"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.
George W. Bush is one of the least popular presidents in history. He has been out of office for more than four years, but many Americans still blame him for the nation's current economic woes and fault him for moving the United States into the Iraq War, which is widely considered to have been a mistake. Forty-four percent of Americans view him unfavorably, and only 35 percent see him favorably, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
But what could make a positive difference to his legacy is the renewed focus on terrorism in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Conservatives say that Bush had the right idea in waging his global "war on terror," and they want President Barack Obama to ratchet up the pressure even more.
Bush has long argued that historians in the future will be kinder to him than his contemporaries. And he will now have more of an opportunity to shape perceptions, because the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is scheduled to open to the public in Dallas, with a major objective of rehabilitating his legacy. The complex is scheduled to be dedicated on Thursday, and all five living presidents are expected to attend, led by President Obama. The others will be Bush himself, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.
Bush isn't the first former commander in chief to want his library and museum to help resurrect his image. The presidential library system has also shaped perceptions of other presidents ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
"These facilities are in part for scholars," says a former top adviser to president Ronald Reagan. "In part they recount history and capture the time when these presidents served. They are becoming destinations for people to see what a presidency was all about. But they can also become living memorials" designed to enhance a president's reputation. This is certainly true of Reagan's library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif. It is one of the most successful of all presidential facilities, in part because of its popular exhibit that features the 707 jet that Reagan used as Air Force One. But the former Reagan aide complains that some of the facilities "have become increasingly amusement-oriented. In the process, they have become big business."
It's true that former presidents and their friends must spend large amounts of time and energy raising money to pay for construction. The younger Bush collected an estimated $500 million for his complex.
In advance of the dedication, the former president gave an interview to the Dallas Morning News and defended his record. "I'm comfortable with what I did," he said. "I'm comfortable with who I am." Bush's library, which will open to the public on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas on May 1, is the 13th to be recognized officially by the federal government.
President Obama has often criticized Bush's policies, but he is making a point of attending the dedication. "He's very pleased to be going and looks forward to it," says White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "The office of the president of the United States is a pretty rare position to hold, and only those who have held it can fully appreciate what it means to be president….And he shares in common with President George W. Bush a love, a deep love, for his country, and appreciates President Bush's service, and looks forward to being there with him as well as President George H.W. Bush and Presidents Clinton and Carter."
No incumbent president wants to totally alienate the commanders in chief who came before him. Each incumbent knows that he might need one or more of his predecessors in a crisis or under other circumstances for advice or perhaps to lend a helping hand. Clinton received welcome counsel and some incisive memos about foreign affairs from Richard Nixon. And Obama has valued the charitable work, such as raising money for tsunami relief, done jointly by Clinton and Bush the elder.
But surely there is a more systematic way to make better use of the talents, connections and expertise of the former presidents beyond occasional special missions and get-togethers. Perhaps Obama will take the occasion not only to consult directly with George W. Bush about the next stage in the war on terror, but also to chat with his predecessors about how to make the former presidents' club a continual source of advice and support.