He ducked the shoes and he survived that run-in with a pretzel, but can George W. Bush sidestep the cold slap of history?
When he came into office in 2001, Bush was viewed by many as the accidental president, occupying the Oval Office only because of a crazy ballot mess in Florida, Al Gore's stunning inability to lock up his own state and some important help from the Supreme Court.
The moment was splendidly captured by Herblock, the witty, acerbic editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post. His inaugural offering showed Bush, one hand on the Bible, taking the oath of office from then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, saying, "So help me God -- and thanks Chief." Herblock and Rehnquist are gone now, footnotes to history. And Bush, as this was being written, is packing up and will soon be gone from the White House.
So how will history judge him? The question is not easy to answer.
Yes, he has historic low approval ratings, dipping into the low 20s near the end. Yes, the economy is in near collapse, inviting comparisons to the Great Depression. And, yes, there is that little matter of a war dragging on more than five years after Bush stood in front of a banner stating "Mission Accomplished" and claiming victory in Iraq.
But, as is often the case, there are mitigating circumstances that still could put Bush, years from now with the 20-20 vision of history, closer to the middle of the pack of U.S. presidents than near the bottom.
There were, for sure, some flat out low points that no amount of time or revisionist shuffling will undo. Here's a partial list:
-- Bush, perhaps because of the court-assisted victory that still has some people convinced Gore won the White House, stepped into the Oval Office eight years ago saying he would work with members of Congress to change the tone in Washington and bring about a new sense of bipartisanship.
He did, indeed, work closely with members of Congress, provided they were Republicans, and the longer he was in office the more inflexible he became. After vetoing no bills that the Republican-controlled Congress sent to him, he issued veto threats for seemingly every major bill that Congress worked on after Democrats took over in 2006.
With Karl Rove calling the shots, rather than bipartisanship, it was 'bye bipartisanship.
-- Justifying the war in Iraq on since-refuted claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. No one doubts that Saddam was an evil, evil man, but there were no WMDs. That means U.S. intelligence was flawed, "Major League" flawed as Vice President Cheney might have put it. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, you would think that the country's intelligence networks would be operating at optimum efficiency. This was such a muckup that even Bush now admits the mistake.
-- Wasting time and political capital on Social Security. Bush promised to fix a problem that might be unfixable. The economic meltdown already has investors fearful of opening their 401(k) and Individual Retirement Account statements. Imagine how bad it would be if Bush had gotten his way and allowed individuals to invest part of their Social Security withholdings in the stock market.
-- Mission accomplished. It wasn't, and every new white tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery is a stark reminder.
-- The economy. Bush's tenure in the White House started with a recession that, truth be told, wasn't his doing. And it's ending with one, too, an uglier, messier one that he will have a harder time avoiding blame for. Bush, in a series of exit interviews and his farewell news conference, pointed out that sandwiched between the recessions were 52 straight months of job growth. Sorry, but when the pilot crashes the plane on the 53rd flight, no one remembers that the previous 52 flights went smoothly.
But there is one thing that can, over time, prop up Bush for history's judgment. Just as opening the door to relations with China kept Watergate and Spiro Agnew and paranoia from dragging Richard Nixon to the very bottom of the presidential pile, the aftermath of Sept. 11 might be Bush's long-term ticket to a gentler grade for the ages.
I was with Bush that day in Sarasota, Fla., and the look on his face as Chief of Staff Andy Card whispered that America was under attack is as clear in my mind today as it was in my eyes then. So is the resolve he showed in the days after the attack.
It is easy, when looking at Bush's teeny job-approval ratings now, to remember that in the days after the attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon that Bush united the country and his job ratings hit a record high of above 90 percent in some respected and reliable polls.
Bush takes credit for keeping the country safe since those bleak days, and that cannot, as Bush himself might say, be misunderestimated.
It is fair to say that George W. Bush will never crack the top tier of U.S. presidents, no matter who is doing the revising of history. But time and future developments might make Bush's reaction to the terrorists and the absence of further attacks on his watch look better and better in the rearview mirror.
And that, perhaps long after he is gone, might be enough to move him into the comfortable embrace of mediocrity, where most of our presidents spend history.
This article appears in the January 24, 2009 edition of NJ Daily.
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