Q&A: James Fallows

James Fallows, Atlantic Monthly national correspondent and former chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, explains the one circumstance that could redeem Bush’s legacy.

Mother Jones: Of all the things the Bush administration leaves behind, what will be the hardest one to fix?

James Fallows: The loss of America’s standing, good will, and respect in the world may have been the worst of Bush’s legacies, but it may be faster and easier to fix than some others. Either of his successors as president will look better in the world’s eyes than do Bush and Cheney—in John McCain’s case, because of his consistent anti-torture stand. But for obvious reasons, Barack Obama would offer a fresh start in many ways. The mere fact of his election, if it occurs, will demonstrate something about US politics that fits the good rather than the bad image of America; his personal international background is a plus, and the tone of his politics has already had an effect worldwide.

MJ: What problem is most urgent for the new president?

JF: Urgent: Iraq. Important: energy and climate.

MJ: What do you think Bush’s legacy will be 50 years from now?

JF: Some presidents look better in retrospect than they did at the time. Dwight Eisenhower was not popular among the intellectuals by the time he left office. Now many consider him a great man. Then, of course, there is the famous example of Harry Truman. But it appears as if Bush has grabbed onto those cases and assumed that precisely because he is so unpopular now he will look better later on. Two words for him: Herbert Hoover. Two more: James Buchanan, who essentially fiddled as the Civil War came on. In one circumstance only will Bush look significantly better: if conditions in Iraq five or ten years from now are transformed to a counterpart to Germany or Japan. The odds of that happening determine the odds of Bush looking good in retrospect.