The perilous times still shape Bush's legacy

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For many months, hardy loyalists of President George W. Bush have sought to frame his legacy by proposing that the controversial choices he made through dramatic, pivotal years will be deemed correct and courageous when we look back on them some years hence.

The verdict of history, they say, will be kinder than today's partisan-fueled hatefulness indicates. Political wise men as diverse as former New York Mayor Ed Koch and strategist Karl Rove have compared Mr. Bush to Harry S. Truman -- loathed when he left office, now lauded as a greater leader than his contemporaries could admit.

But Bush supporters may not have to wait so long for vindication. The potential shift in public opinion of Mr. Bush's record is already getting a big assist from an unlikely source -- the rapidly sobering staffers and fans of President-elect Barack Obama.

Some of Mr. Bush's most controversial decisions -- like holding suspected enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay -- are now being seen in a new light. Democrats in government and media have just discovered that many of the detainees are extremely dangerous men!

Mr. Obama still promises to issue immediately an executive order to close Guantanamo, but the timeline for carrying out that order is suddenly fraught with difficulty. He has warned that it's difficult to balance respecting the rule of law with "releasing people intent on blowing us up."

If leftists decry any hesitation on Guantanamo, the new president's defenders will have to tout previously ignored reasons to keep these would-be terrorists off our streets. This information -- so mysteriously unimportant during the Bush term -- will highlight the sometimes-irreconcilable complexities that people in power face.

Citizens with brains and hearts engaged will consider the heretofore imponderable possibility that Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney et al. made their decisions in good faith, to preserve the republic, not to destroy it.

Such re-evaluations will not be possible for a certain type of person. Consider the case of the first local pundit to assert that "even conservatives" view Mr. Bush as a failure. This man has repeatedly accused Mr. Bush of turning the "war on terror" into a "religious war" in the Middle East, an accusation he first made months after -- and despite -- the 2002 release of 1990s-era videotapes on which Osama bin Laden declared al-Qaida's religious war against the United States and Israel.

Facts cannot penetrate, nor can a reasonable historical assessment come from, such an irrational construct -- an adolescent level of development rampant in the blogosphere. But serious inaccuracies can taint assessments from loftier sources, too.

Journalist David Halberstam, in an August 2007 Vanity Fair article published posthumously, mocked the idea that Mr. Bush would someday be seen as a latter-day Truman. Both Mr. Truman and Mr. Bush finished their embattled presidencies embroiled in unpopular wars, he wrote, "but the similarities end there."

Mr. Halberstam's very next sentence asserts that Truman stood his ground on unpopular decisions -- sending troops to Korea, calling home Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- in the face of harsh media belittlings and a "national political mood [that] was toxic."

And the national political mood Mr. Bush faced -- post-Clinton impeachment, post-hanging chad -- was not? "Toxic" sounds exactly right, with a soupcon of "petulant" and a dash of "sore loser." The predominant political mood and personal vilifications, now fed by a 24/7 news cycle, have been the greatest challenges of Mr. Bush's presidency.

President Bush's record is a mixed bag, as is every president's. As a conservative, I agree with the liberal Ed Koch, who thinks that, like Truman standing against Soviet aggression, Mr. Bush "will be seen as one of the few world leaders who recognized the danger of Islamic terrorism and was willing … to stand up to it."

Mr. Bush's way of doing so -- the "pre-emptive war" in Iraq -- remains troubling to both cautious conservatives and anti-war leftists, but a young democracy growing there will be his vindication and an enormous relief.

Conservatives bemoan Mr. Bush's big-government Republicanism, especially his admitted jettisoning of free-market principles in his final weeks, but we can rejoice in his stewardship of the federal judiciary. He has appointed nearly as many judges as Bill Clinton did (61 to 65). Court watchers say Bush appointees are younger, will serve longer and now form majorities on 10 of the 13 federal circuit courts.

And conservatives can celebrate Mr. Bush's grace. The departing president sternly warned his thousands of staffers against pulling the juvenile pranks that outgoing Clinton employees did -- i.e., removing the W keys from some executive-branch keyboards.

Mr. Obama, a gracious man himself, has repeatedly expressed his appreciation for Mr. Bush's enormous help and kindness through the transition. After eight years of relentless slander and snark, the nearly departed president's consistent generosity of spirit appears almost heroic -- and is another part of his legacy for which grown-up Americans can be grateful.

Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com.


Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com.


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