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Bush Sees Approval Hike, But Trumanesque Recovery? Unlikely

A poll released days before the opening of George W. Bush's presidential library in Dallas is serving as fodder for some sequestered GOP nostalgia about his two terms in the White House.

The Washington Postsurvey suggests that the 33 percent approval rating Bush took with him when he left Washington has bumped up to 47 percent. Gallup notes that it recorded Bush's lowest approval rating as 25 percent, which he hit three times

Bush's bump is a result of not only the passage of time and an American public that embraces redemption but also the leaching of emotion from Bush's more controversial decisions, says Joseph Persico, a presidential historian whose new book explores President Franklin Roosevelt and his World War II commanders.

And it bears noting, Persico says, that two other modern presidents have left office with approval ratings at rock bottom, and have emerged over time with reputations enhanced, if not burnished.

This is not intended as predictive of Bush's future approval trajectory, just historic context of how the reputations of unpopular presidents can be revived in the hearts and minds of the American public. Historians like Persico note that time will not unwrite what critics call the enormous missteps of the Bush presidency, including the march to war in Iraq.

President Harry Truman left office in 1953 with an approval rating of 23 percent — almost as bad as approval numbers for the current Congress, Persico wryly notes.

"It's difficult to believe, but when Truman left office, his poll numbers were lower than President Richard Nixon's at the nadir of Watergate," Persico says. "He was saddled with the alliterative cry of Republicans: Korea, communism and corruption."

With the passage of time, Persico says, Truman has come to be judged as the man who inaugurated the post-World War II Marshall Plan, the U.S. program to help rebuild Europe and stave off communism; contained communism; and integrated the U.S. Armed Forces.

By the late 1960s, Americans had a deeper respect for Truman's record, and his name almost invariably appears in the top 10 of historians' rankings of best presidents.

President Nixon, buffeted by the Watergate scandal, resigned the office in 1974 with a 24 percent approval rating.

"He leaves on a note of outrage, a betrayal of the American people," Persico says. "Again, we have perspective now."

Nixon, he notes, opened the door to China, bolstered the social safety net, and inaugurated detente with the Soviet Union.

The image of Watergate was largely blotted out at Nixon's funeral service in 1994, where then-President Bill Clinton noted the "wise counsel" he'd received from the former commander in chief and eulogized him thusly:

Statues of Barney and Miss Beazley, the beloved Scottish terriers of President George W. and Laura Bush, are seen in the museum area at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
Benny Snyder / AP
Statues of Barney and Miss Beazley, the beloved Scottish terriers of President George W. and Laura Bush, are seen in the museum area at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.

"When he became president, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the federal government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past, and in foreign policy. He came to the presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say we had had enough of the world. Instead, he knew we had to reach out to old friends and old enemies alike. He would not allow America to quit the world."

Some suggest that the softening of attitudes toward Bush may be attributable to his personal affability, his new public role as a grandfather, a surprising post-Oval Office pursuit of painting dogs and himself, and absenting himself from the national discussion.

"Being a past president has to be the toughest job in the world," says Vinny Minchillo, a Texas strategist who worked for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "I think he's been respectful and kept quiet."

And last week's terrorist bombing in Boston, he says, may also remind even Bush's most vociferous detractors, Minchillo said, that it was the first on American soil since the attacks of Sept. 11.

That hardly mollifies Bush's many and vociferous detractors. Some have been organizing opposition to a proposal currently being considered by Texas state legislators that would rename a stretch of a local expressway in honor of the former president.

"There has been," Minchillo says, "a fair amount of outcry over something that's done all the time."

That being said, tickets to the Thursday opening of Bush's library are the "hottest ticket in town," he says, and one even the former Bush-Cheney adviser was unable to score.

"Ungettable," he said of tickets for the ceremony that will feature both Presidents Bush, as well as Clinton, Jimmy Carter and President Obama.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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