The Bush/Cheney Legacy Examined

Barton Gellman and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 12, 2009; 11:00 AM

After eight years in office, how will President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney be remembered? That's the question The Washington Post set out to answer in its series The Bush/Cheney Legacy. In it, award-winning journalists Bob Woodward and Barton Gellman discuss George W. Bush's presidency in a roundtable discussion moderated by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. The journalists delve through the issues Bush and Cheney will be remembered for most -- from the Iraq War and domestic surveillance, to the financial crisis and Hurricane Katrina.

The conversation continues here with Washington Post Staff Writers Barton Gellman and Dan Eggen. They were online Monday, Jan. 12 at 11 a.m. ET to take questions and comments as they revisit the past eight years and invite readers to weigh in on the discussion of the Bush/Cheney legacy.

The transcript follows.


Barton Gellman: Hello and thanks for coming. Dan and I will do our best to get through all the traffic here -- seeing lots of interest in the subject.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Despite the challenges President Bush faced during his years in office, I am confident that his presidency will be viewed as one of the more successful and significant in American history. As the Washington Post editors and journalists say, the war in Iraq will weigh heavily on any analysis or review of his tenure. But in the long term, I believe the outcome of the war is what will elevate President Bush above many of his predecessors and successors.

Barton Gellman: Depends on how the war turns out, how you define success, and how you assess the cost-benefit equation. Given the result, would the public have chosen to achieve it with a trillion dollars in spending, 4,000+ American lives and the cost in global support for U.S. policy? Vice President Cheney, intriguingly, appeared to answer no in his recent

interview with ABC News

: "If we had responded to the polls, I think the world would look very different today than it does. I think Saddam Hussein would still be in power."


Seattle, Wash: Vice President Cheney's influence on policy during the Bush administration has been a topic of speculation throughout the past 8 years, but the state of his health and the impact it may have had on his personality if not his forcefulness has not been mentioned as much. Were Cheney's records withheld from reporters because of significant changes? And could you speculate on how different he seems now from the diffident politician he used to be?

Barton Gellman: Cheney's accumulation and use of power is the subject of my recent book, 'Angler' (, on the vice president. I don't believe we can understand what happened these eight years without understanding the VP's pervasive influence, though it's also true that the president said no to him from time to time.

How much Cheney changed, and the reasons, is a regular subject of debate. I make the argument for more continuity than change over the decades -- as vice president he was Cheney Unbound, free to achieve his goals as never before.

As the epistemologist Don Rumsfeld said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Cheney released very little from his medical files. Since the impact of heart disease is cumulative, and he's had eight cardiac events in eight years, some impact on his behavior is a plausible but unproved hypothesis.


Arlington, Va.: Some of President Bush's aides have expressed frustration that polls show that the public perception of him differs from the way they view him. Vice President Cheney has asserted in recent interviews that he is different from his public image. Historians depend on an archival audit trail more so than assertions made by parties of interest, although they take such statements into account, as well. (History depends on consideration of multiple perspectives.) They know that over time, the release of the disclosable portions of internal documents enables them to form a more nuanced view of what was going on behind closed doors than is available when an administration is in office. Among many historians, the Bush administration has had a reputation for secrecy. How do you think the release of historical records by the National Archives-administered Bush Presidential Library will play out, given what you know about Bush and Cheney? (The House last week passed a bill overturning Executive Order 13233, the order GWB issued in 2001 which provides presidents and their descendants the right to claim presidential communications privilege into perpetuity.)

Barton Gellman: I love this question -- it's exactly the subject that closes my book. Cheney, who has influenced Bush here, is as close to indifferent to public opinion as any high official in our modern history. He's an anti-politician and accepts only history as his judge. But as you say he has indeed led the way to erecting significant obstacles to future historians.

One is the executive order, and it will be an interesting question whether future presidents accept the power of Congress to overturn such an order. I discovered in 'Angler' that Cheney's lawyer, David Addington, directed the drafting of that one.

Another is Cheney's position that the V.P. is a member of neither the executive nor legislative branch of government, and among other things that means (he says) that he is the sole judge of which records must be preserved. A U.S. District Court has enjoined Cheney's office from removing or destroying any records while that issue is fought out in the courts.

Still another -- and I could go on -- is Cheney's invention of an extra-statutory classification stamp: "Treat As: SECRET". That stamp was used routinely in Cheney's office, even on press guidance for the spokesman's office. It does not have binding legal force, but J. William Leonard, the man in charge until recently of protecting national security secrets in the National Archives, said future archivists will be very reluctant to put documents so stamped in the automatic release pile.


Anonymous: As I listened to Bush's final press conference, I was struck by two things. First, his anger that he was unappreciated that he had kept the country safe. Second, his total denial about Katrina. Is it possible he still doesn't understand how devastating an experience Katrina was both for those experiencing it as well as those watching it from abroad?

Dan Eggen: I too was struck by his remarks about Katrina. The sole mistake he acknowledged was a symbolic one -- his flying over the area in Air Force One, rather than landing to get a closer look. But when he came back to the topic, he was very defensive about the response to the storm and suggested that critics were incorrect to describe the federal response as slow.

There are very few people who would agree with the president on this, since the images of tens of thousands stranded for days is seared in our collective memory. The plane flight was merely a symbol of the problem, not the problem itself.

In general the press conference was quite remarkable in showing how unapologetic Bush seems to be, despite his unpopularity and other problems. Yes, he acknowledged some mistakes -- the mission accomplished banner, the Katrina flight -- but not many substantive ones. He also appears to take it as a sign of strength that he is not swayed by criticism.


Orlando, Fla.: I wonder how the Bush-Cheney team will be remembered for how they received and disseminated information. They placed like minded people in most subordinate positions and much of the information that was sent up the chain of command was often filtered to fit desired policies. Would you agree with this? It will be interesting to see if Obama accepts more challenging voices from subordinates, especially since he seems to be surrounding himself with stronger and more independent advisers.

Barton Gellman: It is largely true that Bush did not like a lot of detail or a lot of competing points of view and evidence. Shaping what he heard -- as Cheney did, more than others -- therefore had enormous influence on his choices.

Some people are surprised to hear that Cheney, by contrast, was a voracious consumer of intelligence and debate on all sides. He was happy to hear someone say he was wrong, if offered cogent reasons. That did not mean he always, or often, changed his mind, but he constantly tested the arguments. What Cheney did not tolerate was a person who got in his way when it came to action. If he could not go around you in such a case, he went through you.


Richmond, Va.: Speaking of "known unknowns and unknown unknowns," what types of information (documents, memoirs, etc.) do you expect to come to light after this administration and how illustrative will that information be? What types of information do you expect will never see the light of day and how significant that missing part of the record be?

Barton Gellman: It isn't thought likely that Bush kept a diary, so even if he writes a memoir it may not be all we hope as a true behind-the-scenes account. Cheney has lately taken to saying he may write a book, but if there's anything we know about Cheney it is that he despises former officials who pierce the veil of confidences around the president. It would be jaw-dropping if he wrote a tell-all.

There are places I simply could not go in 'Angler,' including the content of the one-on-one meetings between the president and V.P. On the other hand, Bush often told aides (Rove, Bartlett, Card, Bolten, Rice and others) some of what had transpired. All of them spoke to me on the record in 'Angler,' and they can say a lot more one day if they so choose.

Real-time records of the most important events will take a long time to emerge, and some may never see the light of day.


Alexandria, Va.: I suppose you can make a case that Iraq will turn out OK after many, many years and maybe this will somehow lead others in the Middle East to a better, more democratic future, but there is no getting beyond Katrina and the economy. These were failures of his administration and, particularly with Katrina, a sign of deep incompetence.

Barton Gellman: In Cheney's case, Katrina did not interest him as a federal responsibility. I describe a scene in which Bush asks Cheney to be the recovery czar after the storm, and Cheney begs off. Part of it is he had higher priorities, and part of it is he does not see disaster relief primarily as a federal responsibility. He is on the far end of the classic federalist debate (D.C. versus state responsibilities), as on so many others.


McLean, Va.: Looking back on the first eight months of Bush's presidency, does Obama's presidency (with its focus on domestic issues) risk repeating the errors that Bush made leading up to September 11th? Before September 11th, Bush was trying to be the "Education President". After September 11th, everyone was asking "How did you not see this attack coming?"

Will Obama be leaving us exposed in the same way?

Dan Eggen: You raise an interesting point -- few presidents are able to accurately predict what challenges await them on their watch. The transformation of George W. Bush is quite remarkable when you look back to his 2000 campaign, which was focused on compassionate conservatism, tax cuts and other domestic issues and a humble foreign policy. Bush and his aides have said repeatedly that 9/11 changed everything, including the president's focus and his persona on the left as a warmonger, etc. At the same time, he can still point to some of those domestic accomplishments -- No Child Left Behind, tax cuts -- even if they were largely overshadowed by foreign affairs.

Similarly, it's impossible to tell what may transpire to alter Obama's course.


Laurel, Md.: Is President Bush serious when he compared his "legacy" to Abraham Lincoln today? I mean does he actually think that the worst president ever (in my opinion) should even be mentioned in the same breath as one of our greatest ever?

I doubt it will happen, but I think Bush and Cheney's legacy should be that they should rot in prison for their crimes while in office.

Barton Gellman: The Lincoln analogy comes from Cheney, and Bush has more recently adopted it. They have two things in mind. One is that they stayed the course despite grave public doubts. I have argued in dissecting that view that Cheney missed part of the point of Lincoln's resolve in the Civil War -- though it's true he pressed on at the risk of reelection, he rallied the public and won it over, rather than disdaining public opinion. Another parallel that Bush and Cheney see is the need to claim extraordinary powers in a national emergency, even if they exceed the bounds of statute and case law. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, for instance. On the other hand, he did so openly, and asked the blessing of Congress after the fact. This White House tried to maintain its most aggressive moves (on interrogation and domestic surveillance) as closely held secrets.


Atlanta, Ga.: Besides money for AIDS in Africa, can you name one thing positive to come out of the Bush/Cheney administration? Please don't respond with we've not had another terrorist attack in the United States.

Barton Gellman: I don't think Dan and I are in the "Bush good" or "Bush bad" business -- we try to say what happened and why, not whether you should approve.

You've ruled out the accomplishment that Bush and Cheney claim as most meaningful to them. It is, of course, impossible to know why we have not suffered another big attack. It's not easy to argue that our government's response had nothing to do with it, but it's not easy to pinpoint which choices had the most impact. One of those counterfactual questions -- we can't rewind history and try it with a different set of policies. Did the huge expenditure on intel and homeland security help? Seems more than plausible. Did the Iraq war? A tougher argument, which will be debated for a long time.


Wake Forest, N.C.: Bush seems completely divorced from reality. Is he so ego-centric that he really can't see why people are so disenchanted with him? Does he live in such a bubble that how he comes across to the average American just doesn't penetrate? It was surreal listening to him.

Dan Eggen: As was clear in today's press conference, the President seems to have few regrets or doubts about the path he put the country on or the decisions he made. He and his aides have also said throughout his second term that they care little for polls, are focused on doing what's right for the country, etc. (That's easy to say when you're not running for re-election; they were certainly worried about polls in 2004.)

Many commentators and biographers have already documented how difficult it seems for Bush to admit error, and that characteristic seems to have remained with him throughout his eight years at the White House. On the economy, Bush said this morning that the problem began before he took office, and he defended his response to it. In general, Bush and his aides seem confident that history will vindicate him.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Thank you for taking my question. It seems to me that there is so much personal animosity towards GWB that any sort of even-handed and objective evaluation of what he did as president is impossible right now. People don't have any interest in reviewing his accomplishments -- they just want him to disappear ASAP. Maybe once that passes, then we can talk about "legacy." What do you think?

Barton Gellman: Wise words, I think. Check out the newspaper archives from the end of most any presidency, and our contemporary view is going to be different. The pendulum swings on presidential reputations. It does not swing as much, on the other hand, when it comes to wars. Once the public and the military and opinion leaders reach consensus about a strategic mistake (southern secession, Wilson's attempt to sit out World War I, MacArthur's baiting of China in the Korean War, Vietnam) historians don't tend to reverse the verdict.


Anonymous: In the comparative analysis of Bush's dismal approval ratings, it was almost never mentioned that Truman's ratings went nearly that low in a short period of time after he fired Douglas McArthur from heading the Armed Forces in Korea. Otherwise, the Bush ratings take on MUCH more significance. Was this a failure of the press, to neglect that fact?

Dan Eggen: Well, I know we always have tried to put that claim in context whenever it comes up. The numbers at this point are clear -- Bush is unquestionably the most consistently unpopular president since modern polling began. He has not been above 50 percent approval since shortly after the start of his second term, and has languished down near 30 or below for some two years now.

I recently wrote an item about one recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Respondents were asked to volunteer their assessments of how Bush would be remembered after he leaves office. The most frequent response, from 56 people, was "incompetent," followed by "idiot," "arrogant," "ignorant," "stupid," and so on. Nine people volunteered a three-letter synonym for donkey.


Charleston, S.C.: Will the Bush administration end up symbolizing the end of the conservative era, and would that be a valid position? In fairness to conservatives, very little of the president's actual governing principles coincide with conservative, small government ideas. In fact, the quest to create the permanent Republican majority most likely led to its demise. In a effort to expand the party, the main principle of the party, smaller government, was abandoned. The legacy in this respect may be linked to the response that the Republicans mount to the latest election results. Your thoughts?

Dan Eggen: Many Republicans have already voiced this argument, particularly after November's dismal election results, which was clearly a broad rebuke to Bush and his party. But you have touched on a difficult question that the GOP will likely be arguing about for years: Did they stray too far from the right, or is going to the center the only way that the GOP can be viable?

Certainly it's hard to characterize Bush as a pure conservative in his policies, particularly on fiscal matters, given the dramatic increase in federal spending and budget deficits on his watch. He and his defenders would point to the tax cuts, however, and to hawkish foreign policy as signs of his conservatism. But one should also remember that Bush always styled himself as being different than the hard-edged right-wing, which is why he focused so much on education and "compassionate conservatism" during his first campaign.


New York, N.Y.: It's difficult to see any positive historical view of Bush. Nixon is the least popular of modern presidents. Despite Watergate and his pettiness, Nixon at least deserves, and gets, praise for strengthening ties with China.

I think the only way history might view Bush differently is if there is everlasting peace in Iraq and the people attribute it to the US invasion. But I seriously doubt that.

Dan Eggen: To his defenders, Bush deserves long-term credit for a number of initiatives, including No Child Left Behind (which unquestionably has altered U.S. schools forever, whatever your opinions of testing) and his anti-AIDS initiatives in the developing world.


Washington, D.C.: To some degree I don't understand why there is such resistance to the notion of potential prosecutions of soon-to-be former Bush administration officials. On at least two fronts -- the treatment of detainees and electronic surveillance outside of FISA -- there seems to be very clear prima facie evidence of lawbreaking -- egregious lawbreaking of very serious laws. Why should this not be investigated? And I appreciate that the investigation in the case of torture should probably focus on the authorization and not the execution of torture, since the torturers themselves had serious authorization and assurances that what they were doing was legal, though it wasn't.

Similarly, the recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on authorization for torture by the military seems like an obvious referral for investigation, and I understand the authorizers are worried about just that prospect. So why is this controversial?

Barton Gellman: Post-facto prosecution is a very tricky issue, even if you stipulate that the Bush administration broke statutory or case law. Cheney takes the argument to a rare extreme, but it's not controversial among legal scholars that the president may decline to enforce a law if he makes a good faith judgment that it is an unconstitutional incursion on his own lawful authority. (Thought experiment: what if Congress passed a law requiring Barack Obama to appoint Blagojevich instead of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.) Walter Dellinger, head of Bill Clinton's Office of Legal Counsel, wrote that a president who departs from statutory law should announce the departure in public and must believe he would carry the Supreme Court if his action were challenged. Those factors were not part of the Bush-Cheney equation.

It's undisputed that those who conducted 'enhanced' interrogations and domestic surveillance did so at the explicit direction of the president; that the president claimed authority as commander in chief; and that the Justice department (for a time) ruled those orders lawful. It's also true -- this is a huge subject of my book -- that the White House, and Cheney's office above all, orchestrated the Justice Department's legal opinions to achieve policy goals. In order to prosecute any of those folks, a future prosecutor would have to prove not only the legal reasoning was wrong (there's now very little dissent from that) but that it was deliberately, knowingly fabricated as an element of a conspiracy to break the law. That is, specific intent to commit a crime. That's a very high bar for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The thing to understand about Cheney is that he is a man of zeal, not a hypocrite. He believes in his declared principles of executive supremacy, and he believes that what he did was for our greater good. Again, this isn't a judgment, good or bad, but a factual conclusion based on hundreds of interviews and my review of contemporary notes obtained from sources. Whether you love or hate his work is another matter, and entirely up to you.

One last note on a complex subject: U.S. law and international law are not the same. There are experts, including Philippe Sands in London and Scott Horton here, who believe Bush administration officials are at risk of prosecution overseas, because many governments do not share this one's view that a president may set aside treaty law and customary law on war crimes. Some folks might be well advised to limit their travel, by this analysis.


I believe the Reagan question is appropriate now: Are you better off now than you were eight years ago? I am NOT, nor do I feel any hope for the next few years.

Barton Gellman: That question, which Dan Eggen and Neil Irwin handled with such sophistication in today's paper, was probably most important to voters.


Cheney's Point: You're missing the point of the first comment. The poster -- like the vice president -- isn't suggesting that the Iraq war was popular, he's suggesting that it was the right thing to do.

Barton Gellman: I agree. That's one reason Cheney does not mind the portrait I painted in my book. He's proud of his work. Steve Clemons over at reports that Cheney is displaying a photo in the West Wing of himself reading 'Angler.'


"Another Attack": The problem with this argument is that another attack is qualified with "on our soil," as though the attacks on our troops, our overseas interests and our allies' soil (London, Madrid) have no meaning to them or the American people.

It's that logic that is one of the reasons why the American image has taken such a hit over the last eight years.

Dan Eggen: Whether it's fair or not, citizens of most any country first think of themselves, and their own territory, which I'm sure is why Bush focuses on that. But you highlight an important point -- Bush's rhetoric has often rubbed people outside the United States the wrong way.

Bush said at his press conference this morning that he didn't believe the United States' image had been hurt overseas during his tenure, however, despite a lot of polls that suggest otherwise.


Dan Eggen: Well folks, I'm afraid our time is over. Sorry we couldn't get to all of your great questions.


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