Sunday, October 19, 2008

W. as History

It is often said that journalists take the first cut at history. Historians then follow up, after the dust has settled. By then the story looks different, or perhaps there are newly released sources. Other presidential administrations have been subject to rounds of revisionism, and George W. Bush’s presidency will be no exception. A shelf of books has already been produced by journalists. Historians are getting a head start as well, with a collection entitled "W. as History" well under way, edited by the noted political historian Julian Zelizer. I will contribute an essay on law in the Bush Administration.

For an early take on the Bush years to be of value, historians should be asking different questions than journalists. Historians can set the Bush years within a broader political trajectory. The question to ask is not simply what occurred, but what the broader narrative is. An early legal history of the administration should not simply walk through the cases, statutes and executive orders. Instead, the starting point is to understand how the President, the Court and others understood the world they have inhabited. And what role has law played in their efforts to manage their world?

With this in mind, I was quite curious to see Oliver Stone’s take in W., which premiered this weekend. Stone does not critically engage the context within which the Bush years unfolded. But for all of its limitations, Stone does something in the film that I expect historians will do: he put George Bush back into the history of the Bush Administration.

Important recent works on the administration tend to emphasize the role of Vice President Cheney. Cheney’s role, and his efforts to expand executive power and the power of his own office, have been critical. But in some treatments, the president himself seems to fade from view. In this respect, we may well see a parallel to writing on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency. Initial takes on Eisenhower criticized the president as detached and ineffective. But Fred Greenstein and others later called it the "Hidden Hand Presidency," arguing that beneath a placid surface, Eisenhower was a more deeply involved and effective president.

Now, Bush II will surely not fare as well in the history books as Eisenhower. And in the end he may not appear to have as central a role as in the current film version. But it is important to ask whether outrage over the role of his vice president has obscured the role of W. in his own presidency.

As to Stone’s take on W. as president, he shows a simple man who nevertheless directs his presidency. More important than his vice president is his belief that he was chosen to serve, and is doing God’s work. In case any moviegoers miss this point, Stone turns to Bob Dylan to emphasis it in the musical score to the credits.

Some of the lyrics to With God On Our Side:

Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side....

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.

Crossposted from Balkinization.