whatever I did would probably look like an overreaction.  If we were attacked again, people would demand to know why I hadn’t done more.   That is the nature of the presidency.  Perceptions are shaped by the clarity of hindsight.  In the moment of decision, you don’t have that advantage.  On 9/11, I vowed that I would do what it took to protect America, within the Constitution and laws of our nation.  History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose, and the tools I left behind.  But there can be no debate about one fact: After the nightmare of September 11, America went seven and a half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil.  If I had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it.