Bush: Only time will tell about his legacy

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.