No sooner had the polls closed on George Bush, confirming him for all time as a loser, than the trashing of George Bush reached a final frenzy. True, on Jan. 20, moved by the majesty of a stately presidential transition, the press will be full of sentimental guff about George Bush's grace, dignity, bearing, etc. etc. Soon the fallen president will be more pitied than pilloried. But not quite yet. For now, the election results have sanctioned one last kick in the groin.

The New Republic, for example, celebrated the election returns with a vitriolic stream of abuse for Bush and all his works: "Good riddance to George Bush, to his negligence, recklessness, and cynicism ... {to his} clods, mediocrities, blue-haired bigots, egomaniacs, suck-ups, empty suits, and do-nothings." Michael Kinsley's rush to judgment was more tempered but fatal: "Bush is doomed to be remembered as a failed president." Sidney Blumenthal needed but a week to conclude that Bush, a "silk-stocking mugwump," must now be compared to that trinity of Republican failures, Dewey, Hoover and Taft, except that "the comparison slights Taft." Much post-election commentary had a similarly mean and dismissive tone, justified by Bush's miserable 38 percent.

Why? In a democracy, electoral numbers are supposed to decide a winner. They are not some historical arbiter of the goodness, rightness, and fitness of the candidates.

Take Ross Perot. He did far better than expected, getting 19 percent of the vote, the highest third party vote in 80 years. Now, a mere nine days earlier he had elaborated a bizarre tale of plots and conspiracies, of dogs-on-the-prowl and daughters-in-peril that raised serious questions about the man's grip on reality. Yet because he comes in at 19 percent of the vote, a man with all the appearance of a paranoid undergoes instant rehabilitation, indeed a dramatic restoration to seriousness. He is back -- back as a national figure, back as a force to be reckoned with by the new president, back as a potential candidate for 1996.

Does 19 percent erase the episode of the doctored photograph? Does it cancel the lunar thinking? Nineteen percent of the vote is an achievement. But it is no proof of fitness. (Hitler got 31 percent.) It is certainly no cure for paranoia.

The tyranny of numbers can inflate a reputation. It can also deflate. Take George Bush. Yes, only 38 percent of Americans were willing to contemplate four more years of him. But that is not a historical verdict on the last four years. If we were to judge Harry Truman by the poll numbers at the end of his term -- 32 percent -- we should deem his presidency a dismal failure.

Bush's was not a failed presidency, but a completed one. History called upon him to do two things: to close out the Cold War and thwart the ambitions of a reckless tyrant in the Persian Gulf.

Bush did both rather well. He was not terribly creative in closing out the Cold War, but he did not need to be. The time called for restraint. When your adversary is committing suicide, you get out of the way. Bush did not glory in the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Instead, he worked assiduously for the reunification of Germany within NATO, one of the major diplomatic achievements of our time, now almost entirely overlooked. (I cannot recall a single mention of it in the presidential campaign.)

Bush made his share of tactical errors, such as holding on to Gorbachev for too long. But the wisdom of his overall policy is evidenced by its success. The Cold War ended on terms astonishingly favorable to the West and to the democratic idea.

As for the gulf, it is hard to imagine another contemporary American figure doing what Bush did: mobilize a reluctant country and a recalcitrant world to defeat Saddam in war. Bush did not complete the job, and for that he is rightly criticized. But it ought not obscure the fact that almost single-handedly and against the odds Bush averted the nightmare of a nuclear-armed, bottomlessly wealthy, overtly aggressive power at the heart of the Persian Gulf.

Bush was born -- and trained -- for these two jobs. But only these two. By the end of four years, there was nothing left for him to do.

The new world, as Clinton rightly pointed out, is one of domestic reconstruction and rethought foreign policy. The American people in their wisdom decided that Bush was not the man for the job. They are probably right. (Though whether Clinton is the man remains to be seen.) But that is not a definition of failure.

A failed president is one who, like Woodrow Wilson, advances a dream and fails to enact it. Or who, like Lyndon Johnson, succeeds in getting done what he wants -- say, prosecuting the Vietnam War -- and has the policy prove catastrophic. Bush had no dreams. He left no agenda unenacted. In fact, he had no agenda. He always considered the president a steward whose job it was to deal wisely with what came.

What came for Bush were two great challenges. He met them. That he had no further ambition -- no further vision -- for his country or his presidency is his tragedy. It is testimony to his limited talents and fixed horizons. It is also the reason his country turned him out of office. The voters' judgment, however, is not to be confused with history's. It may suit partisan journalism to equate losing with failure, but history does not follow the polls.