By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007
LITTLE ROCK, Ark., March 8 -- In an interview this week in his windowless West Wing office, Karl Rove said that there is "very little" discussion about President Bush's legacy at the White House these days, only a focus on developing good policy that might have a long-term impact. "The president's attitude is, 'History is going to write the legacy long after we are all dead or in no position to affect it -- so why worry about it?' " Rove said.
Yet history is never far from Rove's mind. While he has kept a low profile in Washington since the midterm election losses took some of the edge off his reputation as a political genius, Rove, a Bush senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, has begun trying to put his own distinctive spin on current events and the longer historical view.
He spoke last month to GOP partisans gathered for a Lincoln Day dinner in Springfield, Ill., where he argued that the midterm losses, while painful, were in keeping with historical patterns for the second term of a two-term president. Later, he gave an overview of the historical development of presidential communications before a group of students at Texas State University.
On Thursday, he came to an unlikely venue, a forum sponsored by the public service school started by former president Bill Clinton at the University of Arkansas. His topic was again historical: an appraisal of the debts that presidents owe their predecessors. He waxed at length about Harry S. Truman's creation of the National Security Council and Clinton's National Economic Council, and how both institutions have made the modern president stronger and more effective.
His point was that presidents often come to adopt institutions and policies created by their predecessors, and Rove clearly suggests that this will one day happen as well to the institutions and policies shaped by Bush. "Presidents set in motion certain things that their successors evaluate and decide by and large, particularly the structural ones, to adopt," Rove said in the West Wing interview.
He said that the biggest Bush legacy will be what he terms the "Bush doctrine." It "says if you train a terrorist, harbor a terrorist, feed a terrorist, you will be treated like a terrorist yourself. And then the corollary of that, which is that we will not wait until dangers fully materialize before taking action."
Bush has spoken in similar terms. In public and private settings, he has discussed his desire to leave his successors stronger tools for dealing with the "war on terrorism," the enterprise he sees as the central mission of his presidency. The inference is that while would-be presidents may criticize tactics such as his military tribunals and warrantless electronic surveillance, they will come to recognize the necessity of such policies in a protracted struggle against Islamic radicalism.
Despite Rove's disclaimer, there's plenty of evidence that the Bush legacy is of more than passing interest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Plans for the Bush library are taking shape, and there seems to be a loose White House campaign to try to define Bush's tenure more favorably than the rough verdict now being rendered by the American public, largely over the Iraq war.
Recent months have brought high-level references to past occupants of the Oval Office, such as Truman and Gerald R. Ford, who came to be considered better presidents after they left office. "I think history will regard us as having made good, sound, solid decisions," Vice President Cheney told ABC News recently after noting the improvement in public appraisals of those presidents after unfavorable starts to their ex-presidencies.
As with almost all things Rove, his assessment of the Bush administration's potential legacy will leave controversy in its wake. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, said the next president will be forced to discard the most "extreme policies" of the Bush administration if he or she hopes to regain American influence in the world, and to abandon Bush's vision of Islamic extremists as on par with the Nazi empire or the Soviet Union at their zeniths.
The next president, he said, "will have to make serious readjustments with rationality."
Brzezinski and Paul C. Light, a scholar of U.S. government at New York University, also seemed skeptical that some of the institutional arrangements created by Bush -- such as the White House Homeland Security Council, to coordinate anti-terrorism policy -- will be of lasting significance. "I don't think their gifts to future presidents are particularly grand," Light said.
Some of the president's own supporters seem to be coming to grips with the prospect of a much less powerful Bush legacy than they had once imagined. In an essay in the current issue of Texas Monthly, Matthew Dowd -- chief strategist for the 2004 Bush reelection campaign -- voiced disappointment that Bush's "promise to reform government in a fundamental way never fully happened," partly because of GOP success in the 2002 midterm elections.
When "all the levers of power in Washington became Republican, creating consensus seemed to become unnecessary at the White House," Dowd wrote. "That hurt him. Now, near the end of his presidency, when many of us thought we would have helped solve the problem of polarization, we're in an even more polarized place."
In the West Wing interview, Rove adopted a longer view, citing the policy of containment of the Soviet Union, adopted by Truman in the 1940s and then embraced by a succession of presidents despite initial misgivings, as reason to believe history may offer a kinder assessment of the durability of Bush policies and institutional changes.
Rove rejected the suggestion that future presidents might be deterred from the Bush doctrine by the enduring violence and unintended consequences let loose by the invasion of Iraq. "Could be," he said. "But it has a logic of force and nature and reality that will cause people to examine it, adjust it, test it, resist it -- but ultimately embrace it."
Skip Rutherford, who was involved in creating the nearby Clinton Library and is dean of the Clinton School here, said he invited Rove to speak after the two talked from time to time about presidential libraries. Bush is in negotiations to build his own library, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, Rove lavishly praised Clinton. "The 42nd president cared passionately about the fate of people who elected him. He exercised the full powers of his office. He mastered complex problems and made sure the president remained at the vital center of action," he said, recalling words of John F. Kennedy. "These things matter. And they will be seen to matter by history."
As for the next putative President Clinton, Rove was more guarded. Pressed by Rutherford during a question-and-answer session for an assessment of the 2008 presidential hopefuls, Rove only allowed that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is a "formidable candidate."