Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Rehabilitating George W. Bush, Re-writing the Past

Rehabilitating George W. Bush, Re-writing the Past

The rehabilitation of George W. Bush's reputation has begun. The usual suspects have always argued that Bush was a great President and that his reputation would improve as Americans reflected on the Bush years. Is this possible? Will we eventually look back on the glory of the Bush Presidency?

When Bush left office, his approval rating was hovering around 25%. That's about as low as Presidential approval rates can go. During the last Bush year, 61% of historians were already ranking him as the worst President ever. With numbers like that, there is only one way to go - up. With so much room to move up, Bush's reputation could be rehabilitated.

For Bush's reputation to rebound, people must reconstruct their memories of their previous attitudes. Michael Ross has argued that people don't remember their earlier beliefs and attitudes. Instead, people reconstruct the past. We start with our current attitudes and adjust based on whether we believe things have been consistent or changing. If I believe things have been consistent, then I reconstruct my past attitudes to be the same as my current views. If I believe things have changed, I reconstruct my past attitudes as different. Thus future views of Bush will depend on how people view historical trends. The actual content of our previous attitudes and the true nature of changes may be irrelevant. We re-write the past to support the present.

I've enjoying watching the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Bush years (as a cognitive psychologist, not for political reasons). I'm amused to observe how many people are now concerned about budget deficits. Most of these people claim that they have always been concerned about budget deficits. Funny, but I don't remember the street protests concerning budget deficits at the tail end of the Bush years. I guess they were quietly concerned. Or perhaps they weren't concerned about deficits at all. Who was it that said "deficits don't matter?" (It was then Vice-President Dick Cheney to save you a Google search.)

You can watch the rehabilitation of Bush by the Tea Partiers (I'd like to call them Tea Baggers, but my students tell me that term has a nasty slang meaning, Google that one yourself). Tea Partiers have a current view of the United States that is not particularly positive. They also seem to believe that the world, and particularly the US government, is going to hell in a handbasket. Thus they reconstruct a glorious view of the past under Bush - probably more positive than they actually felt in 2008.

Memory reconstruction is not limited to conservatives - finally something that is truly bipartisan. You can see the same process at work in people with a liberal view. Although the world may not be perfect yet, liberals have a different view about the nature of changes. They believe that some things are starting to improve under President Obama (why, even the economy may be recovering). Thus they may reconstruct their attitudes toward Bush as worse than they actually evaluated him during that time. Re-writing the past accentuates the change people perceive.

Bartlett, in his 1932 book Remembering, wrote that when we remember "the first thing that comes to mind is something on the nature of an attitude." He stated that we then reconstruct the past to be consistent with our attitudes. When we eventually remember the Bush years, we probably won't remember what we actually thought at that time. Instead we will reconstruct based on our current attitudes and beliefs about whether things have improved or gotten worse.

To rehabilitate George W. Bush, someone needs to convince you that things have gotten worse - in safety, in terrorism, in economics, in anything. The truth is irrelevant. Your beliefs matter. If people believe that things have gotten worse, then Bush will be remembered as a much better President. If people believe that things have improved, then there may be no hope for Bush's reputation.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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