“It all has to do with consequences down the road. Harry Truman was very unpopular at the end of his term, and now he’s revered as the man who put the infrastructure in place that won the Cold War,” Mr. Edwards continued. “FDR was beloved for dealing with a crisis. Lincoln and Washington rose to their important occasions. Clinton would lament he had no big crisis to deal with.”
But an era bereft of calm and plenty can be cruel on the White House.
“No peace, no prosperity, and that is a bad mix,” Mr. Edwards said. “President Bush won’t get much credit on the prosperity issue because there is no real long-term policy in place. The connection won’t be made. The hope is that Iraq will turn out to be a success story. He could also be credited for his policy on such things as prescription drugs or the No Child Left Behind initiative.”
Some observers credit Mr. Bush with more than just policy, however.
“Did Bush break the racial ‘yes we can’ long before Obama?” asked Phil Bronstein, a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Mr. Bush appointed not one but two African-American secretaries of state and the first African-American as secretary of education like it wasn’t any big deal. He also named the first Mexican-American as attorney general,” Mr. Bronstein said.
“Here was a very conservative good old Texas fundamentalist Republican breaking a racial barrier without even blinking, like it was the most natural thing to do and not some monumental moment in our cultural or political history.”
And while Mr. Bush’s terms of office are ebbing away to hours, minutes and seconds - he’s got about 5,616,000 seconds left, essentially - historians at least have the luxury of time at their disposal before they craft the reasoned, substantial and substantiated version of his legacy.
“It will matter 40 years down the road when it’s clear whether the Middle East did stabilize. Then historians will be asking if President George W. Bush was the man who broke all those eggs to make that omelet,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian with the University of Texas at Austin.
“He was controversial. That we know at this moment. I can’t think of another president who threw so many long passes while he was in office,” Mr. Buchanan continued.
Mr. Bush revealed some of his basic motivations in his “A Charge to Keep,” a personal narrative and semi-memoir released in 1999.
“I build my life on a foundation that will not shift. My faith frees me. Frees me to put the problem of the moment in proper perspective. Frees me to make decisions that others might not like. Frees me to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well,” Mr. Bush wrote.
“People have disliked him intensely at times. But not everyone. George Bush will always have a core of very loyal followers,” observed Mr. Edwards, the Texas A&M historian.
“He was - and is - a strong figure with strong views who wanted to be a bold leader.”