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Reassessing the Bush Presidency

Earlier this week, I was in Dallas to participate in events surrounding the groundbreaking of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which will include his library and policy institute.

I found the people there to be, almost to a person, in very good spirits, the mood upbeat, relaxed, and celebratory. Part of the reason for this has to do with being reunited with colleagues with whom you stood shoulder-to-shoulder during dramatic and even historic times. Sharing moments of great achievement and hardship can forge deep and lasting bonds of affection.

But there was something else at play — the sense that for America’s 43rd president, certain qualities and achievements are coming into sharper focus.

One area concerns George W. Bush’s core decency and integrity. He was endowed with the gifts of grace and class that have eluded others who have served as president, including Bush’s successor. President Bush is incapable of self-pity and self-conceit. And he has a deep, heartfelt, and unconflicted love for America. He clearly reveres the nation he served. That cannot be said for everyone who has held the office of the presidency.

Beyond that, though, is the realization that the public’s verdict of the Bush presidency is changing. A recalibration is under way.

After several intense, eventful years in office — years in which Bush stood atop the political world and was as popular as any man who has served as president — much of the public grew weary of his administration. The last years of his presidency were spent in a valley he had to fight through, day by day, especially on the matter of Iraq. By the end of his presidency, things that were viewed as strengths were seen as weaknesses. The strong, principled, decisive leader of the first term was viewed as a stubborn, inflexible leader during the second term. The twisting kaleidoscope moves us all in turn.

No matter; Bush persevered and refused to grow weary. He made unpopular decisions (from a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq to TARP) that turned out to be the right decisions. And one can now see that Bush’s achievements, particularly in the realm of foreign policy — his response to 9/11; keeping America safe from future attacks by putting the country on a war footing; the surge; deposing two sadistic regimes; championing freedom, human rights and the cause of dissidents; the global AIDS and malaria initiatives; and more — are growing in stature. That is something many of us were confident would happen, but it is happening at a quicker pace than we anticipated. As Vice President Cheney said in his splendid remarks, “History is beginning to come around.”

George W. Bush would not be the first president for whom this occurred. “I am not sure he was right about the atomic bomb, or even Korea,” the CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid said of Harry Truman. “But remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like. It’s character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.”

So he does. And so, one day, will George W. Bush.


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