It goes without saying that our evaluation of presidents changes over time. Sometimes it just takes a long time for the results of a president’s decisions become known. Harry Truman was deeply unpopular when he left office in large part because American forces were stalemated in Korea. However, with each passing year in which American and Soviet missiles remained in their silos, it looked more and more like Truman had found the right balance by confronting the Soviet Union when it made sense to do so while avoiding the provocation that might have led to nuclear war.
While evaluations often change based on future events, they also change when more is learned about the times in which the president operated. An assessment might improve as historians come to understand that a president was dealt a worse hand coming in than we originally thought. As key players write their memoirs and documents get declassified, historians better understand the choices that were available to a president. As information about how our adversaries responded to choices a president made, he may look much better.
It is entirely possible that historians will look more kindly upon George Bush’s presidency than his dismal approval ratings might suggest. Nevertheless, I have not found many of the conservative arguments along these lines terribly persuasive. While there are many areas of uncertainty that may turn out better for Bush’s reputation than we might now expect, there are just as many that might turn out worse. Moreover, there are many areas where the likelihood of anything coming along to burnish the forty-third president’s reputation seems extremely remote.
For example, there are still a lot of things we don’t know about the deliberations behind the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys in December 2006 because of the White House’s refusal to come clean about Karl Rove’s participation. I suspect that historians will eventually confirm that the administration retaliated against dedicated public servants who insisted on basing their prosecutions on an unbiased evaluation of the evidence rather than the White House’s partisan political agenda. It think that the Bush administration’s politicization of the Department of Justice is going to be a lasting stain on his legacy regardless of anything else that happens.