George W. Bush’s September 14, 2001, so-called “bullhorn” speech, that he gave with his arm around fireman Bob Beckwith at Ground Zero (“I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”) was one of the most moving, poignant moments in recent presidential history, and it was emblematic of the way Bush calmed and united the country right after 9/11 and went on to craft anti-terrorism protocols (from Guantanamo to the PATRIOT Act) that kept us safe (and were for the most part embraced or expanded by former critic Barack Obama).
Bush was honest, his tenure was without corruption, and he entered and left office with dignity, without either the Obama-like reprehensible blame gaming of his predecessor or the shameful pardons granted by Clinton
The 2006–7 decision to surge in Iraq under David Petraeus, when the Congress, the Iraq Study Group, and many in his administration and the Joint Chiefs were against it, was Churchillian and saved Iraq from a Somalia-like fate. Bush’s efforts to fund and deliver new anti-AIDs drugs to Africa to ward off a continental pandemic saved tens of millions of lives. Historians will argue over the catalysts for the September 2008 meltdown, but about the fact that up to that point the economy had performed well for the first seven years of the Bush tenure, or that we were on a trajectory of radically reducing the deficit to a very small percentage of GDP without stalling the economy or spiking unemployment. The real problem, however, was the increased rate of federal spending in the first term, not just for the 9/11 response, but the vast jumps in discretionary domestic spending; the $4 trillion total in new debt over eight years (small in Obama terms) discredited both the tax cuts that had actually increased revenue, and the conservative brand of fiscal restraint.
In retrospect, the administration’s over-emphasis on WMD was a terrible mistake, given that the Congress had passed 23 writs, most of them humanitarian, to justify the removal of Saddam Hussein, and given that the prior administration had passed a resolution calling for regime change — all of which was forgotten once WMD stockpiles did not show up. Suddenly the war was demagogued as “Bush lied, thousands died” rather than being seen as a war justified by all the reasons that Harry Reid, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and others had so eloquently cited in calling for the armed removal of Saddam. “My brilliant three-week war, your botched five-year peace” followed.
The mistakes of the Iraq occupation are well known, but abruptly calling off the siege of Fallujah in April 2004 was a terrible error, given that it gave the appearance that the enemy had worn us down (the jihadists and ex-Baathists were, in fact, on the verge of losing the city) and brave Americans died in that unsuccessful attempt — only to renew the effort in the post-election November assault.
I think Bush himself would say the 2006 boast “bring ’em on” to the insurgents was the exact opposite of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” given that the later surge worked precisely because we killed thousands of the most deadly of the enemy as the military kept quiet and instead talked up reconstruction, reconciliation, and renewal. The anemic reaction to Katrina was mostly a local- and state-caused mess in New Orleans, and it was politicized from Day One by an opposition stung by the unexpected 2004 defeat. But no one can deny that New Orleans was a federal public-relations nightmare. Had Bush’s advisers flown him directly to the storm’s wreckage and had he stayed there from Day One for a week, overseeing the incompetent “Brownie’s” efforts, the false narrative of a callous, removed Bush would not have taken hold.
During a long period between 2006–8 the Bush administration simply did not even try to answer its vehement critics, as if there was no need or that no one would believe the wild charges of a Michael Moore, or Code Pink, or the General Betray Us slurs and “Why I hate George Bush” journalism. Unfortunately, this lack of pushback emboldened the critics and the result was that by 2007 they had managed to take a centrist (e.g., No Child Left Behind, immigration reform, prescription-drug enhancement, etc.), reelected incumbent, who had been magnanimous to his critics, and to turn him into some sort of demonic figure. Bush Derangement Syndrome was a real illness. In terms of defending his boss, the deer-in-the-headlights Scott McClellan was the worst press secretary of the last 50 years.
And now? Even Bush’s critics are shrugging that he was generous and well intentioned; he certainly lacked the petty vindictiveness of both his predecessor and successor. That may be why Bush is a model ex-president (unlike Carter or Clinton) and, in terms of presidential history, following the rehabilitative model of Harry Truman — a similarly blunt-speaking centrist who kept us safe in dangerous times and left office unappreciated because of an unpopular, indecisive war, wild unhinged demagoguery against him, a lack of eloquence, and a subsequent presidential candidate of his own party who campaigned as much against as for the sitting president.
In Bush’s case his warranted rehabilitation will come even more quickly than Truman’s, in part because in comparative terms his successor, Barack Obama, is no Ike.