The Bush Verdict Is In

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, January 13, 2009; 12:36 PM

President Bush famously asserts that history's verdict on his presidency won't come until he's long dead. But far from waiting until his corpse is cold, the verdict is largely in before he's even left the building.

Some things just aren't gonna change, no matter how much time passes. Here is Bush's legacy, in part:

He took the nation to a war of choice under false pretenses -- and left troops in harm's way on two fields of battle. He embraced torture as an interrogation tactic and turned the world's champion of human dignity into an outlaw nation and international pariah. He watched with detachment as a major American city went under water. He was ostensibly at the helm as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression took hold. He went from being the most popular to the most disappointing president, having squandered a unique opportunity to unite the country and even the world behind a shared agenda after Sept. 11. He set a new precedent for avoiding the general public in favor of screened audiences and seemed to occupy an alternate reality. He took his own political party from seeming permanent majority status to where it is today. And he deliberately politicized the federal government, circumvented the traditional policymaking process, ignored expert advice and suppressed dissent, leaving behind a broken government.

Bush's great hope is that Iraq in the years to come will emerge as a thriving pro-Western democracy -- and offer some vindication for the misbegotten war that will always be associated with his name. (He has already done a masterful job of spinning his troop "surge" as a profound success -- instead of a maneuver that has simply postponed the nearly inevitable paroxysms to come.) But even if he does ultimately have something to show for our incredible -- and profoundly mismanaged -- investment of blood and capital, it will never be enough.

The coming years may shed some light on the great ongoing mysteries of Bush's presidency-- How did he make his most important decisions? Was it really him making the calls? -- but it's unlikely that will reflect well on him. We may never know the full extent of the extreme measures he and Vice President Cheney took in their pursuit of the war on terror. But at some point we should know enough to judge if those measures actually made us safer -- or, more likely, not.

Indeed, if history is at all kind to Bush, it may end up giving him a backhanded compliment -- for having created such a hunger for an anti-Bush and for a restoration of pre-Bush American values, that he paved the way for the election of an African-American president with the potential to heal the divisions that Bush exacerbated, and clean up the messes he made.

In His Own Judgment

Bush has been plenty willing to assert his view of history's verdict on his presidency, even while saying it's too early for others to do so. In a series of interviews before a trip to the Middle East in January, for instance, he had a lot to say on the subject.

"I can predict that the historians will say that George W. Bush recognized the threats of the 21st century, clearly defined them, and had great faith in the capacity of liberty to transform hopelessness to hope, and laid the foundation for peace by making some awfully difficult decisions," he said in one interview.

"When he needed to be tough, he acted strong, and when he needed to have vision he understood the power of freedom to be transformative," he said in another.

And in a third, he said he hoped to be remembered as someone who "has great love for the human -- human being, and believes in human dignity."

Farewell Address

Bush will deliver a farewell address to the nation Thursday night. It will be his last scheduled public event before Inauguration Day. Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "White House press secretary Dana Perino said Monday that Bush will 'uphold the tradition of presidents using farewell addresses to look forward -- by sharing his thoughts on greatest challenges facing the country, and on what it will take to meet them.'"

In a departure from previous farewell addresses, however, Bush will employ one of his favorite public-relations tactics: Human props. Perino said Bush would speak before a small audience including "courageous people" Bush has met with during his eight years in office -- and to whom he will presumably offer shout-outs.

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