His own party hoped that Bush would be another Ronald Reagan, and feared that he would be another version of his own father. Skeptics sometimes jibe that he really is just another version of Bill Clinton, the president he succeeded.
Mark Crispin Miller, in "The Bush Dyslexicon," called him an "aristocratic dunce" like Zachary Taylor. And his father, it is said, sometimes calls him "Quincy," in reference to the only other father-son duo of presidents.
Of course, trying to figure out which president the incumbent resembles when he has not even been in the office for two years is a bit silly. But in this historically obsessed baby-boomer era in which everything that happened yesterday will, no doubt, be remembered forever (even though no one remembers what happened last week), it is inevitable.
But are there any patterns to the 41 previous occupants of the office that might give us any hints?
The first question of historical judgment is the quick one -- success or failure? There is only one quintessential failure -- to lose a bid for re-election. There is a reason presidents obsess about getting re-elected -- it serves as a practical verdict on their performance and one that affects the historians.
Only one president was elected four times and served 12 years: Franklin Roosevelt. Another 10 served two consecutive full terms: the four members of the Virginia Dynasty (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), Andrew Jackson, U.S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Grover Cleveland won, lost, and won, getting himself counted twice in the presidential numbering sequence. He shares with Andrew Jackson the partial distinction of winning three straight elections on the basis of popular vote alone but serving only two terms.
Seven other men served more than four years. Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley were re-elected and then assassinated in the first year of their second terms. Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge were vice-presidents who took office, were re-elected, and then declined to run for a second time.
Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson followed the same course, except that their decision not to run a second time was not voluntary but rather caused by the primary voters of New Hampshire. And Richard Nixon, of course, was elected twice but was forced to resign to avoid impeachment.
Eight men served a single term and lost re-election: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, William H. Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George Bush. Franklin Pierce managed to serve a term and then to lose his own party's re-nomination.
Three served a term and voluntarily chose not to run again: James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford Hayes.
Four vice-presidents served part of a term and were not re-nominated: John Tyler, Milliard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur. And one, Gerald Ford, served part of a term and lost his bid for re-election.
It's pretty clear that the 19 presidents who served more than four years have a far higher "rating" than the 22 presidents who served four years or less.
Indeed, except for Polk and the legendary JFK, the second group has hardly any distinguished members, while the first group, which held the presidency together for 138 years to just 74 for the second, includes all the great presidents.
Now to Bush. Cynically, the comparison to Jackson works only if one says that both of them were semi-literate southwestern conservatives. Jackson was a charismatic military hero who revolutionized the nature of American politics in the course of a massive struggle against entrenched economic interests. Bush is a non-charismatic military avoider who has spent his life in service to entrenched economic interests.
The supposed correspondence between the two men is suggested by Walter Russell Mead, who contrasted the moralism of "Jacksonian" foreign policy to the other American models of Hamilton, Jefferson and Wilson. In fact, of course, Jackson didn't fight any war during his presidency (something which wasn't true of Jefferson or Wilson, let alone the extreme desire for a war with France by Hamilton).
Of course, if Bush succeeds in introducing the concept of "pre-emptive strikes" into America's history, some historian could some day identify a "Bushian" foreign policy that would be a long step either towards a Pax Americana or an eventual world conflagration.
As to McKinley -- he, like Jackson, was a war veteran. Enlisting as a private in the Union Army, he was promoted to an officer for his service at Antietam, that single bloodiest day in American history, 140 years ago this week. And he ended the war as a brevet major of volunteers. He was a major figure in the Republican party for two decades before he became president.
Rove argued that Bush, like McKinley, would open an era of Republican supremacy, but so far the major resemblance seems to be that both of them were elected to be domestic presidents and found themselves enmeshed in international affairs instead.
Superficially, Bush's presidency has a number of resemblances to that of Bill Clinton. They both dodged the Vietnam War and practice triangulation a lot, and if Clinton was a perpetual campaigner, Bush is even more so.
Except Clinton's triangulation away from his base was real and Bush's is entirely rhetorical. And of course there is little in their daily routine to match the intellectually lazy Bush to the hyper-active Clinton.
Bush's war hero father was also hyperactive and had a far longer political history than his son, but there has come to be an ironical resemblance. Both stumbled into domestic economic difficulties and proceeded directly into wars with Iraq.
As for Ronald Reagan, Bush lacks the skills of the "great communicator" or his upwardly mobile biography. The major resemblance between the two men is that they are both right-wing Republicans who don't have much involvement in the day-to-day workings of their administrations (which may well make them better presidents rather than worse ones).
It is certainly true that Bush, like the other two direct descendants of former presidents, won his election with a minority vote. Whether, like them, he loses his re-election bid is yet to be seen.
Clearly his brief political career does not and will not compare in its length and power to the huge figure of John Quincy Adams, whose presidential term, was the least important part of his biography.
Benjamin Harrison, another scion of a political dynasty, is a closer comparison. Harrison, another war hero, was the first president to have a majority in Congress since Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. He took advantage of that fact to pass a major program of legislation, which proved unpopular enough to cause Republican disasters in the off-year election of 1890 and in his re-election bid in 1892.
Bush managed to lose control of Congress in the first few months of his presidency. He may well win it back this year, and, if he does, whether that proves good or bad for his presidency is, at least, an arguable question.
Reading through the lives of the 41 previous presidents, one is struck by the fact that the present incumbent has one of the most undistinguished biographies of any president. But historical judgment of his performance rests on what he will do, not what he has done.
In fact, very few presidents are automatically compared with any others. The only exceptions, perhaps, are the later three presidents of the "Virginia Dynasty," who served as one continuous administration from 1801 to 1825, and the disastrous presidencies of Pierce and Buchanan, Northern "doughface " Democrats who took the nation into civil war, and, of course, the two Adamses, father and son.
Whether he succeeds or fails, there is only one presidency with whom Bush's will be automatically compared, and that is his father's. George Bush, Senior has it right -- in the end, his son will be "Quincy."
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