1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Bush at War
  4. The Right Man
  5. The Image
  6. Conclusion: George W. Bush as Heroic Presidential Leader

This article discusses the reinvention of George W. Bush's image during a critical period of his presidency—the 18 months after September 11, 2001. It examines how, during that time, he assumed a mantle of heroic presidential leadership similar to that designed by a previous generation for one of his predecessors: John F. Kennedy. In the “age of infotainment,” however, it remains a challenge for presidents to make the transition from “celebrity” to “hero.” While the currency of celebrity is easy to acquire, the political capital that accrues to the heroic leader in times of national crisis is more difficult to keep. In pursuing the “war on terror,” George W. Bush must beware the “credibility gap” that can impact on the presidency if a president picks the wrong fight and loses control of the way his image is mediated.

On September 11, 2001, the lead story on the CNN early morning news centered on speculation that Michael Jordan was planning to come out of retirement and resume playing basketball. The story preoccupied the American media; after all, three years previously, Fortune magazine had estimated the economic impact of Jordan's career at $10 billion. President George W. Bush, in Florida, ordinarily might have had to compete for attention in a world in which celebrity, popular culture, sports, and entertainment normally jostle for the public's attention and set the parameters of public interest. But not on that day. The architectural symbols of American power—its economic base in New York City, its military headquarters in the Pentagon, and the institutions of its federal government in Washington, DC were destroyed, damaged, and threatened. In a crisis, the media spotlight immediately refocuses on the president. How would George W. Bush respond to such events?

His administration began with a dubious political mandate after a disputed electoral victory eventually only confirmed by the Supreme Court. To his political opponents, the new president had doubtful intellectual abilities, a nodding acquaintance with the English language, and a semidetached attitude to international relations, indeed to the whole idea of governance. Such a caricature helped to mould public and political attitudes toward him. On September 10, his public approval ratings were at their lowest levels since his inauguration nine months earlier. Majority opinion was against him on a range of policy issues. It seemed he might be like John Quincy Adams, who emulated his father in becoming a one-term president.

If his own father's presidency is a prime example of the way in which events—“it's the economy, stupid”—and volatile public opinion impact upon political fortunes, then the career of George W. Bush as chief executive has been a roller coaster of political reinvention. His enviable public approval ratings in the immediate post-September 11 period were one indication of the change in his political and popular image. At that time, he appeared as a president tested and tempered by the crisis. He demonstrated leadership skills, rallying the nation through formal and informal oratory. Subsequently, he led his party to impressive midterm congressional election victories. Even his propensity to talk in tongues diminished; so-called “Bushisms” were less frequently reported. In launching a military campaign in Afghanistan, he proved himself a decisive and successful commander-in-chief of America's armed forces. George W. Bush appeared to have outflanked his critics. For a time, he assumed a mantle of heroic presidential leadership similar to that which a previous generation designed for one of his predecessors: John F. Kennedy. During a critical period of his presidency—the 18 months from September 2001 to March 2003 and the military intervention in Iraq—it was from this image that his popularity and political authority were derived.

The parallels between the Bush and Kennedy presidencies are worth exploring. In 1960, after losing the previous two presidential elections, Democrats looked for new political inspiration and found it in Kennedy. It was a critical period in the Cold War. Faced with the threat of attack from repressive regimes that possessed weapons of mass destruction, and with dictators who themselves promoted the cult of personality—a Stalin or a Mao—America's leaders had to rise to the challenge. It was the mythmakers of the Kennedy administration who influenced the prevailing political mood: a heightened anticipation that following Eisenhower—the hero who became president—his successor should act heroically while in office.

It made political sense to set the new president's image in this mould. For JFK, who had won the White House by the narrowest of margins, the ability to play this role successfully in his first term could pay the dividend of ensuring reelection. It would also begin the process by which his historical reputation might be secured and he would join the select few—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt—who set a standard for presidential leadership against which others have to be measured. For Kennedy, his admirers, and supporters, the White House was an historic theater in which the hero should seek the center stage.

Among those who helped mould such contemporary attitudes toward the presidency was the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He published an article in Encounter a month after Kennedy defeated Nixon, which is a blueprint for heroic presidential leadership. Ostensibly, it discussed the problem of political leadership in the developing world, but it is better read as a recommendation to the incoming president of the United States as to how he should act in office. Using America as his example, then, Schlesinger gave a political rationale and a moral justification for strong leadership, conflating the idea of the leader with the idea of the hero, and an image of how Kennedy should behave as president can be seen clearly in his argument.

Writing in the idioms of the Cold War, which drew a sharp distinction between the democratic concept of free will and the Marxist belief in historical determinism, Schlesinger suggested that “the heroic leader has the Promethean responsibility to affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history. As he does this, he combats the infection of fatalism which might otherwise paralyze mass democracy. Without heroic leaders, a society would tend to acquiesce in the drift of history. Such acquiescence is easy enough; the great appeal of fatalism, indeed, is as a refuge from the terrors of responsibility.” In extreme circumstances, the heroic leader should even operate beyond the limits of constitutional government. Faced with crises of “war, revolution, or economic chaos,” the heroic leader must take command, for “what makes short-run authoritarianism possible in . . . the United States is precisely the antecedent tradition of liberty,” which will reassert itself after the crisis is over.1

Schlesinger's analysis provides a framework for discussing the reconstruction of George W. Bush's political image in the 18 months after September 2001. In the war on terror, the American president found a struggle against an implacable enemy, much like that which Kennedy faced during the Cold War. It was another apparently open-ended conflict, with the nation under perpetual threat, living with the fear of an attack by an enemy potentially armed with weapons of mass destruction. A similar electoral calculus presented itself. For a commander-in-chief who, in the public mind, fulfilled Schlesinger's “Promethean responsibility” to lead the nation during this time of crisis, the political dividend appeared as obvious as it was in 1960: the prospect of the incumbent hero winning reelection. In such a situation, Bush could take political advantage of the perceived necessity for dramatic presidential action. Moreover, with an eye on history, if he was able to sustain an image of decisive leadership following the paralyzing shock of the terrorist attack, George W. Bush's successors would have to live in the shadow of his achievement.

Kennedy's image as the nation's heroic leader was confirmed in the popular imagination following his violent death in Dallas. As William Manchester pointed out: “The real Kennedy vanished on November 22, 1963. . . . What the hero was and what he believed are submerged by the demands of those who mourn him. In myth he becomes what they want him to have been, and anyone who belittles this transformation has an imperfect understanding of how the emotions of an entire nation may be moved.”2 The trauma of Kennedy's assassination impacted upon the United States as dramatically as did the events of September 11, 2001. With the terrorist threat both tangible and immediate, the George W. Bush whose presidency had been politically adrift disappeared from view. The nation sought reassurance at a time of crisis. Through contemporary accounts of his actions, and through the visible responses of his administration in committing American military forces to the war on terror, the president became what many wished him to be: a heroic leader in the mould of John F. Kennedy.

In the post-September 11 period, therefore, a White House with a reputation for paying close attention to the access it gives to the media, and which demands unprecedented loyalty and discretion from its staff, was the subject of two books, Bush at War (2002), by the investigative journalist Bob Woodward, and The Right Man (2003), by the former speechwriter David Frum. Both were able to draw on sources within the executive branch, including the president himself, to portray Bush's impressive leadership abilities immediately following the September 11 attacks. In the military campaign against the Taliban, moreover, the administration was able to reinforce this view of the president. Since Kennedy's time in office, however, the most difficult political terrain for a president to traverse is that which involves building and sustaining popular support for a policy that commits American troops to action overseas. In a volatile media environment, some of the political capital that Bush accumulated in Afghanistan was soon spent not simply in the lead up to the war in Iraq but also in its aftermath.

Bush at War

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Bush at War
  4. The Right Man
  5. The Image
  6. Conclusion: George W. Bush as Heroic Presidential Leader

In an opening note to readers in Bush at War, Bob Woodward repeats what he wrote in his account of the first President Bush's war in the Gulf. “The decision to go to war is one that defines a nation, both to the world and, perhaps more importantly, to itself. . . . There is no more serious business for a national government, no more accurate measure of national leadership.”3 In Woodward's estimation, the son also rose to the occasion. More than this, George W. Bush looked now tailor-made for the heroic role of commander-in-chief in time of conflict.

Woodward's narrative of the administration's immediate reaction to the events of September 11 and the decision to undertake military operations in Afghanistan as the first battle in the war on terror put the president at center stage. On the first evening of the crisis, the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt falls across the presidency as Bush records in his diary “the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” Woodward then provides a commentary on Bush's sense of his immediate future: “He was now a wartime president. Soldiers and citizens, the entire world, would pick up instantly on his level of engagement, energy and conviction. The widely held view that he was a lightweight, unconcerned about details, removed, aloof and possibly even ignorant would have to be dispelled. He had much work to do.” By the end of the book, however, it is evident that, for Woodward, the president has proven himself equal to the challenge.

In Woodward's account, therefore, on September 12, the chief executive whom his critics alleged could not talk straight takes temporary control of the communications strategy, saying to his media adviser, Karen Hughes: “Let me tell you how to do your job today” and giving her a few trenchant thoughts on how to word a public statement. Two days later, when he receives word of a threat to the White House, he refuses to be evacuated to a bunker beneath the building. At the first full cabinet meeting after the attacks, he is applauded as he enters the room: he responds with humility. His visit to Ground Zero is an unscripted political triumph. He shows compassion to relatives of the victims of the disaster, fulfilling the symbolic and empathetic requirements of presidential leadership. A little more than a week after the attacks, on September 19, talking to his speechwriter, Michael Gerson, after an address to the nation watched by an audience of 80 million—among whom were fans at a hockey game in Philadelphia who insisted it be stopped so they could see the president on the stadium video screens—according to Woodward, Bush has grown into his role: “I have never felt more comfortable in my life,” he says.4

An early epiphany for Bush in the construction of his image as the nation's heroic leader came on his visit to Ground Zero. Woodward recounts the impact of his appearance, when the president inspired the crowd—and the nation—with a few impromptu sentences bellowed through a bullhorn. He suggests that for Karen Hughes, “this was an amazing moment, . . . eloquent, simple, the perfect backdrop, a moment for the news magazine covers, the communications hall of fame and for history.” Bush's spontaneity allowed him to connect at a visceral level with his audience: acting simultaneously as their leader and expressing their feelings in the highly charged atmosphere of the time.

This was a president who thus now thought of himself as “the calcium in the backbone”; whose resolve was essential to the nation's success during the time of crisis. “If I weaken, the whole team weakens.” According to Woodward, as the plan to attack Afghanistan took shape, there were hints that some in the administration were beginning to harbor doubts that it would work. At a critical National Security Council meeting on October 26, the president expressed his confidence in both the strategy and the people who were responsible for devising it. Woodward quotes the impression left with one witness to the meeting: “The tension suddenly drained from the room.”5 The image is of George W. Bush once again demonstrating his ability to lead from the front. Kennedy's admirers also believed that he brought to the White House the potential to act in the role of heroic leader. Woodward's book begged the question: is this successor ready to be included in such company?

The Right Man

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Bush at War
  4. The Right Man
  5. The Image
  6. Conclusion: George W. Bush as Heroic Presidential Leader

In Gunfighter Nation (1992), a study of the myth of the frontier in 20th century America, the cultural historian Richard Slotkin argued that “the hero of a modern mass-culture myth is offered as the embodiment of certain natural and historical principles or forces, as an idealized representation of his people's characteristic traits, and as a model for emulation.”6 In these terms, the president's heroic talent is latent. It is to be called upon in times of crisis. Karl Rove, Bush's “boy genius” and his influential political advisor, thus insisted that September 11 merely made manifest the qualities of leadership that the president already possessed. The speech at Ground Zero authenticated his argument. When the occasion demanded, Bush transcended the expectations of his critics and had the capacity to inspire the nation. Rove thought of this as critical to Bush's subsequent unprecedented popularity. The president demonstrated—however briefly—that he was capable of a natural eloquence that, until that time, had been largely absent from his unscripted public utterances.7 Instead of Ambling into History, in the title of the book by Frank Bruni, a journalist who followed his campaign in 2000, Bush could be presented as a leader who understood now why he was selected to become president. Indeed, according to one of Bruni's sources in the administration, Bush believed that “his actions from September 11 on would define not only his presidency but, really, his time on earth.”8 The president found his mission and his purpose.

This was the theme that formed the basis for David Frum's book, The Right Man, an account of his time as a speechwriter in Bush's White House—his was the original idea which was polished into the memorable sound bite “axis of evil.” With an opportunity to observe Bush at close quarters, Frum makes the journey from sceptic to true believer. Initially, like many, he “strongly doubted” whether this was “the right man for the job” of president. When he joined the administration, his “faith in Bush was not deep.”9 In the ten days after September 11, however, the president's capacity for heroic leadership was revealed, and Frum drew an explicit parallel between George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy.

Bush was thus able to make “one of those mysterious connections with the public” that are managed by only a few—Kennedy among them. Reflecting on the fact that many Americans rate JFK as “the greatest president in their history,” Frum contrasts this with the view of those “professional historians” who “remind us that Kennedy was a rather aimless and callow young man, elevated to the presidency by his family's money and power and the good luck that paired him with a uniquely unattractive opponent; they say that his domestic policies were cautious and vague, his foreign policy unnecessarily confrontational.” Such commentators “say, in short, the same things that the same kind of person says now about George W. Bush.”10 For Frum, those who were wrong in the past are equally mistaken in the present.

Indeed, Frum argued, “Bush does curiously resemble Kennedy. They were both sons of privilege, they both professed religions that unnerved the secularists of their day, they both won the presidency in a squeaker, and they were both defined by foreign crises.” Moreover, they also have in common “the power of their words.” Frum thus suggests that “Bush's oratory in the ten days after the terrorist attacks transformed his leadership,” and that his words might resonate in American history for as long as those of JFK. By the end of the book, there is no doubt in his mind that Bush had “turned out to be . . . the right man” to lead America at a time of national crisis.11 Like Woodward, Frum is a powerful advocate for the argument that George W. Bush emerged from the crucible of crisis as a leader to rank alongside the most heroic of his predecessors. The process of reinvention is complete. Frum's Damascene conversion echoes the president's own experience. He quotes Bush talking to a group of religious leaders about his former life: “I had a drinking problem. Right now I should be in a bar in Texas, not the Oval Office. There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.”12 Initially professing himself a sceptic, Frum finally found faith as well.

Frum's comparison of Bush and Kennedy is illustrative of the extent to which, since that November day in Dallas, JFK has remained an absent presence in American political life. Richard Slotkin thus argues that Kennedy has become “a heroic symbol to be invoked by politicians from both ends of the political spectrum.” As Slotkin noted, in a 1988 survey of the electorate, JFK was a “hero” to eight out of eleven significant groups of voters, between them representing almost three quarters of the American adult population. But as Dan Quayle found in the presidential election of that year, to claim political kinship with Kennedy can sometimes backfire. For Kennedy's successors in office, Slotkin suggests, this has been “a problematic legacy.” His example as president is “a vision of the power they might exercise” if only they could “capture for themselves” something of the heroic impulse “that (in hindsight) seemed Kennedy's natural gift.”13 The ideal of heroic presidential leadership, shaped by JFK, is part of the cultural mythology that defines the contemporary institution of the presidency. At the same time, presidents who aspire to that role do so in a media environment that has been transformed by the impact of television on newsgathering, access to information, and popular entertainment. In pursuing the war on terror beyond the military action in Afghanistan, George W. Bush, like all Kennedy's successors, cannot lose sight of the difficulty in maintaining control of his image as it is mediated for popular consumption.

The Image

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Bush at War
  4. The Right Man
  5. The Image
  6. Conclusion: George W. Bush as Heroic Presidential Leader

The American president is, as James Bryce described him in his survey of Modern Democracies published some 80 years ago, “a Personality, a single figure on whom the fierce light beats.”14 Nowadays, that light is likely to belong to a camera crew. For the past 40 years, as politics has become about images, and news is both information and entertainment to the point where the two converge into the neologism “infotainment,” presidents have had a symbiotic relationship with television. When Bryce was writing, few Americans had heard their president speak on radio. Since the 1960s, his image has become familiar to them, live on their television screens. Moreover, as Tyler Cowen suggested in What Price Fame? (2000), “the ability of Presidents to orchestrate their own images has decreased as information sources have become more competitive and technologies of reproduction have become more acute.” Television collapses the space between the leader and the led. For Cowen, indeed, TV has the capacity to “demystify power,” in a world where “successful politicians must use television and compete with popular culture for audience attention. Leaders therefore court voters by entertaining them and making them feel good.” The consequence is that “contemporary Presidents are deluged with attention, but they find it hard to earn respect, increase their stature, and stake out their place in history.”15

In The Image, published in 1961, the year Kennedy was inaugurated, Daniel Boorstin drew attention to these profound societal changes, which at that time were just impacting upon the political process. To Democrats like Schlesinger, the Cold War presidency was an office that afforded the potential for heroic presidential leadership. Boorstin, from a different ideological perspective, argued that the hero in American cultural discourse was in fact under siege. So “the heroes of the past . . . are dissolved before our eyes or buried from our view . . . we find it hard to produce new heroes to replace the old.” This is because “our age has produced a new kind of eminence”: the celebrity, or “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” As the technologies of communication proliferated, so the media had to find ways of satisfying increasing demands for news and entertainment in the new markets they were creating. The result was that “the machinery of information” created the celebrity as “a new substitute for the hero.” This has important implications for the idea of heroic presidential leadership. As Boorstin pointed out, “the hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.”16 The challenge for contemporary presidents—George W. Bush included—is to make the transition from celebrity to hero.

Moreover, as Boorstin remarked, by the 1960s, “the making of illusions which flood our experience” was “the business of America.” What is presented as news can be a manufactured “kind of synthetic novelty”: a “pseudo-event.” Among other characteristics, the distinguishing feature of a pseudo-event is that it is planned for the primary purpose of making news.17 Again, since Kennedy's presidency, accelerating technological developments and the multiplication of information sources have increased both the need and the demand for such spectacles. Moreover, to the extent that such pseudo-events dominate the media outputs for which they are designed, those responsible for staging them can effectively control the news agenda. The president is preeminently newsworthy. But for the contemporary chief executive who wants to seize the political initiative within a system of divided government, in order to grab the spotlight, it becomes constantly necessary to create news through manufacturing pseudo-events. Images become real when enough people are persuaded that they have substance. On the other hand, when images are contested, and the president's abilities are questioned, then a “credibility gap” opens up between the White House's version of events and that which is widely believed. At that point, both the president's contemporary popularity and his historical reputation are at stake. Witness Kennedy's immediate successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

The myth of heroic presidential leadership, as George W. Bush discovered, is most potent during times of national crisis, and particularly in times of war. In order to avoid a potential credibility gap, however, a president has to control not only his own image as commander-in-chief, but also the media's presentation of military conflict. Ironically and fortunately, Kennedy, the first president of the television age, did not have to deal with ubiquitous images of battle: there was no live coverage of the Bay of Pigs invasion nor did images from Vietnam dominate his presidency. Since the mid-1960s, however, America's wars have been fought overseas with a domestic audience looking on. Despite George W. Bush's suggestion that the war on terror was “not the kind of war that we’re used to in America” and that instead it would be a “different kind of war that requires a different type of approach and a different type of mentality,”18 one aspect of it at least will remain constant. When American forces are involved in military action, the television journalists and camera crews still expect to be present. For the president, however, media coverage of war can deconstruct an image of heroic leadership as easily as it can reinforce it.

Vietnam was the first “television war,” and Lyndon Johnson was left in no doubt about what that meant to his presidency. On April 1, 1968, the day after he had announced his decision not to run for reelection, he went to Chicago to speak to the National Association of Broadcasters. His remarks revealed his sense of frustration; he had, he felt, been betrayed by the media, and notably by television. Broadcasters thus had “the power to clarify . . . and the power to confuse.” But “unlike the printed media, television writes on the wind.” Its transient yet compelling images of war in Vietnam impacted upon its American audience, influencing political attitudes. As LBJ pointed out, the media is selective in the stories it pursues. Television prefers the drama of war to the less visually compelling search for peace. “Peace, in the news sense, is a ‘condition.’ War is an ‘event.’ ”19 Since Vietnam, in terms of its representation in the media and particularly on television, at times it has come to resemble a pseudo-event.

Just as the technologies of mass communication have changed since the 1960s, so the technology of war has also developed. In The Best and the Brightest (1973), the journalist David Halberstam explored how those who joined the Kennedy administration then helped Lyndon Johnson fall into the quagmire of Vietnam. He argued in the sequel to that work, War in a Time of Peace (2001), that since the war in Southeast Asia, advances in weapons systems and in particular air power have had a profound impact on America's ability to wage war.20 Indeed, it is now a commonplace that the use of high-tech weaponry in the Gulf War of 1991 provided the television audience with a visual spectacle reminiscent of a Hollywood action movie: war as infotainment. George W. Bush's father's response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was thus framed in terms of its media coverage. An article in The Nation in May 1992 was headlined “Pentagon-Media Presents: The Gulf War as Total Television,” and Stephen Graubard in Mr. Bush's War: Adventures in the Politics of Illusion published in the same year observed that “the war began with aerial photographs of the bombing of Baghdad; it ended with a black American soldier reassuring an Iraqi prisoner of war that he was safe; all was well. The war was a tale manufactured for television from beginning to end.”21

There is a political dimension to this fusion of the technologies of war and the images of popular culture. In the age of infotainment, war can be a ratings success, not only for television but also for presidents. So the heroic president can dramatize his leadership role as commander-in-chief during a time of war with the help of television, providing he picks the right fight, and the technology is effective. It is a political game in which the stakes are high. If the president underestimates the opposition, and military intervention overseas fails, the consequences are disastrous. Television coverage of the 100 hours of the Gulf War coincided with George Bush's popularity soaring in the opinion polls. Images from the “10,000 day” war in Vietnam created Lyndon Johnson's credibility gap. Again, the “rally ’round the flag” effect produced by going to war may pay the president only a transient political dividend in terms of popularity. George Bush achieved public approval ratings approaching 92% after the Gulf War, yet lost the 1992 election to candidate Clinton from Arkansas.

Conclusion: George W. Bush as Heroic Presidential Leader

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Bush at War
  4. The Right Man
  5. The Image
  6. Conclusion: George W. Bush as Heroic Presidential Leader

In the epilogue to Bush at War, Bob Woodward referred to his meeting with George W. Bush in August 2002, after America's military action in Afghanistan had taken place. It was an opportunity for the journalist to “attempt to understand the president's overall approach or philosophy to foreign affairs and war policy.” Unlike his father, then, Bush was among those presidents who have “grandiose visions”: indeed, in his own words, he wanted to “seize the opportunity to achieve big goals,” among them “world peace.” Woodward summarized: “His vision clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through pre-emptive and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace.” It is a task that would require further acts of heroic presidential leadership, but Woodward's portrait of Bush at war, like Frum's assessment of him as the right man for the job, was part of a process of making it believable that this commander-in-chief might just achieve his aim.

But as long as he is president, and is pursuing his war on terror, Bush will need to keep picking the right fights. That is still the lesson of Vietnam; the wrong war televises badly and can destroy presidential pretensions to heroic leadership and historical greatness. At the time of the Woodward interview, the decision whether or not to provoke another “regime change” was still in the balance, but the doctrine of preemption and the inclusion of Iraq as part of the axis of evil remained suggestive of the course of action that was subsequently taken. Nevertheless, since Vietnam, committing the nation to war remains a high-risk strategy. As Bush said to Woodward in a studied understatement, “a president likes to have a military plan that will be successful.”22 Even that may not be sufficient. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the president's State of the Union address made earlier in the year was subject to forensic and critical analysis as to whether he was aware then that his claim that Iraq had sought a supply of uranium in Africa was questionable. Similarly, the failure to find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction resurrected the media specter of a presidential credibility gap.

During the 18 months after September 11, 2001, in defining the war on terror in a way that allowed his image to be projected as the nation's heroic leader, George W. Bush was able to cast his shadow over the contemporary presidency. However, the impact on the future of the institution and its incumbents is as yet unclear. Unless the war is won by the time he leaves office, which, given the difficulty of defining what would constitute victory, seems unlikely, Bush's legacy to his successors may be as problematic as Kennedy's has been. If his doctrine of preemption is entrenched, then presidents will have to keep picking the right fights, mindful of what can happen when things do not turn out as planned: a media defined credibility gap. Equally, if they downplay the significance of Bush's war, then they will lay themselves open to the charge that they are “soft on terrorism,” particularly if future events as graphic and dramatic as those of September 11 are played out once more on America's media.

Yet making life easy for those who enter office after he has left it has never been a president's primary concern. Rather, from the moment he was inaugurated, George W. Bush, like other contemporary presidents, set his sights on a second term. In the period after September 11, 2001, through reinventing his image as the nation's heroic leader, he improved his prospects of achieving that ambition. If he lived up to the myth of heroic presidential leadership, he would join the select few who leave the White House looking good to their contemporaries and with the prospect of their historical reputation assured. To command such authority in the glare of the contemporary media spotlight, however, when war is a televised event and the condition of peace is elusive, as Kennedy's successors have found, is a difficult task. Throughout George W. Bush's political career, he has profited from his ability to confound his critics. Nevertheless, in the age of infotainment, while the currency of celebrity is easy to acquire, the political capital that accrues to the heroic leader is more difficult to keep. That remains a challenge, and one that the first president of the 21st century should not “misunderestimate.”

  • Jon Roper is Reader and Head of the Department of American Studies at the University of Wales, Swansea, UK. His publications include The American Presidents: Heroic Leadership from Kennedy to Clinton (2000) and The Contours of American Politics (2002). He is currently researching the place of the presidency in American history, politics, and popular culture.

  • 1

    A. Schlesinger, Jr., “On Heroic Leadership and the Dilemma of Strong Men and Weak Peoples,”Encounter 15, no. 6 (1960), 3-11 passim.

  • 2

    W. Manchester, One Brief Shining Moment (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1983), 276.

  • 3

    B. Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), xii.

  • 4

    Ibid., 37, 41, 56, 65, 71, 109.

  • 5

    Ibid., 70, 259, 262.

  • 6

    R. Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 1993 ed.), 498.

  • 7

    See L. Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl Cannon, Boy Genius (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), 207.

  • 8

    F. Bruni, Ambling into History (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 247.

  • 9

    D. Frum, The Right Man (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003), 4, 10.

  • 10

    Ibid., 125.

  • 11

    Ibid., 125, 284.

  • 12

    Ibid., 283.

  • 13

    Slotkin, 498.

  • 14

    J. Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1923), 69.

  • 15

    T. Cowen, What Price Fame? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 50-51.

  • 16

    D. Boorstin, The Image (New York: Vintage Books, 1992 ed.), 54-61 passim.

  • 17

    Ibid., 9-17 passim.

  • 18

    See George W. Bush, White House News Conference, October 11, 2001. Available from

  • 19

    See Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson 1968-69 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1970), 482-86.

  • 20

    D. Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace (New York: Scribner, 2001).

  • 21

    Quoted in L. Beinhart, American Hero (London: Arrow Books, 1995), 395. The plot of Beinhart's novel revolves around the idea that in 1990, President Bush, increasingly unpopular among the electorate, acts on a deathbed memo bequeathed to him by the political strategist of his 1988 campaign for the White House, Lee Atwater. It suggested that the president should cooperate with Hollywood to produce the Gulf War as a stage-managed media event. A successful conflict, scripted by professional moviemakers, would ensure the president's reelection. Hollywood would later film the novel as Wag the Dog, its themes transposed to the Clinton era.

  • 22

    Woodward, 338, 341, 344.