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Undecided We Stand: Debating Bush's Legacy

Ailsa Chang/NPR

President Bush leaves office in 13 days. During his eight years in the White House, the nation has seen the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, two wars that still rage, new performance standards for public schools, Hurricane Katrina and an economic crisis that has pushed the financial sector and the auto industry to the brink.

Early in Bush's presidency, his approval ratings hit record highs, but he leaves office one of the least popular presidents ever.

The Weighing Of A Presidency


For some former occupants of the Oval Office, a single statement can sum up what is remembered most about them.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

John F. Kennedy: "The torch has been passed to a new generation."

Richard Nixon: "I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got."

Ronald Reagan: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."


What will be the enduring moment for George W. Bush? There's his moment with the bullhorn at ground zero in New York City days after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001; his declaration of war in Iraq; the eerie speech he gave in deserted New Orleans after Katrina; his two Supreme Court appointments; and then the economic crisis.

Bush says it's up to history to judge him. He likes to recall that Harry Truman was widely reviled when he left the White House 56 years ago but decades later became an icon of strength in adversity.

On CNN recently, Bush acknowledged his low standing with the public and said he's proud he stood by his principles.

"I'm sure people have disagreed with my decisions, but they've been made with a lot of deliberation, and they have been made with one thing in mind: what's best for the United States of America," he said.

Bush is pressing to have his presidency taken as a whole and judged in its totality. The early part of his term was defined by the Sept. 11 attacks. Author Robert Draper, whose 2007 book Dead Certain is to date the only comprehensive biography that the president has cooperated with, says Bush provided a sense of clarity in the aftermath of the attacks.

"The nation very much needed a president with that level of certitude, with that clarity of vision such that he could say you're either for us or you're for the terrorists," Draper says. "He brought forth from the public a great amount of pride in America and a great amount of determination."

The country was with its president when he channeled that determination into the war in Afghanistan. But then he used the emotional momentum as justification for invading Iraq, despite the lack of evidence connecting Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein.

The Iraq war was controversial from the beginning. It divided the country, and it also drove Bush's approval ratings down — first below 60 percent, then below 50 and 40 and 30 percent.

Professor George Edwards of Texas A&M has closely followed Bush's entire political career, including his loss of the public trust.

"Certainly, if Iraq should turn into a stable democracy and a model for the Middle East, that will be a huge plus in his legacy," Edwards says. "I don't think that there's much you can do about, what I would say, not being on top of all issues, not having planned for the aftermath of Iraq. That was a disaster, and there's nothing that can rehabilitate that."

Historian Robert Dallek has written books on FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. He says the negative impact of the Iraq war will have a lasting effect on Bush's legacy and on the U.S. in general.

"The bad name that the United States has been given as a consequence of the torture, Abu Ghraib, the waterboarding — America's standing around the world has been badly injured by this Bush administration," Dallek says.

Confident That Time Will Bear Him Out

Nonetheless, Draper says Bush leaves office confident that history will see him as being on the right side of important challenges.

"He believes he has installed terrorist fighting tools in the form of enhanced interrogation techniques, as they say, and domestic surveillance that will aid future presidents," Draper says. "He believes that he made the right call with respect to not dealing with [Yasser] Arafat in the Palestinian-Israeli matter. He believes they were right in terms of leaning into the global AIDS crisis.

"You can view all that, and on the one hand it sounds pretty positive. Then, on the other hand, you see an economy in tatters and America fighting two wars."

The economy's problems will only make the reconstruction of the president's image over time more difficult, according to Edwards. He says that's partly because Bush and his partisans made such upbeat claims about the economy for so long.

"Not anticipating the financial crisis that we're experiencing right now is, again, something that's certainly not all his fault, and it's never fair to blame everything on a president," he says. "But certainly doing very little to anticipate this or to pre-empt it or prevent it is not going to look well in history."

Although Dallek is a strong critic of Bush's overall performance, he gives the president some credit when it comes to the economy. After the crisis hit, Dallek says, Bush was willing to use federal funds to aid financial institutions and the auto companies — breaking with many of his conservative allies to do so.

"He has been more flexible than I would have imagined he was going to be, because he has been so committed to this ideology of free markets, free enterprise," Dallek says. "And as Cheney said, we don't want to be remembered as a Herbert Hoover. Now, it doesn't mean he's solved the economic crisis of the country. But at least he tried some things, and I think he deserves some credit for that."

A Consequential Presidency

Edwards of Texas A&M says the 43rd president will also get credit for being decisive, for good or ill.

"History will view this as a consequential presidency. George W. Bush was one who thought boldly and aimed explicitly to make a lasting impact. And there's been major changes in public policy regarding the war on terrorism, of course, and U.S. foreign policy and homeland security — but also domestically on taxes, on education policy, on health care."

Draper, the Bush biographer, agrees that whatever individuals feel about this president, his time in office will be regarded as historic.

Dallek has a different prediction: "Fifty, 75, 100 years from now, I think Bush will be a forgotten president." He notes that Bush cites the avoidance of another attack like Sept. 11 as a major accomplishment of his administration. Dallek holds that people aren't remembered for what didn't happen.

"The most memorable presidents without question are those who had some kind of catch phrase — a bumper sticker, if you will," Dallek says. "Franklin Roosevelt — the New Deal; John Kennedy — the New Frontier; Lyndon Johnson — the Great Society, Reagan remembered for saying, 'It's morning in America.' What is there with George W. Bush? What's the bumper sticker? I don't know."

Of course, Bush won't simply be on the sidelines. He says he'll make his own case by writing his memoirs. Remarkably healthy at 62 years of age, Bush expects to be around a good long time — time to be part of what will surely be a continuing debate over his legacy.

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