Tomorrow, George W. Bush rides off into history. The left is breathing a sigh of relief, their Emmanuel Goldstein is gone (although soon they will find another). Bush leaves an unpopular President—but so did Harry S. Truman. In many ways, Bush and Truman have had similar trajectories. Both began their terms in a time of war, and both made unpopular decisions. Like Truman, Bush will likely be vindicated by history. The narrow-mindedness and ravenous partisanship of Bush’s critics will become less and less relevant as time goes on, and a more fair-minded exploration of Bush’s legacy can begin.
George W. Bush has been systematically turned into a monster by the media. Bush the man has been obscured.
As a point of disclosure, I am only partially a fan of the President. His performance after September 11 was a masterstroke. The decision to invade Iraq was the correct one based on what was known at that point in history. At the same time, Bush’s second term was a disaster. When the President nominated the comically unsuitable Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, it was clear that Bush’s instincts for loyalty had become a flaw rather than a benefit. It was Gen. Petraeus and Sen. McCain that pushed for the surge against a recalcitrant Rumsfeld and Bush. The surge is what won the war in Iraq, and Bush only belatedly endorsed it. The Katrina disaster should not have been laid at Bush’s feet, but putting Michael Brown as the head of FEMA was unquestionably bad judgment. Bush’s tax cuts helped restore the U.S. economy and created millions of jobs. His wasteful spending and statist policies hurt the economy.
Where Bush has failed the most is where he abandoned conservative principles. The left wants to paint him as a radical conservative activist. The truth could not be more radically different. Bush dramatically expanded the size and scope of the federal government. He pushed for a massive increase in entitlement spending under Medicare Part D. He dramatically increased federal spending at nearly all levels. Hardly a fan of deregulation, it was under Bush’s watch that the ill-considered Sarbanes-Oxley bill was passed into law, a bill which dramatically increased the regulation of business. The picture of George W. Bush as laissez-faire radical could not be further from reality.
At the same time, Bush’s tax cuts helped keep the 2001-2003 recession from deepening. They helped America create millions of new jobs. Without them, it’s likely that Bush would never have been reelected. Those tax cuts put money back into the hands of working Americans. While Bush’s economic policies were flawed at best, it was not because of the tax cuts, but because of too much emphasis on state action.
The war in Iraq remains controversial, and will for some time. It seems quite possible that the Hussein regime systematically misled the entire world into believing that they had WMDS. It seems quite possible that the Hussein regime was lying to itself about what it really had. That is unsurprising for an dysfunctional autocracy like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. What did not happen is some sinister conspiracy to “lie” about WMDs to settle some personal score or gain access to oil. The Bush Administration weighed what evidence it had and made a decision based on that evidence. The evidence turned out to be deeply flawed. But the image of a Bush Administration hell-bent on war that was discarding mountains of contradictory evidence has no basis in reality. If Leon Panetta tells President Obama that a country has WMDs and terrorist ties and there is a “slam dunk” case for it, the same principle should apply. A President should never give the benefit of the doubt to this nation’s enemies. A President’s job, first and foremost, is to act on the evidence available and act decisively. President Bush did that, and President Obama should do the same.
This war against Islamist terror will continue. The supposed excesses of this war have led to an America that has not suffered another attack, no less a greater one than that visited upon us on September 11, 2001. We are not living in a fascist dictatorship, the Constitution has hardly been shredded, and our civil liberties remain. The hysteria and fear over this war came less from the President and more from his critics. Yet one unassailable fact remains: we have not been attacked since that fateful day. The plans of terrorists have been foiled, their leaders captured or killed, their hideouts destroyed, their money supply imperiled. Modern terrorism is sui generis, and the Bush Administration responded not be repeating the failed methods of the past, but by treating it as the serious threat it was. Did they always get it right? Of course not, but no Presidency could have been expected to. In facing an evolving and dangerous threat, this Presidency did what it could to keep this country safe. After the attacks, it seemed almost assured that we would be attacked again, and harder. Today, those attacks almost seem like a distant memory. We have the vigilance of the Bush Administration to thank for that. For all the flaws of their approach, it worked.
George W. Bush has been systematically turned into a monster by the media. Bush the man has been obscured. Yet George W. Bush is hardly an unfeeling monster. He is not the caricature that he has been made to be. That he has not defended himself is curious, but perhaps he does not think it his role to do so. Instead, the real George W. Bush is a complex character, motivated by an abiding sense of loyalty and faith, but also harmed by those same instincts. Hardly the unfeeling party-boy of the media’s funhouse-mirror image, the real President Bush is the man who would go to Walter Reed and comfort injured vets, rarely making a media event out of it. If we are to learn anything from the past eight years, we must first move beyond the crude image of President Bush painted by an ideologically homogenous media and see the real George W. Bush.
Sadly, it will likely be years before that happens. But history will judge the 43rd President of the United States with far less ideological rancor than there is now, and when his legacy is remembered it won’t be through the distorted lens of a partisan media, but with the hindsight of history. With that hindsight, the legacy of George W. Bush may be far different than what we would think. Like Truman, Bush may be remembered as a President who did what was right, but not what was popular.