One of the central debates over the legacy of President Bush is whether his prediction that history will vindicate him will come true.
If it does, two things likely will have transpired: Mr. Bush’s status as protector of the country will have won out above other narratives, and policies such as his aid to Africa will have been given prominent status in his remembrance.
Mr. Bush came into office expecting to be a domestic-policy president. The Texan wanted to rebrand the Republican Party as one of “compassionate conservatism.”
One of Mr. Bush’s lasting legacies did turn out to be a mission of mercy, but that drama played out on another continent - Africa - rather than in the U.S.
However, any discussion of Mr. Bush’s successes must include his response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“That day defined my presidency,” he said during a Dec. 17 speech at the U.S. Army War College.
Besides his national security achievements, Mr. Bush will point in years hence to his tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, his appointment of conservative judges, his commitment to free trade, the enactment of his No Child Left Behind initiative and the expansion of prescription drug benefits for seniors.
Despite these domestic-policy achievements, Mr. Bush will be remembered as a wartime president. It is here where defenders of the administration have been engaged in making their central case on his behalf, which is that he prevented a repeat of Sept. 11.
Detractors, however, dispute the extent to which the Bush administration should receive credit for the absence of another attack, saying any number of factors could have prevented that.
Additionally, nearly every national security decision made by Mr. Bush in his post-Sept. 11 years has sparked controversy, from the invasion of Iraq to warrantless domestic surveillance to the U.S. military’s detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In his Dec. 17 speech, Mr. Bush threw down the gauntlet for those who questioned his methods and decisions.
“While there’s room for honest and healthy debate about the decisions I’ve made - and there’s plenty of debate - there can be no debate about the results in keeping America safe,” he said.
‘The dog that didn’t bark’
The argument that Mr. Bush prevented another Sept. 11-style attack is difficult to rebut, especially in the political arena.
Democrats have by and large avoided frontal assaults against the claim, but neither have they conceded the point. On this year’s anniversary of the attacks, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked whether the California Democrat thinks Mr. Bush is responsible for the absence of another attack.
“Those who are on the front lines of America’s efforts against terrorists - our military personnel, intelligence officers, law enforcement and diplomats - are the heroes responsible for our safety and security,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.
In the past few months, as the Bush legacy team - headed by senior White House adviser Ed Gillespie - has made its case more forcefully, the idea of Bush the protector has begun to penetrate into the public debate.
New York financier and philanthropist Robert Rosenkranz helped sponsor a debate on the Bush legacy in Manhattan in early December. He opened the forum with brief remarks.
“This administration accomplished something that nobody would’ve thought possible. They kept America safe after 9/11,” Mr. Rosenkranz said.
During that debate, Jacob Weisberg, author of “The Bush Tragedy,” responded to that claim.
“Much of this is so invisible to us that it’s very hard when we say Bush has kept us safe,” Mr. Weisberg said. “It’s true, we have not had another terrorist attack in the United States. How much of that is the result of policy, how much is the result of accident? We don’t know that much about it.
“It’s the dog that didn’t bark.”
Vice President Dick Cheney, during an interview with Rush Limbaugh last month, said, “It’s hard to get credit for things that don’t happen.
“But I think the response speaks for itself,” he said. “The Terrorist Surveillance Program, the Patriot Act, the interrogation program of high-value detainees - all [have] made it possible for us to defend the nation.”
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, chief of staff to Mr. Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, took issue with the vice president’s claim.
“What I and others feel were abuses - torture, harsh treatment, and violations of the law with respect to [global war on terror] detainees; wire-tapping citizens, etc. - contributed very little to the tactical successes (nothing has been demonstrated to me thus far),” he said in an interview conducted via e-mail.
Mr. Wilkerson said it would be “unfair and inaccurate to say that damage has not been done to al Qaeda, the principal group of concern.”
However, he said, “such damage is largely tactical damage and thus repairable,” and the Bush policies did little to challenge the ideologies and temper the passions that fuel radical Islamic terrorism, and instead inflamed them while also alienating allies in the Middle East and empowering enemies such as Iran.
Conservative radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt said in a recent essay that for all of Mr. Bush’s faults, “here was an extraordinary and controversial man who accomplished a great deal, lost many battles, stood by his friends sometimes too long and could be stubborn beyond political calculation but who accomplished his most urgent task of protecting the union against its many enemies.”
“The successful completion of that task is what all great presidents have in common.”
Bush backers also point to how Mr. Bush led the country through the difficult days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“President Bush led with his heart. He led this nation at its most incredible hour,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican.
The president’s most loyal supporters have grown irritated at questions casting doubt on whether Mr. Bush was truly responsible for preventing another attack, and at those who would minimize the issue.
“People say, ‘Oh, he kept us safe. Well, every president does that,’ ” said former White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy. “It doesn’t give him credit for his 24-hour focus in a time of unprecedented warfare, a brand-new kind of warfare.
“Future presidents will be judged by how they fight this war because it hasn’t ended. And the first test will be how many Americans died on U.S. soil on their watch.”
A complicated vision
For those who are not convinced by the argument that Mr. Bush was a defender of the country and who cling to a vision of him as a warmonger, one issue in particular will complicate that vision, befuddling those who wish to portray the 43rd president monolithically.
Mr. Bush is responsible for one of the largest public health efforts ever in the Third World - $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases over five years, with an additional $50 billion over the next five years passed into law during his last year in office.
“No world leader has ever done more for global health than President George W. Bush,” the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, said during an event honoring Mr. Bush in December.
Eric Draper, Mr. Bush’s chief photographer, rode with the president in his limousine as he made his way into Monrovia, Liberia, on the last leg of a five-country African trip last February.
“That was just an amazing experience, to watch this reaction, the emotion on the streets, people crying and on their knees … screaming thank you,” Mr. Draper said in a recent interview with The Washington Times. “It was just incredible.”
Josh Ruxin, an influential public health professional working in Rwanda, spoke enthusiastically about the Bush legacy in Africa, saying that the Republican leader was “the first president in decades who decided to pay attention to the problems that afflict hundreds of millions of Africans.”
“And he did this by making sure there was real funding, real programs put in place for these diseases,” Mr. Ruxin said. “He didn’t just talk the talk. He actually put programs in place that were noticed and supported and which saved lives here. And for that, people across Africa are deeply grateful.”
Yet Mr. Ruxin is no fan of Mr. Bush’s decisions in Iraq and the broader Middle East, saying he has “extremely deep disregard” for those policies.
“We had a policy, a misguided policy, of war which was an affront to our place in the world, throughout the Middle East,” said Mr. Ruxin, who directs Columbia University’s access project for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The intensity of his dislike for Mr. Bush’s Middle East policies, situated so closely next to his admiration for U.S. aid to Africa, seemed to leave Mr. Ruxin at something of a loss.
This was the man, after all, caricatured by many critics at antiwar rallies as a baby-eating, blood-soaked monster. And yet here he was performing true good works, and effective at that, with no apparent motive of self-interest.
“They were simply utterly different policies,” Mr. Ruxin said. “In sub-Saharan Africa, we had a policy that was deeply empowering and humanitarian.
“I cannot deny and can only compartmentalize the difference between our foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Africa.”
John Bruton, the European Union’s ambassador to the U.S., told a small group of reporters at the EU Consulate last summer that Mr. Bush’s Africa programs have attracted admiration in Europe, particularly because nothing was in it for the president and the U.S. government.
Mr. Bruton said in a recent interview that Mr. Bush’s education reforms - requiring schools to meet benchmarks or risk closure - also may be seen over the long term as a great humanitarian achievement.
The achievement gap between white and minority students and the failure of U.S. students to keep pace with Asian and Indian students “are problems that no president could hope to solve in eight years because they are profound problems,” said Mr. Bruton, who served as the head of Ireland’s government from 1994 to 1997.
“But the introduction of No Child Left Behind creates a basis upon which this profound problem could potentially begin to be solved,” he said. “I think that’s a very important landmark that could, perhaps with the passage of time, be recognized.”
Mr. Bruton said that Mr. Bush’s successes must be viewed within the context of his shortcomings, which many think far outnumber anything positive during the past eight years.
But the most common error made by many in their estimation of the 43rd president, Mr. Bruton said, is oversimplification.
“People need to look at the wider record rather than just use a caricature based on one decision.”
Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Click to Read More and View Comments
Click to Hide
Please read our comment policy before commenting.