1:16 PM EDT, April 25, 2013
It will be many years yet before historians can make their full assessment of the presidency of George W. Bush, but we have a sneaking suspicion their conclusions will not be nearly as generous as the puffery that has accompanied the opening of his presidential library this past week on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
That's to be expected, of course. Presidential libraries have become less about housing presidential papers and more like modern (and enormous — at 226,000 square feet, the George W. Bush Presidential Library is bigger than the average Walmart) citadels of chief executive worship. They cater not to academicians so much as the vacationing general public, perhaps out for a proverbial political spin.
But two themes emerged in all the commemoration. First, that Mr. Bush is a great deal less demonized in the public eye than he was when he left office. While a CNN poll still shows 55 percent of Americans believe his presidency a failure, that's considerably better than the 68 percent who felt that way back in January 2009. A recent Washington Post poll found his approval rating tied with his successor.
Second is that Bush family presidential ambitions don't fade away so easily. The rehabilitation of the Bush image seems intended to boost the prospects for younger brother Jeb. The 43rd president endorsed the former Florida governor's possible candidacy for the nation's highest office in an ABC-TV interview in which he envisioned a possible match-up against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
What's truly remarkable about both these developments is just how unimaginable they would have seemed four years ago. Between the onset of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and the accompanying Wall Street bailout and Mr. Bush's disastrous choice to invade Iraq on outrageously trumped-up fears of weapons of mass destruction, the American public's feelings about him were hardly divided or uncertain.
That he spent much of the last four years like a man in witness protection suggests that Mr. Bush (despite his protestations to the contrary) recognized his failures as well. How entirely appropriate, then, that the Bush library includes exhibits that give visitors the opportunity to make difficult policy choices — with people like former chiefs of staff Andrew Card Jr. and Josh Bolten briefing them. It's as if to say, "Sure, I screwed up, but see if you can do better with what I was hearing from these people."
We don't want to rain on Mr. Bush's moment. We wish the best for him and his family and thank them for their service to the country. As President Barack Obama noted in Thursday's library opening, Mr. Bush is a likable man who had to deal with the horror that was 9/11 and fought gallantly against the global threat of HIV/AIDS — his work on that issue in Africa may be the best thing he did. Mr. Bush even made a credible run at immigration reform. But it's really quite galling to see history either rewritten or forgotten so quickly. As president, Mr. Bush made horrendous mistakes that cost the country dearly both in lives and in the vast fortune spent fighting overseas.
Tainted by a partisan Supreme Court ruling in the 2000 election and overwhelmed by events ranging from the terrorist attack of 2001 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the financial collapse, the Bush presidency is not something to be remembered fondly. Republicans often complain that President Obama has blamed too many of the nation's woes on his predecessor. Perhaps he hasn't spoken on the subject often enough.
If visitors to the library come away with the impression that Mr. Bush was a man ill-qualified or prepared for office, that he put the nation on the road to deficit spending and, worst of all, lied to the American people about Iraq and plunged this nation into an unnecessary and costly war, then perhaps SMU's newest tourist attraction will serve an important purpose. This was indeed a presidency we should never forget.
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