George W. Bush, private citizen, left Washington for Dallas Tuesday with
the quiet dignity that was typical of his personal behavior during the
eight tumultous years of his presidency.
Mr. Bush leaves office as the most unpopular president in the history of
polling. But it will be a decade or more before we have the perspective
necessary to place the Bush presidency in history.
Only two other of our 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland is counted twice)
took office under more controversial circumstances than Mr. Bush did
after the prolonged recount in Florida in 2000. John Quincy Adams was
elected by the House of Representatives in 1825, though Andrew Jackson
had led in both the popular and electoral votes in the four way race the
year before. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes became the only president
besides Mr. Bush to win in the electoral college despite losing the
popular vote in a two way race. Bitterness surrounding how he won
deprived Mr. Bush of the traditional "honeymoon," and poisoned the
atmosphere surrounding his presidency from the start.
Only three other presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and
James Madison, who fled the White House hours before the British burned
it in 1814 faced more difficult challenges than Mr. Bush has during
their terms of office. Less than nine months into his presidency,
America suffered on 9/11 the most devastating attack ever on her soil by
a foreign enemy. There followed the war in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina,
the most expensive natural disaster in American history. The Bush
presidency ended with the subprime mortage meltdown, already our most
devastating economic setback since the Great Depression.
What didn't happen, and what just has illustrate why the passage of time
is required before a presidency can fairly be judged.
After 9/11, there were no further successful terrorist attacks on
American soil on Mr. Bush's watch. How important history will regard
this accomplishment depends mostly on whether there is another during
Mr. Obama's presidency. If so, then Mr. Bush's accomplishment will loom
It's too early to tell how bad the economy is going to get. To what
extent did Bush administration policies fuel the subprime mortgage
bubble? Was there something he could have done, but didn't do, that
would have kept the bubble from bursting? Did the steps the Bush
administration took after the bubble burst prevent a larger catastrophe?
Or did they just add fuel to the fire? We don't yet know.
Time separates trivial controversies from more substantive ones. During
the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was hotly criticized for its conduct.
But now he is remembered for its ultimate success, not for the early
Union mistakes. Mr. Bush was criticized as hotly for his conduct of the
Iraq war, but in the end he won, and he won by pursuing a strategy
scorned by most of his critics. It remains to be seen how valuable
victory in Iraq will be. But surely a friendly, democratic Iraq is more
beneficial to the United States than one ruled by Saddam Hussein,
pursuing nuclear weapons.
And time will tell to what extent his successor follows policies
established by Mr. Bush. Despite rhetorical differences in the
campaign, it appears that President Obama's foreign policy will be
little different in substance. Imitation is the sincerest form of
Conservatives, for the most part, have been disappointed by Mr. Bush.
During his presidency Republicans lost all fiscal discipline. Many of
his appointments were alarmingly mediocre. Even when he was doing the
right thing, he did a poor job of communicating why. Still, we will miss
his basic goodness, and his steadfastness.
But I suspect that in six months or so, it will be the liberals who miss
Mr. Bush most. For eight years they've been blaming all the nation's
ills including adverse weather on Mr. Bush. Now that their
favorite whipping boy has departed the scene, I expect many to develop a
strange new respect for policies once glibly scorned.
My own view is that Mr. Bush was wrong on lots of little things, but
right on the big things. History tends to remember only the big things.