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Bush’s ‘tough decisions’ to shape legacy
Whether his critics like it or not, President Bush will have a legacy.
He will become part of history, his words and deeds shaken out and sorted through by friend and foe alike. They will argue and maybe gesticulate, the din of their arguments distilled down to one-liners in the media feedback chamber:
Bush great. Bush courageous. Bush brilliant.
Bush bad. Bush lied. Bush dumb.
Noise or not, Mr. Bush will have his permanent place in history, and the dynamic is already in motion. Legacy wrangling has begun in print and broadcast; there’s talk we’ll one day have “Bush nostalgia” as Americans recall the heady days when Mr. Bush ran the White House on his own terms and with distinct cachet.
And there’s talk that a blight has descended on the 43rd presidency forever, and that’s that.
Time grows short, though. Mr. Bush has only got 1,560 hours or so before he walks out of the Oval Office for the last time. That’s 93,600 minutes.
“The direction of President Bush’s legacy will be driven by what happens in Iraq and the greater Middle East. If Iraq becomes an quasi-democracy that fights terror instead of giving birth to terrorists, and if that behavior spreads to other Arab nations, then Bush has a chance of being remembered as Ronald Reagan was remembered. Unpopular when leaving, but heralded later for fundamentally changing the world,” said Ari Fleischer, former White House spokesman.
“The first line in history’s judgment of George Bush is the way he responded to 9/11. And the top item is the fact we haven’t been attacked for seven years. Who among us would have thought on Sept. 12, 2001, that we’d ever be able to say that?” asked FOX News anchorman Chris Wallace.
“The jury is still out on Iraq. If we end up with another dictatorship or a radical regime there after the price we paid in blood and treasure, then it was a terrible waste,” Mr. Wallace continued.
“Overall, you have to say that Mr. Bush hurt the Republican brand. At the end of eight years, the party is less well regarded generally, its solutions to problems are not widely accepted,” he said. “This was a troubled presidency. Mr. Bush accomplished job No. 1 - to protect the homeland. On the war, I give him an incomplete, though it looks better than it once did.”
If success or failure in the Middle East is the litmus test of his legacy, then Mr. Bush could be looking at a soft landing.
Recent surveys released find that a majority of us now have positive perception of both the war in Iraq and our efforts against terrorism.
Seven out of 10 respondents in a Harris Poll released Nov. 10 said that Iraqis are better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein; 52 percent said he had “strong links” to al Qaeda. Forty-eight percent said history will credit the U.S. for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq - and most telling, 37 percent of us still think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003.
Favorable numbers continue in other research released in mid- to late October. A Rasmussen Reports poll found that 52 percent of voters said the U.S. and its allies are winning the war on terror - up from 39 percent a year ago.
Both CBS/New York Times and CNN surveys found that 53 percent of the respondents said things were “going well” in Iraq. An ABC News/Washington Post survey found that 62 percent said the war was going well, with another 62 percent agreeing that the U.S. would not be attacked by terrorists again.
Some say there is no hope for a positive Bush legacy.
“President Bush’s trail of failure has changed our lives forever and guaranteed his lasting ubiquity. His material legacy is clear: We are a poorer and less secure nation for having elected him as our president,” said Oliver Stone, director of “W.,” a Hollywood version of Mr. Bush’s adult life released in October.
“The candidate once described as the nation’s first ‘CEO president’ has created the largest budget deficits in history. America finds itself fighting unnecessary and costly wars and engaging in dangerous and counterproductive efforts to fight extremism,” Mr. Stone continued.
“Even more significant and troubling, I believe, is his legacy of immorality. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. By electing this man to two terms, we have fundamentally compromised our principles as Americans. We lost our moral compass in the dark corners of the jail cells we erected in Guantanamo Bay. Public policy is now formulated by inept cronies with little to no oversight or accountability,” the director said, also criticizing a government style that “intrudes” on private citizens.
Yet there could be some hidden benefits in such events, rather than collateral damage, some say.
“Historians, I suspect, will credit George Bush for his determination in the war on terrorism, though many think he went too far with it, or stayed too far within the familiar circle of his cronies. Still, Bush provided a welcome change to our thinking by suggesting that people in the Middle East were not permanently wedded to terrorism and lousy government. It was Bush who said there was a desire for freedom in every human heart,” said Richard Brookhiser, a political writer and historian and most recent author of “What Would the Founders Do?”
The world will gain a better perspective on Mr. Bush’s performance in office, he said, when they see how President-elect Barack Obama handles the nation’s existing crises.
“The jihadis are not going away any time soon. The financial problems will persist. Bush has been in office eight years, though it feels like 80. That’s not all his doing, what with two wars, 9/11 and Katrina. And in two-term presidencies, the second term is always worse,” Mr. Brookhiser said.
“There’s no question that history must reckon with George W. Bush. He has been the most consequential president since Ronald Reagan. Think about it. Giant tax cuts, major changes in health care and strategic policy, and in the organization of defense, intelligence, education” said ABC News correspondent Terry Moran.
“We’re looking at a consequential president. Some would say a catastrophically consequential president, and some would say he has been judged too harshly.”
“These last eight years are marked in American history as major episodes of policy and government action,” Mr. Moran continued, adding that management of the Iraq war up until the 2007 troop surge was both “disastrous” and a “wasted opportunity.”
Mr. Bush’s legacy could be trimmed with the portent of drama as well.
“We won’t know what the strategic impact of the war will be. But the world changes, and the Middle East is unquestionably a different place,” Mr. Moran said. “Something you hear Bush say is that he had to make tough decisions. And although he will deny it, I hear regret in his voice. I think he knows that if he could swing at a couple of pitches again, then he might have swung differently.”
Indeed, the president himself recently acknowledged regret over his choice of strident words after 9/11 and his decision to arrive in high-flying style aboard an aircraft carrier to declare premature victory over Saddam Hussein.
But he is well aware of the quirky mechanics of history, where the proverbial mills grind fine and at their own pace.
“As far as history goes and all of these quotes about people trying to guess what the history of the Bush administration is going to be, you know, I take great comfort in knowing that they don’t know what they are talking about, because history takes a long time for us to reach,” Mr. Bush himself told FOX News.
His own father had advice for him on certain rigors of office posed by journalists and a critical press in particular.
“Don’t worry about it,” former President George H.W. Bush wrote a decade ago in a note to his namesake George and another son, Jeb.
“Chart your own course, not just on issues but on defining yourselves,” the senior Bush wrote to his sons.
The tide of unfriendly coverage of the 43rd presidency grew into a tsunami, driven by a long-standing liberal bias in the news media. As the challenges in office multiplied and his favorability ratings dwindled, Mr. Bush watched civility and respect toward his office erode, undermined by some journalists intent on crafting him an unsavory public image.
“He never recovered from the circumstances of his victory,” said Mr. Wallace, of FOX News. “The public and media after the Florida recount and the drawn-out election never regarded him as the legitimate president. That put his presidency under a cloud among the chattering classes from the start.”
There has been more caterwaul than chatter from the press, quantified by much research.
For example, 71 percent of the news stories on ABC, NBC and CBS covering the first 100 days of Mr. Bushs first term in office were negative, according to an analysis released in 2001 by the District-based Center for Media and Public Affairs.
In a similar study conducted in 2004, the group found that two-thirds of the broadcast network stories were negative during the first 100 days of his second term. In comparison, President Clinton’s first-term news coverage was 59 percent negative in 1993.
“When the Republicans won the House and Senate in 1994, the anchormen broke out into a postelection chorus of how President Clinton deserved more credit than he was receiving from voters,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group.
“No one is holding their breath that after this Democratic tide, the media will now tell voters about how President Bush should get more credit for succeeding with the surge in Iraq and keeping the country from another domestic terrorist attack.
“President Bush will surely gain a greater place in history than the dungeon the media have placed him in lately. But for the last several years, there’s been almost nowhere a corner in the media, right or left, to say kind words about Bush’s legacy. It may take years of Barack Obama dismantling the war on terror for people to assess how he did,” Mr. Graham said.
Indeed, time is a factor in legacy building, leaving much open to interpretation. There’s no set protocol.
“Legacy is a very mushy topic. It’s not like we get out a book and neatly look up what somebody’s legacy is, and there is no typical trajectory or rational calculus involved. People are still arguing over how Jefferson and Lincoln fared in history. Legacy is a very complex matter, with many dimensions,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University and editor of the Presidential Studies Quarterly.
“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.”
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