How is George W. Bush two years after his presidency? As resolutely himself as ever — as upbeat, folksy, and profoundly at peace with the biggest decisions of his presidency as ever.
In a meeting with journalists in a suite in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C., he opens with a classic W. take-me-or-leave-me profession of a lack of calculation.
He scoffs at analysts who, upon the release of his book Decision Points, have said, “It’s brilliant how you’re positioning yourself in your post-presidency.” He retorts: “My days of positioning are over. I didn’t have a grand strategy to emerge, submerge, blossom.”
Bush projects the peace of a man who knows that the judgments of his presidency that will matter are still a long way off, and who thinks they will vindicate him. “I firmly believe,” he says, “there’s no such thing as accurate short-term history.”
A cynic might reply that a president who leaves office at as low an ebb as Bush has no choice but to take the long view. But time is genuinely on his side. Already, it looks as though he’ll escape a Hooveresque or Carteresque fate as a foil for the opposition for decades. Pres. Barack Obama’s anti-Bush tack fizzled badly in the midterms.
Of course, Bush’s ultimate legacy depends on the yet-to-be-determined final outcome of the Iraq War. And his personal style will always drive a slice of America crazy. Only George W. Bush can look like he’s striding to a gunfight when getting up to refill his cup of coffee. As the poisonous controversies of his administration fade, though, Bush’s neglected virtues will become more prominent.
First, there’s the essential decency of his political character. As president, Bush rarely attacked his opponents by name. In Decision Points, he even delicately refers to Hillary Clinton, who doubted Gen. David Petraeus’s report of the early success of the surge, as “one senator from New York” to avoid naming her. “The tone of the book is meant to reflect how I think,” Bush says. “I’m not a hateful guy.” His critics were full of passionate intensity, but Bush refused to respond in kind because he thought it would demean the office.
“I came to realize the president is a lot more important than the person,” he notes. This view supports his resolve to avoid criticizing President Obama at all costs. He dismisses any attempt to drag him into “the swamp” of contemporary politics. In this graciousness about his successor, he’s truly his father’s son.
Second, there are the unimpeachably admirable goals of his presidency. Bush will get more credit over time for his emphasis on the promotion of democracy and of women’s rights, on the treatment and prevention of AIDS abroad, and on the improvement of education, especially for minorities. “I believe women will lead the freedom movement in the Middle East,” Bush says, characteristically. These priorities will be fertile fodder for revisionist historians of the future.
Finally, there’s the enduring legal and conceptual structure of his War on Terror. Obama the primary candidate promised to tear it up, but as president he’s embraced most of it. In giving future presidents “the tools” to carry on the fight, Bush compares his work after 9/11 to Harry Truman’s at the inception of the Cold War. More broadly, as Obama’s initial foreign-policy enthusiasms prove futile, he’s inching toward a policy of Bush-lite. “There’s a certain reality to the world,” Bush comments.
Decision Points is engaging and reflective. Bush is more willing to admit error than he was during his presidency. In office, he often seemed imprisoned by his stubbornness. His book opens a window to a different, more modest Bush who knows he didn’t always make the right calls but acted in keeping with principle as he understood it. He deserves a second look, and he’ll get it — eventually.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.