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Citing History, Bush Suggests His Policies Will One Day Be Vindicated
Earlier in his presidency, Bush shrugged off questions about his long-term legacy. When Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward asked him in December 2003 how history would judge the Iraq war, Bush responded: "History. We don't know. We'll all be dead."
Yet the recent pattern is clear. In May alone, Bush employed broad historical references in about a dozen speeches and interviews, looking back to the middle of the 20th century and forward to the middle of the 21st. He has focused on similar topics during private GOP fundraisers, according to White House aides. "People can understand it, and people can then understand when the president talks about 60 years from now what we could be enjoying," said press secretary Dana Perino.
A week before his address at the Air Force Academy, Bush told paratroopers at Fort Bragg, N.C., that "when the history books are written . . . they will show that freedom prevailed." And during his May trip to the Middle East, Bush told Arab leaders: "Just imagine what this region could look like in 60 years."
Presidential counselor Ed Gillespie said that many of Bush's recent remarks have been tied to specific events, such as the 60th anniversary of Israel, and that there is no "retrospective effort" afoot at the White House. "It's only natural that you would tap into the common history and experiences of our country to derive lessons," he said.
Vice President Cheney has also argued that history will vindicate Bush. Speaking at a Washington luncheon last week, Cheney recalled that former president Gerald R. Ford was "attacked from every conceivable angle" for pardoning Richard M. Nixon, but he said that "the consensus now is that Gerald Ford did the right thing."
Former Bush political adviser Karl Rove wrote in National Review last year that the president will be viewed as "a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century." Rove ticked off successes such as the remaking of humanitarian aid efforts in Africa and the transformation of the political complexion of the federal judiciary.
One of Bush's lengthiest recent discussions about his legacy occurred in an unlikely venue on May 2, when he took questions from employees at a technology firm near St. Louis. Bush said that he "never wanted to be a war president" and that "sometimes you get dealt a hand you didn't expect." He added: "The question is, how do you play it? And here's how I'm playing it."
He talked about the World War II service of his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and how the elder Bush fought against a nation, Japan, that is now a key U.S. ally. Referring to the 1940s, President Bush said: "If you'd have thought an American president would stand up and say, 'My close buddy in dealing with the threats to our countries would be the prime minister of Japan,' they'd say, 'Man, you're nuts, hopelessly idealistic.' . . . I have found that to be one of the ironic twists of history."
Yet even as he sought to highlight similarities between past and current conflicts, Bush also stressed the differences. "This is a different kind of war, and it's hard for some Americans to get their hands around it," he said. ". . . World War II, there was Germany and Japan and Italy. The Cold War, a big standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. There's no nation involved in this war."
Many historians accuse Bush of cherry-picking history to bolster his arguments, in what the late author David Halberstam last year called a "history rummage sale."
One controversial example emerged during a speech at the Israeli parliament on May 15, when Bush compared talking with "terrorists and radicals," including Iran, to the appeasement of Nazis before World War II.
The reference was widely seen as an attack on Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- who has said that if elected president, he would talk with Iran's leaders -- although the White House said that was not Bush's intent. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, seized on Bush's words to attack Obama.