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Bush Got The Big Things Right

Bush Got The Big Things Right

By Jack Kelly - January 22, 2009

George W. Bush, private citizen, left Washington for Dallas Tuesday with the quiet dignity that was typical of his personal behavior during the eight tumultous years of his presidency.

Mr. Bush leaves office as the most unpopular president in the history of polling. But it will be a decade or more before we have the perspective necessary to place the Bush presidency in history.

Only two other of our 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland is counted twice) took office under more controversial circumstances than Mr. Bush did after the prolonged recount in Florida in 2000. John Quincy Adams was elected by the House of Representatives in 1825, though Andrew Jackson had led in both the popular and electoral votes in the four way race the year before. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes became the only president besides Mr. Bush to win in the electoral college despite losing the popular vote in a two way race.

Bitterness surrounding how he won deprived Mr. Bush of the traditional "honeymoon," and poisoned the atmosphere surrounding his presidency from the start.

Only three other presidents -- Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and James Madison, who fled the White House hours before the British burned it in 1814 -- faced more difficult challenges than Mr. Bush has during their terms of office. Less than nine months into his presidency, America suffered on 9/11 the most devastating attack ever on her soil by a foreign enemy. There followed the war in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina, the most expensive natural disaster in American history. The Bush presidency ended with the subprime mortage meltdown, already our most devastating economic setback since the Great Depression.

What didn't happen, and what just has illustrate why the passage of time is required before a presidency can fairly be judged.

After 9/11, there were no further successful terrorist attacks on American soil on Mr. Bush's watch. How important history will regard this accomplishment depends mostly on whether there is another during Mr. Obama's presidency. If so, then Mr. Bush's accomplishment will loom larger.

It's too early to tell how bad the economy is going to get. To what extent did Bush administration policies fuel the subprime mortgage bubble? Was there something he could have done, but didn't do, that would have kept the bubble from bursting? Did the steps the Bush administration took after the bubble burst prevent a larger catastrophe?

Or did they just add fuel to the fire? We don't yet know.

Time separates trivial controversies from more substantive ones. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was hotly criticized for its conduct.

But now he is remembered for its ultimate success, not for the early Union mistakes. Mr. Bush was criticized as hotly for his conduct of the Iraq war, but in the end he won, and he won by pursuing a strategy scorned by most of his critics. It remains to be seen how valuable victory in Iraq will be. But surely a friendly, democratic Iraq is more beneficial to the United States than one ruled by Saddam Hussein, pursuing nuclear weapons.

And time will tell to what extent his successor follows policies established by Mr. Bush. Despite rhetorical differences in the campaign, it appears that President Obama's foreign policy will be little different in substance. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Conservatives, for the most part, have been disappointed by Mr. Bush.

During his presidency Republicans lost all fiscal discipline. Many of his appointments were alarmingly mediocre. Even when he was doing the right thing, he did a poor job of communicating why. Still, we will miss his basic goodness, and his steadfastness.

But I suspect that in six months or so, it will be the liberals who miss Mr. Bush most. For eight years they've been blaming all the nation's ills -- including adverse weather -- on Mr. Bush. Now that their favorite whipping boy has departed the scene, I expect many to develop a strange new respect for policies once glibly scorned.

My own view is that Mr. Bush was wrong on lots of little things, but right on the big things. History tends to remember only the big things.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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