The legacy of George W. Bush / With two unfinished wars and an economy in crisis at the close of his tenure, history may judge him harshly
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Jan. 4, 2009
Love him or hate him, George W. Bush leaves office among the most consequential presidents in modern history. Like his home state of Texas, his presidency was big.
He sought "to end tyranny in the world." He began two wars. He cut taxes three times, tried to privatize Social Security, and added the biggest expansion of Medicare since it was created under Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. He took on AIDS in Africa and redrew the federal role in education. He named two relatively young conservatives to the Supreme Court. He declared by himself a "global war on terror" and asserted unprecedented executive powers to fight it.
As bold and brash as his father was cautious, W. rolled the dice at history. And history rolled them back.
President Bush looks at the Pentagon in Washington from Marine One on his way to New York, Friday, Sept. 14, 2001. Bush faces one of the most complicated national security challenges ever to confront a U.S. president in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers in New York. Eric Draper/AP
Bush entered office only after a historic contested election was decided by the Supreme Court. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks came less than a year into his presidency; Hurricane Katrina ripped through its middle. And just as he prepared to head home to Texas, a financial panic struck on a scale not seen since 1929. His last major act was to loan billions to General Motors and Chrysler to avoid their collapse on his watch.
Historians will suspend immediate judgment. All modern presidents leave office sullied, yet many, like Harry Truman, Bill Clinton and even Jimmy Carter, have had their reputations restored with time. But from the vista of now, the nation's 43rd president risks joining the likes of Franklin Pierce, his own distant relative, as among the nation's worst presidents, harshly judged in their day and never bathed in the warm afterglow of hindsight.
Bush leaves to his successor two unfinished wars, Osama bin Laden living in an unstable Pakistan, a U.S. reputation soiled by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and torture, a deep recession and what is sure to be the first $1 trillion-plus deficit. In short, a gigantic mess, all the bigger for the peace, prosperity and black ink he inherited.
The apex of Bush's presidency came when he stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center and rallied the nation from a bullhorn. There have been no terrorist attacks in the United States since, a fact he considers his signal if unappreciated achievement.
"I gave it my best," he recently told a guest at the White House.
But even if the war in Iraq one day fulfills Bush's vision of democracy in the Middle East, the global financial crisis may have sealed his fate. He has set a new polling record: Not even Richard Nixon was more disliked.
Bush liked to read something called the One-Year Bible, "the boiled-down, condensed, greatest hits of the Bible that would cut to the chase," said Bush biographer Bill Minutaglio, a journalism professor at the University of Texas. "I wish he had possessed a greater curiosity and intellectual ambition and scope and sweep to be commensurate with these outsized events that he had to deal with as president."
A gregarious and deeply religious man, Bush did not seek tokens for his Cabinet, but relied on African Americans, women and Latinos as his closest advisers. He lured minorities back to the party of Lincoln, speaking eloquently of family values not stopping at the Rio Grande. He campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," who would complete the Reagan Revolution by encouraging an "ownership society."
Yet he leaves behind partial nationalization of U.S. banks and $8 trillion in government guarantees of private debt. Vice President Dick Cheney, a key author of the Bush legacy, worried that his boss would go down as a second Herbert Hoover.
Bush spurned the model of his own father's presidency, the single term of George H.W. Bush, whose watchword was "prudence." W. looked to conservative icon Ronald Reagan. Yet instead of cementing a "permanent Republican majority," he ended the Reagan era.
Bush both grew the government and gave laissez-faire a bad name, overseeing a rash of corporate scandals in 2002 and the housing meltdown. The financial wreckage has many fathers, but Bush, the first MBA president, stands among them, failing to restrain the liquidity bubble as it ballooned and asking for $700 billion to rescue banks as it burst. The GOP is fractured and adrift.
"Bush has really destroyed small-government conservatism," said David Boaz, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.
Bush first campaigned as "a uniter, not a divider," but with his party controlling Congress, governed as a partisan.
History quashed any hope he had to transport the conservative bipartisanship of his Texas governorship to Washington. Losing the popular vote in 2000, he took office after the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount. "I think he was doomed to be a divisive president by the 2000 election," said Steven Schier, author of "Panorama of a Presidency: How George W. Bush Acquired and Spent His Political Capital." Although later unofficial recounts by news organizations and others showed Bush did win Florida, many would remain unconvinced.
"I think that helped to cast a framework for his presidency that he could only escape during a brief period right after 9/11," Schier said. "As he made mistakes, he just had less margin for error because of the hostility that he had engendered, and he was eventually done in by that."
One of the uneasy liberal Democrats who initially stepped forward to work with Bush, East Bay Rep. George Miller, offers only invective today.
"Really, he is the most damaging president to this country that we have seen," said Miller, whom Bush in friendlier days dubbed "Big George." "He'll go down in history. ... It's a history of disasters but they're all paid for by others. He didn't pay for them; the country's paid for them. They're a history of lies; they're a history of lack of respect for the Constitution, lack of respect for the separation of powers. I mean, this is a one-man destruction derby."
Yet modern presidents not thrown from office after one term leave their second in a thick haze of public fatigue and disillusionment. Such judgments are almost always softened by time.
"That's one of the things that presidential libraries do," said Thomas Schwartz, a historian at Vanderbilt University. The White House has already begun the project with a "100 Things Americans May Not Know about the Bush Administration Record" on its Web site. Bush has spent his last weeks on a legacy tour of speeches, interviews and a return to Iraq. Instead of triumph, he ducked shoes thrown by an Iraqi journalist.
Truman, as loathed as Bush in his day, now lauded for his handling of the Cold War, is a cautionary tale. As is Gerald Ford, whose pardon of Nixon may have cost him his election but by his death in 2006 was seen as an act of courage that helped heal the country after Watergate.
"To the extent that (President-elect Barack) Obama actually adopts some of the policies that Bush was adopting by the end of his presidency, Bush may not look so bad," Schwartz said. "Even if he got it wrong at first, they did eventually get it right." Bush forged strong ties with India, nudged China toward the West, encouraged Libya to disarm, and endorsed Palestinian statehood.
Even some detractors say Bush may not be getting enough credit for thwarting terrorist attacks, because it's hard to prove a negative and because the Iraq war overshadowed everything.
If Bush had stopped with the invasion of Afghanistan, when his poll numbers were stratospheric, "I think he'd be seen as a hero and as one of our better presidents," said James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of "Power Play: the Bush Administration and the Constitution." "But he didn't stop there."
The decision to invade Iraq is seen now as a colossal blunder, and Bush's "combat operations have ended" speech aboard an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, stands as proof he was fooled by events. Bush only recently backed off his insistence that he would have made the same decision today, saying he regretted the intelligence failures. He refused to say whether he would have invaded knowing Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, neither Congress nor the public would have gone along had he tried.
A clearer view will come "five years from now when we start to get the memoirs from all the people inside, and 20 years from now when we start to actually see the records," said Bruce Schulman, a Boston University presidential scholar.
Big, awful events such as Sept. 11 and Katrina dictated the path of Bush's presidency, but his personality dictated the administration's responses. Famously incurious, proudly anti-intellectual, decisive to the point of impulsive, an extrovert with uncommon energy, a sense of humor and personal charm, Bush was very different from his father, in whose shadow he spent most of his life.
The elder Bush saw the presidency as a stewardship, bemoaning his lack of "the vision thing." When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, George H.W. Bush was so reluctant to intervene that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher admonished him, "Don't go wobbly on me, George." He oversaw the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, and refused in modesty even to issue a statement when the Berlin Wall fell.
His son sought "game-changers," claimed missions accomplished prematurely, boasted and strutted on the world stage, and may have set back for decades much of what he set out to achieve.
Those who joined him, such as Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, saw their own reputations sour.
W. was more like his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, who blurted out, "You can't win," when he announced he would run for the Texas governorship in 1994. The family thought he was joking.
Until he quit drinking at 40 and became a born-again Christian, W. followed his father's path step by step but never measured up: Andover prep school, Yale, the secret society Skull and Bones, baseball, flight school, Texas oil fields.
He was a cheerleader, not a star athlete, an indifferent student who skirted Vietnam, not a war hero. His oil ventures failed, and success came only when he led a purchase of the Texas Rangers baseball team. He surprised his family by getting his MBA at Harvard, and finally bested his father when he won re-election in 2004.
Detractors call Bush stupid, but those who know him say he is far from that. Mockery of presidential intelligence is a tradition going back to John Adams, though Bush encourages it with bungled syntax, such as this to ABC's Charlie Gibson last month on the financial meltdown: "You know, I'm the president during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived in president, during I arrived in president."
Oedipal theories abound, along with psychological speculation about grandiosity in former drinkers and a black-and-white, good-and-evil world view among evangelicals.
Babson College business ethicist James Hoopes, author of "Hail to the CEO, the Failure of George W. Bush and the Cult of Moral Leadership," sees the roots of Bush's leadership style in the Harvard management fad, still filling bookstore shelves, that promotes a notion of moral leadership and "values" over knowledge, execution and competence.
Bush resembles the late Enron CEO Ken Lay, who "was also a values-based leader, and didn't know what was going on at Enron," Hoopes said. "He thought he could run the company by just walking around being a leader and he didn't have to really manage." Bush likewise, making Sept. 11 a case of good versus evil, "is the biggest case study of a guy who thought his job was to walk around and be a cheerleader talking about values and everything else was going to take care of itself," he said.
Bush made no secret of relying on his gut, seeking divine guidance and asserting faith in his values. He did not read deeply or delve deeply into policies. "I feel so strongly about my principles and values," he said last May.
Bush often uses his Oval Office rug decision, the first he made as president, as a metaphor to describe his leadership style. "One of the important things is to surround yourself with people who you can trust, and delegate," he said recently. He delegated the decision to his wife Laura, insisting only that the rug reflect that an "optimistic guy goes to work here."
The metaphors history will likely choose to define George W. Bush are Iraq, Katrina and the Panic of 2008.
Bush bet his presidency on the war, claiming that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States. The threat turned out to be a giant bluff by Saddam Hussein.
And the plan for a swift victory and quick exit turned into a bungled and bloody occupation that has left roughly 4,800 U.S. troops dead, 33,000 Americans wounded, as well as thousands of contractors and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted longer than World War II and cost 50 percent more than Vietnam: $904 billion since 2001, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
That ultimately could rise above $2 trillion, including decades of care for wounded veterans, estimated as high as $65 billion alone. Bush economic chief Lawrence Lindsay was fired for saying publicly that the Iraq war could cost $200 billion.
Bush delegated the war to the Pentagon, and fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld only after Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006.
By many accounts, he allowed Cheney, viewed by many as the Rasputin of the administration, to manipulate the White House policymaking process in a way he once himself warned was dangerous. Bush came within a hair of having a mass resignation at the Justice Department - and losing re-election - after Cheney and others left him blindsided on an internal fight over domestic surveillance.
After the bungled response to Katrina in 2005 and Bush's "heckuva job, Brownie" accolade to his hapless chief of disaster response, Michael Brown, the administration's lingering reputation for competence turned irrevocably into a caricature of cronyism and incompetence.
Bush was all about delegating, and yet was in fact "the decider."
He asserted sweeping executive powers, maintained that he did not have to obey the law as commander in chief, would not be constrained in his treatment of detainees, wrote bill-signing statements implying that he would not enforce the law, "and to an unprecedented extent he denied habeas corpus," said Pfiffner.
Bush adopted Cheney's view on executive power, foreshadowed years earlier in the minority report to the Iran-Contra investigation where he wrote that presidents may sometimes "assert monarchical notions of prerogative that will permit him to exceed the law."
Bush himself "was impressive in his use of power," Pfiffner said. "The problem was once he got what he wanted, the implementation was very problematic. He didn't listen to the career people, and the decisions turned into disasters."
Bush's good and bad traits look like two sides of the same coin. His lack of curiosity about policy and lack of probing that "left him subject to the whims and power of his advisers," said historian Schwartz, was countered by a resoluteness that enabled him to pull Iraq from the precipice. "He could make up in his mind," Schwartz said, "but it may be a mind that was made up without a lot in it."
Bush has placed Abu Ghraib on his list of regrets, along with faulty intelligence on Iraq, the war's length, partisan ill will, and the failure of immigration reform.
In late 2007, Bush stood on the abyss of a monumental defeat in Iraq. Against intense public opposition and the advice of Pentagon generals, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and his own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's single-minded determination to surge additional troops into Iraq and adopt a counterinsurgency strategy improved the situation remarkably. Iraq is stable enough today that Bush has made it much easier for Obama to fulfill his promise to withdraw combat forces, a prediction almost no one, least of all Obama, would have made two years ago.
Yet the diversion of money, attention and personnel from Afghanistan to Iraq allowed Bin Laden to escape and the Taliban to reassert control over most of the country where the Sept. 11 attacks were launched. As Bush declared Iraq "the central front in the war on terror," neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan became what many intelligence analysts believe is the real terrorist front.
Kori Schake, who served as Bush's director for defense strategy at the National Security Council and as deputy director of policy planning at the State Department, said she believes the administration made a strategic error in conflating the war on terror and Iraq. Yet Iraq never would have happened without Sept. 11, said Schake, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and distinguished chair of international security at West Point.
"I was really struck when I came into the Bush administration by how all the senior people were very much afraid of having to go back to the American public after another attack on the United States, especially from Iraq, and say, 'We knew this guy was a problem for 15 years, we not only fought one war against him, we've had continuous operations going on since then, we took a third of his country away and have been administering it. He not only used chemical weapons against an enemy, he used them against his own people. We could have done more but we didn't.' "
Bush may have had a shot at redemption until the financial crisis struck. If the recession grows ugly enough, Bush's record could even threaten to undo Reagan's laissez-faire economic legacy.
Conditions are worse now than when Truman left office, said Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "The objective standards by which we can evaluate the presidency are just so bad. The economy is truly in tatters, and I don't think any Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, can dispute that. When Bill Clinton left office you could argue that Americans were generally pleased, but people thought he wasn't a beacon of integrity. But we can't have an argument about the success of Bush's economic policies."
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead