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What will history have to say?

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

Whether his critics like it or not, President Bush will have his permanent place in history, and the dynamic is already in motion.

"President Bush's legacy will be driven by what happens in Iraq and the greater Middle East. If Iraq becomes a quasidemocracy 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, a 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 September 12, 2001, that we'd ever be able to say that?" said 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 said.

If success in the Middle East is the litmus test of his legacy, then Mr. Bush could be looking at a soft landing.

Public-opinion surveys at the end of his presidency revealed that the majority of Americans have positive perceptions of what was once dismissed as "Bush aggression."

Seven out of 10 respondents in a Harris Poll said that Iraqis are better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein.

More than half of the respondents in polls from Rasmussen Reports, CBS/New York Times and CNN said things were "going well" in Iraq.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey found that 62 percent of respondents said military efforts in Iraq were succeeding and 62 percent said that America would not be attacked by terrorists again.

Surveys have not always motivated Mr. Bush himself, however.

"My faith frees me ... to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well," Mr. Bush wrote in "A Charge to Keep," a memoir released in 1999.

"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," said Richard Brookhiser, a political writer and historian. "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."

The world will gain a better perspective on Mr. Bush, he said, when it sees how the incoming Obama administration handles crises.

"The jihadis are not going away any time soon. 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 [Hurricane] Katrina. And in two-term presidencies, the second term is always worse," Mr. Brookhiser said.

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 the film "W.," a Hollywood version of Mr. Bush's adult life.

"The candidate once described as the nation's first 'CEO president' has created the largest budget deficits in history," Mr. Stone said. "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."

It's not all collateral damage, some say.

"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. 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.

Another president had advice for Mr. Bush on the rigors of office.

"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 Mr. Bush wrote to his sons.

Unfriendly press coverage of the 43rd presidency persisted, often driven by a long-standing liberal bias. Mr. Bush watched civility and respect toward his office erode, almost from the beginning.

"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.

"President Bush will surely gain a greater place in history than the dungeon the media have placed him in. 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," Mr. Graham said.

Protocols are few in legacy building, however.

"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," said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University.

"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 said. "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."

However, 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. "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."

Things will shake out in a few decades.

"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 now. I can't think of another president who threw so many long passes while he was in office," Mr. Buchanan said.

"People have disliked him intensely at times. But not everyone. George Bush will always have a core of very loyal followers," Mr. Edwards said. "He was - and is - a strong figure with strong views who wanted to be a bold leader."