The Bush Verdict Is In

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
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.

His Final Press Conference

I wrote about Bush's final press conference in yesterday's column.

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post today: "In his own way, the outgoing president acknowledged that the past five years have, by many measures, been one long pratfall. But he spoke as though he were an innocent bystander, watching the mishaps rather than having any culpability for them. To Bush, they were not mistakes -- just disappointments."

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "[T]here is no shortage of observers, some of them historians, who are willing to point out where Bush's presidency went wrong. His over-reliance on a cadre of ideological advisers who steered him in the wrong direction is often the first error cited by critics. Vice President Dick Cheney's dominance led Bush to many of the decisions he now qualifies as disappointments, as did Donald Rumsfeld's bullying leadership at the Pentagon. Bush's own ideological inclinations against regulation certainly contributed to the financial crisis. And his inexperience in foreign affairs made him unrealistic about what freedom and democracy actually mean in much of the rest of the world.

"But Bush, by his own admission, is still struggling to get a handle on where he went wrong. Asked a follow-up question about why Washington had remained so partisan despite his promise eight years ago to be a 'uniter, not a divider,' Bush said, 'I don't know,' and suggested asking others. Even his reaching for the safety of history reflects a kind of myopia. In that sense, Bush's final press conference was most revealing for what it showed about his inability to accept responsibility for his presidency."

Ted Anthony writes for the Associated Press: "The session, televised live, was offered up as a valedictory news conference. But it also proved an extraordinary glimpse behind the psychic curtain and an illuminating window into what we want -- and may not want -- out of the modern presidency.

"Bush was at turns erratic and eloquent, nostalgic and melancholy, gracious and cantankerous, regular guy-ish and resignation-era Nixonian. It all felt strangely intimate and, occasionally, uncomfortable in the manner of seeing a plumber wearing jeans that ride too low. . . .

"And the sight of a sitting president offering vague mea culpas ('Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake'), then affecting a fake whine while complaining about whiners who bemoan the hardships of the office ('Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?') was just jarring.

"'I can't even construct a rationale for what they were trying to do today,' said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and an expert on political communication."

Jim Drinkard writes for the Associated Press: "President George W. Bush claimed to have inherited a recession that in fact began on his watch in a legacy-polishing news conference Monday often at odds with his record." He does some fact-checking.

CNN's Campbell Brown focuses on what was perhaps Bush's single most startling disconnect from reality: His insistence that the federal response to Katrina was not slow.

"Now, many people will disagree over many aspects of the Bush legacy," Brown said. "But on the government's handling of Katrina, it's impossible to challenge what so many of us witnessed firsthand, what the entire country witnessed through the images on our television screens day and night.

"New Orleans was a city that for a time was abandoned by the government, where people old and young were left at the New Orleans Convention Center for days with no food, with no water. We were there. The whole country saw what was happening."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "In Bush's mind, the revelation of shocking prisoner abuse by U.S. military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was 'a huge disappointment' -- but he doesn't take any responsibility, as commander in chief, for the atmosphere of lax training and supervision that allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib to happen. The failure by U.S. forces to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq qualifies only as 'a significant disappointment' -- even though the administration's apocalyptic rhetoric about WMD was what sealed the deal for an invasion and occupation that never should have taken place."

James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic that "the very sincerity of the President's comments indicated how isolated he has been, or what he has chosen to forget."

About That Legacy

It's Bush-Cheney legacy week here at washingtonpost.com, with a series of roundtable discussions, articles, op-eds, reader comments -- and me, aggregating assessments from all over.

Richard S. Dunham writes in the Houston Chronicle: "George W. Bush leaves office on Jan. 20 as one of the most vilified presidents in American history. . . .

"'We have, by any polling measure, the most unpopular president in American polling history,' said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. . . .

"Democratic pollster Peter Hart says that Bush faces years in the political wilderness.

"'I don't think time is going to change this (image),' Hart said.

"'He is more like a Herbert Hoover that Democrats will run against again and again. He is responsible for the condition the country is in. For that, voters have reached a firm, fixed point of view.'"

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Wars. Recession. Bailouts. Debt. Gloom.

"The unvarnished review of George W. Bush's presidency reveals a portrait of America he never would have imagined.

"Bush came into office promising limited government and humble foreign policy; he exits with his imprint on startling free-market intervention and nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He was the president who pledged not to pass on big problems. Instead, he leaves a pile for Barack Obama."

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "Not since Herbert Hoover left Franklin Roosevelt the Great Depression has a U.S. president left his successor a litany of problems seemingly as daunting as George W. Bush will bequeath to Barack Obama when he takes office on January 20. . . .

"Some presidential scholars say it's too soon to render a verdict, but many have made up their minds.

"'Can anyone really doubt that this was an abysmal presidency?' said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. 'All that's left to sort out now is just how far down the list he goes.'"

Michael Kinsley writes for Time: "The measure of Bush's failure as President is not his broken promises or unmet goals. All politicians break their promises, and none achieve the goals of their soaring rhetoric. But Bush stands out for abandoning the promises and goals that got him elected, taking up the opposite ones and then failing to keep or meet those.

"In 2000 Bush excoriated his predecessor for launching wars without an 'exit strategy.' In 2008 he leaves his successor a war that has already lasted for years longer than America's involvement in World War II, with no exit in sight. Bush got elected warning against using U.S. troops for 'nation-building' -- meaning any goal beyond immediate military necessity. Then once in office, he promised to bring democracy to the entire Middle East and ended up destroying Iraq as a nation in the name of saving it. . . .

"The current economic calamity was a bolt from the blue to many who should have known better, but only one of them had been in charge for the previous eight years. Only one spent much of that time bragging about how swell everything was, thanks to him."

The Economic Legacy

Neil Irwin and Dan Eggen wrote in Monday's Washington Post: "President Bush has presided over the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades, according to an analysis of key data, and economists across the ideological spectrum increasingly view his two terms as a time of little progress on the nation's thorniest fiscal challenges.

"The number of jobs in the nation increased by about 2 percent during Bush's tenure, the most tepid growth over any eight-year span since data collection began seven decades ago. Gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic output, grew at the slowest pace for a period of that length since the Truman administration. And Americans' incomes grew more slowly than in any presidency since the 1960s, other than that of Bush's father.

"Bush and his aides are quick to point out that they oversaw 52 straight months of job growth in the middle of this decade, and that the economy expanded at a steady clip from 2003 to 2007. But economists, including some former advisers to Bush, say it increasingly looks as if the nation's economic expansion was driven to a large degree by the interrelated booms in the housing market, consumer spending and financial markets. Those booms, which the Bush administration encouraged with the idea of an 'ownership society,' have proved unsustainable. . . .

"One constant for Bush has been an optimistic, even rosy, economic outlook. Throughout much of past year, even as the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve began preparing for the worst behind closed doors, Bush and his aides trumpeted the fundamental strength of the U.S. economy and dismissed Democratic proposals for a second stimulus package. A White House fact sheet released on Sept. 5 was titled: 'American Economy Is Resilient in the Face of Challenges.'

"Two days later, the administration announced the federal takeover of Fannie and Freddie, setting in motion the most sweeping government intervention in the economy since the Great Depression."

The Legacy Unknowns

Jacob Weisberg writes for Newsweek: "It remains a brainteaser to come up with ways, however minor, in which Bush changed government, politics or the world for the better. Among presidential historians, it is hardly an eccentric view that 43 ranks as America's worst president ever. On the other hand, he has nowhere to go but up. . . .

"The Bush administration has had startling success in one area: keeping its inner workings secret. Intensely loyal, contemptuous of the press and overwhelmingly hostile to any form of public disclosure, the Bushies did a remarkable job of keeping their doings hidden for eight years.

"Probably the biggest question Bush leaves behind is about the most consequential choice of his presidency: his decision to invade Iraq. When did the president make up his mind to go to war against Saddam Hussein? What were his real reasons? What roles did various figures around him -- Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice -- play in the decision? Was the selling of the war on the basis of WMD evidence a matter of conscious deception -- or of their own self-deception? . . .

"Did Bush's own innocence and incompetence drive his missteps? Or was it the people around him, primarily his vice president, who manipulated him into his major bad choices?"

The Legacy of the Bushes

Jill Zuckman writes for Tribune: "The son watched his father, vowing not to repeat his mistakes. . . .

"As George W. Bush prepares to return to Texas, historians will be judging his legacy in the context of his father's single term as president.

"'The likelihood is that the father will be looked upon as a steadier hand and better prepared for the job,' said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas who specializes in the presidency.

"Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, calls the senior Bush 'dramatically more accomplished' in both foreign and domestic policy than his son. Still, he said, 'They are in fact going to be doing chin-ups on the bottom tier of presidents in modern history.'"

Now He Tells Us?

In today's New York Times, Gary J. Bass reviews Times White House correspondent David E. Sanger's new book about what Bush leaves Obama: "Mr. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, drops the strict detachment of a daily reporter and lets rip, delivering a withering indictment of his longtime subject: President George W. Bush's foreign policy, which he writes 'has left us less admired by our allies, less feared by our enemies and less capable of convincing the rest of the world that our economic and political model is worthy of emulation.'

"After seven years covering Mr. Bush, Mr. Sanger, a shrewd and insightful strategic thinker, is left stunned by 'the president's inexplicable resistance, until the final quarter of his term in office, to changing course.' Mr. Bush, he says, saw strategic change and negotiation as signs of weakness. . . .

"Most directly, Mr. Sanger bats back at the argument made forcefully to him in 2007 by Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, that the administration never shortchanged Afghanistan because of Iraq. Mr. Sanger writes, 'Time and again, Afghanistan -- the country where the 9/11 plot was hatched -- was overshadowed by the war in Iraq.' . . .

"'The Inheritance' offers up a painfully long catalog of squandered opportunities. Mr. Sanger slams Mr. Bush for not exploring the post-Sept. 11 possibilities of an alliance of convenience with Iran against Sunni Arab extremists until the end of his second term and notes that in 2005, at a potentially opportune diplomatic moment when Iran had only a few centrifuges to enrich uranium, Mr. Bush was preoccupied with Iraq. . . .

"Mr. Bush has taken to citing Harry S. Truman, implying that history will vindicate his legacy in Iraq and beyond. 'The Inheritance' is a devastatingly effective pre-emptive strike against that."

Then and Now

Timothy Lavin writes for the Atlantic: "Since 2000, America has changed in small ways, in big ways, and in ways that seem innocent enough now but no doubt herald some radical disruptions to come. Many more people are poor, uninsured, and in prison. Many more are billionaires. The burden of health-care costs has grown heavier, and so have we. We charge more, save less, and play a lot more video games. Even the things that haven't changed much--like the amount of oil we consume, or the price of cocaine, or the size of our military--reflect not so much stasis as unsustainable trajectories. For Obama, responding to these problems will require breaking deep national addictions--to oil, to etherealized finance, to profligacy of all kinds--and, somehow, easing the tremens along the way."

And check out this amazing graphic.

The View From the Dead-Enders

Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard that Bush's "presidency was far more successful than not. And there's an aspect of his decision-making that merits special recognition: his courage."

Barnes then lists Bush's "ten great achievements." Among them: "He stood athwart mounting global warming hysteria and yelled, 'Stop!'"

Jay Nordinger of the National Review writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "I will miss his decency and directness and honesty. I will miss his fundamental goodness."

Fighting Revisionism

Erin Kelly writes for Gannett: "Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a fierce opponent of the Iraq war, is asking the Smithsonian to change some wording about the war that accompanies the newly installed portrait of President George W. Bush.

"Sanders, an independent, objects to a portion of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's text that says Bush's two terms in office were 'marked by a series of catastrophic events' including 'the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.'

"The senator said the notion that the terrorist attacks were linked in any way to Iraq has been widely debunked and should not be perpetuated in the museum exhibit.

"'The 9/11 attacks did not lead to the war in Iraq,' Sanders said in an interview. 'What President Bush was telling us (before the war) was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was somehow in collusion with al-Qaida. Those were misstatements of fact, as even President Bush has since acknowledged.'

"Sanders has written a letter to portrait gallery Director Martin Sullivan suggesting he change the wording of the museum text 'so that in explaining our current president's portrait we do not inadvertently rewrite history.'"

Not Too Late for a Few Softballs

Cheney's talk yesterday with Sean Hannity was more like hero-worship than an interview. A typically tough question from Hannity: "Well, let me ask you this, as you look back on the presidency, I think the President, through the prism of history, is going to be viewed as a very principled, successful President. And that would include you being Vice President, because I don't think -- I think most people's memories are short. I think most people have forgotten the mood of the country after 9/11. I think there were many, many decisions that were made -- tougher interrogations, Gitmo, the Patriot Act -- that have all contributed to making this country safer. We seem to forget all those tough battles, and that was the biggest focus obviously of the administration.

"Do you believe, as I do, that history will be kind to you guys?"

Rollback Watch

William Glaberson and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama plans to issue an executive order on his first full day in office directing the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, people briefed by Obama transition officials said Monday.

"But experts say it is likely to take many months, perhaps as long as a year, to empty the prison that has drawn international criticism since it received its first prisoners seven years ago this week. One transition official said the new administration expected that it would take several months to transfer some of the remaining 248 prisoners to other countries, decide how to try suspects and deal with the many other legal challenges posed by closing the camp.

"People who have discussed the issues with transition officials . . . said transition officials appeared committed to ordering an immediate suspension of the Bush administration's military commissions system for trying detainees.

"In addition, people who have conferred with transition officials said the incoming administration appeared to have rejected a proposal to seek a new law authorizing indefinite detention inside the United States. . . .

"Catherine Powell, an associate professor of law at Fordham, said transition officials appeared most interested at a meeting last month in showing international critics that they were returning to what they see as traditional American legal values."

Lara Jakes writes for the Associated Press: "Also expected is an executive order about certain interrogation methods, but details were not immediately available Monday."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "President-elect Barack Obama intends to sign off on Pentagon plans to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but the incoming administration does not anticipate that the Iraq-like 'surge' of forces will significantly change the direction of a conflict that has steadily deteriorated over the past seven years.

"Instead, Obama's national security team expects that the new deployments, which will nearly double the current U.S. force of 32,000 (alongside an equal number of non-U.S. NATO troops), will help buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy for what Obama has called the 'central front on terror.'"

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "Democrats are hoping to roll back a series of regulations issued late in the Bush administration that weaken environmental protections and other restrictions.

"Potential targets include regulations allowing concealed weapons in some national parks and forbidding medical facilities that get federal money from discriminating against doctors and nurses who refuse, on religious grounds, to assist with abortions. . . .

"The enactment of such rules has been the subject of a drumbeat of news reports in recent months. Though it can take years for a new administration to complete the process necessary to overturn a rule that has taken effect -- allowing a president to tie his successor's hands -- Democrats will have far greater opportunity to rescind Mr. Bush's late rules than has typically been the case in a period when the party in power changes. With Democratic control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, the political planets are aligned to make much of the Bush administration's late handiwork unusually vulnerable."

Who's in Charge?

Mark Landler writes in the New York Times: "In an unusually public rebuke, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel said Monday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been forced to abstain from a United Nations resolution on Gaza that she helped draft, after Mr. Olmert placed a phone call to President Bush."

AFP reports: "'She was left shamed. A resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favour,' Olmert said in a speech in the southern town of Ashkelon. . . .

"'In the night between Thursday and Friday, when the secretary of state wanted to lead the vote on a ceasefire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favour,' Olmert said.

"'I said "get me President Bush on the phone". They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care. "I need to talk to him now". He got off the podium and spoke to me.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, taking your questions and comments about the Bush-Cheney legacy -- and whatever else is on your mind.

Bushisms Watch

Jacob Weisberg picks the top 25 Bushisms of all time, including No. 25: "I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office." -- Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart demonstrates how Obama still has a lot to learn about holding a Bush-style press conference.

Cartoon Watch

Joel Pett on revision accomplished, Nate Beeler on presidency accomplished, Tom Toles on the Bush library, Garry Trudeau on irrelevance, Nick Anderson on things not going according to plan, Dan Wasserman on father and son, Gary Markstein and Steve Sack on the passing of the torch, Victor Harville on Bush's last song, and Signe Wilkinson and Jeff Danziger on the need for a shovel.

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