George W. Bush made a curious comment on how his presidency will be judged:
I won’t be around, because it will take a while for the objective historians to show up [bold mine-DL].
I’m not sure that there are ever any entirely objective historians, so it may take a very long time for them to appear on the scene. What I assume Bush means here is that he expects that there will be more historians in the future that aren’t interested in criticizing his record as harshly as his contemporaries have done. That may be true. However, I suspect that Bush’s presidency will tend to look worse as the years go by. There will be fewer people in every generation inclined to defend his genuinely awful record, and there will probably be a clearer picture of the consequences of Bush’s failures in another twenty or thirty years than we have now. Contemporary pro-Bush revisionism is a blatantly partisan and ideological exercise carried out by those that supported Bush or worked for his administration, but in the future there will be very few people interested in taking up the cause of rehabilitating his reputation. Future historians may not be more “fair” in their assessment of Bush’s legacy than his contemporaries, since the bad reputations of leaders perceived as failures usually don’t change or improve over time.
It’s also strange to think that “history” judges the actions of political leaders more fairly than their contemporaries when almost all of the sources that future historians will be consulting have been created by contemporaries. An unbiased future historian is just as likely to discount pro-Bush accounts of this period as self-justifying propaganda as he is to reject hyperbolic criticisms of the Bush presidency. That will leave the facts of what the Bush administration did during its eight years in power, and on the whole the evidence shows a record of bad judgment, mismanagement, incompetence, and failure. It’s impossible to know what the U.S. will look like in a century or two from now, but it seems unlikely that it will be a country that is more sympathetic to Bush’s preoccupations and more understanding of Bush’s decisions than we are.