President Bush's Place in History

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," Feb. 2, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY, HOST: In the second "Personal Story" this evening: President Bush is in an interesting position vis-a-vis history. He could go down as one of the greatest presidents ever, if the War on Terror is successful in the next four years and if he can revitalize things like Social Security. But if things go south, the president might be joining the likes of Warren Harding as far as history is concerned.

Joining us now from Madison is Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book "With the Stroke of Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power," and, from Boston, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Boston University, my alma mater, and author of the book "On Capitol Hill."

All right, Professor Zelizer. We'll begin with you. We're — we usually don't do this on this program, speculation, but we know enough about President Bush and who he is. As I said, when he says something, he means it. He's not like a lot of politicians. He doesn't back away easily. How do you see him in the next four years as far as history is concerned?

JULIAN ZELIZER, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I think if we stop the presidency right now, he'd be remembered as a highly controversial president and a president with bold ideas that were not really fulfilled. I think, in the second term, he really wants to try to become a Ronald Reagan or to become a Franklin Roosevelt and try to turn into reality all these big ideas about foreign policy and about domestic policy that he's offered us.

O'REILLY: All right. So he needs some luck.

ZELIZER: He needs a lot of luck, especially abroad, and he needs a lot of political smarts when he tries to push what's going to be an incredibly controversial Social Security plan.

O'REILLY: All right. Professor Mayer, how do you see it?

KENNETH MAYER, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I see it pretty much the same way. I think it's largely going to turn on what happens in Iraq. If they do manage a successful transition to a stable democracy, there are going to be Republicans who want to put his face on Mount Rushmore, and, certainly, trying to take on Social Security reform in his second term is a significant issue, and, if he can get that accomplished, I think he'll have a good domestic legacy as well.

O'REILLY: Is it just Social Security, though? Is it — he's got to keep the economy going, although history tends not to judge the economy, unless, of course, there's a depression or something like that. Which is why Bill Clinton hasn't rated real well among historians because his legacy, Bill Clinton's, is a good economy. That's what he really accomplished.

Now, Professor Zelizer, if the president is partially successful, that is, we're not attacked again by the terrorists, progress is being made in Iraq, but it's not a slam-dunk like the Soviet Union falling apart, where does he tally up?

ZELIZER: I think he'll be a very strong president. He could be in the ranks of a Harry Truman, for example, who has been revived in many histories, or he could even be in the ranks of a Ronald Reagan, whose single triumph in foreign policy, the end of the Cold War, has really made him, you know, one of the greats...

O'REILLY: Right.

ZELIZER: ... for many Americans. Even those who don't like him acknowledge that.

O'REILLY: Well, that's true. So what you're saying then, Professor - - and I think Professor Mayer agrees with this as well — is that the president is in a time that is so crucial to the country that one big win on terror catapults him up into the top echelons of great presidents.

Professor Mayer?

MAYER: Well, I think it's going to take more than a single win. I think what will happen is we'll know more about the answer 10 or 15 years from now, as we did with Reagan.

At the time, no one really knew that the Cold War was going to send and the Soviet Union was going to collapse because that didn't occur until he had left office, and it took another 10 years for people to recognize the role that he played, and so we may not know exactly where Bush's place in history will be at the end of his term.

We'll have to wait and see what happens.

O'REILLY: All right. Professor Zelizer, what's the downside here? If the president — if things stay the same as they are today, no resolution of Social Security, an OK economy, not great, and still a lot of strife around the world, President Bush comes out looking how?

ZELIZER: Two ways. One, he's an unmemorable president, someone we don't really think about when we talk about history, other than being the guy in office during September 11. The second way would be a Herbert Hoover. If things go really poorly for him and Democrats regain power and this conservative revolution is reversed, I think he could go down — and this is a real threat — in just the opposite way as a president who ruined things for Republicans.

O'REILLY: And, Professor Mayer, last question for you. It seems to me — I don't know the president that well, but I have spoken to him now on four occasions — that he's very, very conscious of his place in history, much more so than his father was.

MAYER: Well, that's typically what happens to presidents in their second term. They have about two years to get things done and get their goals accomplished, and there really is a lot of evidence that presidents think of how they're going to be portrayed in the history books and what their legacy is.

O'REILLY: Yes, they have two years because once they're into the lame duck status and the campaign starts, then people kind of draw away from them and are looking forward. Is that correct?

MAYER: Sure. And their capacity to make the kind of bold moves that a president can do earlier in his term go away because the costs of bucking the president go down.

O'REILLY: OK. Gentlemen, thanks very much for that analysis. And, of course, all Americans wish President Bush the best because we are facing this terrible war on terror. We must win that war. We want the economy to be good, and we want fair Social Security. So we all wish him the best.

And that is it for this pre-State edition of “The Factor." Pre-State of the Union edition, I should say. The president will be speaking to the nation shortly. You're watching now all the greetings. That, of course, people love to do in the public eye. We'll be back tomorrow evening, and we thank you for watching us tonight.

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