As George W. Bush spends his last few hours as President, many of us who worked for him and deeply admire him are filled with mixed feelings. It is hard to see him leave the scene with approval ratings hovering at 30 percent, with the nation clearly weary and ready to turn the page. All of us hoped he would leave the Presidency with an outpouring of gratitude and affection from the nation.
It was not to be, and it would be silly and misleading to pretend that this did not matter at all. How could it not? Yet most of us have the conviction — a fairly deep one, actually — that President Bush will be looked upon by history favorably and that his decisions will be, in the main, vindicated. The obvious question concerns what we see that most of our fellow citizens do not. Why are we convinced that Bush’s presidency will be judged a success when so many people right now consider it to be a failure?
The answer, I think, is several fold. For one things, it is rooted in the belief that on the most important issues of his presidency — keeping America safe after the attacks of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our broader struggle against militant Islam, the appointment of two Supreme Court justices, and more — Bush got it right or mostly right.
This doesn’t mean that there weren’t serious missteps along the way — failures in judgment, personnel, execution, communication, and persuasion. In Iraq especially, we were much too slow in recognizing the nature of the conflict and adjusting to it. Yet despite those mistakes, it is certainly possible that Iraq will end up very nearly as we initially hoped it would: free and self-governing, an ally of America instead of an enemy, a counterweight to Iran, the place that gave rise to an Arab uprising against militant Islam, and a nation that eventually helps to reshape the political culture of the Middle East. If this in fact occurs, the verdict on Bush dramatically shifts. What was widely seen as his greatest failure while in office will be seen as a significant, and even history-shaping, success. As Ambassador Ryan Crocker has said, how we leave Iraq will matter a great deal more than how we got into Iraq.
Second, George W. Bush’s unpopularity created the context for what I believe was easily his most impressive act as President: his advocacy of the surge despite the enormous opposition to it. People forget what many of us in the White House at the time never will: the across-the-board resistance — from all Democrats, most Republicans, the entire foreign policy establishment, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President’s own commanding general in Iraq, and the overwhelming majority of Americans — to the surge. There was the very real sense that this plan might be strangled in its crib.
I recall e-mailing Josh Bolten, Karl Rove, and Dan Bartlett two days after the President’s January 10th, 2007 speech announcing the surge, expressing my profound concern that it would be derailed even before it had a chance to be implemented. Josh called me from Camp David, which was quite rare. When I picked up the call and asked him how he was, Josh replied, “Alarmed,” because I was so alarmed (Josh knew my pendulum doesn’t swing all that widely and I wasn’t in the habit of sending up emergency flares). It is still remarkable to me that President Bush was able to fight off the efforts by so many — including prominent leaders in his own party — trying to undercut the new counterinsurgency strategy.
To have seen President Bush hold shape in the midst of such white-hot political heat and cascading criticisms is something those of us who served him can never forget. We understood — or should have understood — what an extraordinary act this was. It will one day rank among the most important and impressive decisions ever made by an American president. The outcome of a war rested on it.
Third, most of us know enough about history to know that things that appear one way in a moment in time might (and probably will) look very different later. Abraham Lincoln could be considered a failure for much of the Civil War — reviled, scoffed at, derided, and unpopular — and yet end up with his face chiseled on Mt. Rushmore, having earned the distinction as the finest statesman our Republic has ever produced. Harry Truman could leave office with approval ratings lower than Bush, yet eventually make his way to near the top rank of the 20th centuries greatest presidents. None of this means Bush will end up like Truman and he will certainly not end up like Lincoln (neither, by the way, will Barack Obama); each president is sui generis, and Bush’s place depends in part on events that still have to play themselves out. But we know enough to recognize that sweeping historical pronouncements and efforts at instant history are silly.
Fourth, many of Bush’s achievements — from vindication on his stance on embyronic stem cell research, to his sweeping and successful reforms in education, to his unprecedented efforts to help the continent of Africa, to his enormously successful Medicare prescription drug plan, to promoting anti-drug policies that led to a 25 percent reduction in drug use, to much else — have been occluded or largely ignored. But as the waters calm in the coming years, these things will be seen for what they are.
Fifth, Bush’s speeches will stand the test of time. People who go back and read the September 14 address to the National Cathedral, his September 20th speech to the joint session of Congress, his two inaugural addresses, his speeches to the National Endowment for Democracy and at Whitehall Palace and Goree Island to many others will be struck by the grace and eloquence and power of his language.
Words matter, and words endure.
Having said all this, I am the first to admit that I am not entirely objective when it comes to George W. Bush. I don’t consider him flawless; far from it. I have seen his foibles up close, and I can list the things we did wrong or could have done better over the course of eight years in my sleep. He’s leaving the stage to a whole lot less applause than I would have thought just a few years ago.
At the same time, George W. Bush turned out to be one of the gutsiest politicians of our lifetime. He showed a ferocious commitment in pursuing his main duty: protecting our country. His memories of 9/11 and the wound it inflicted on America did not dim, even for a day, even for a moment. He mobilized this nation for war — and when others lost interest and their commitment to the struggle began to fade, his would not. President Bush knew what to stand for, and what to stand against. He is a man of enormous personal decency and integrity. And he ended up with all the right people hating him, from Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Frank Rich and Keith Olbermann.
President Bush has spent eight years in the arena. He has been harshly criticized and bloodied along the way. But as things got harder, he got better — and when things were hardest, he did best. Having faced crises of enormous dimensions, he leaves the presidency unbroken and at peace. He served his nation well and with honor. That is what matters, and that is what will endure.
Godspeed, George Walker Bush.