Bush's Mission Accomplished?
As the U.S. president prepares to depart, his legacy is undergoing a major round-the-clock renovation
WASHINGTON – The inaugural viewing stands are rising along Pennsylvania Ave., but the real heavy lifting is going on inside the White House in the final days of the Bush administration.
There, the round-the-clock renovation is continuing at a frantic pace, the scraping, scrubbing, whitewashing and painting of the George W. Bush legacy.
In this view of the world as the clock ticks toward midnight, illegal wiretaps, waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, secret prisons, Abu Ghraib, the stripping of Geneva Convention rights and illegal detentions are all worth it because Americans have been spared another terror attack for 7 1/2 years.
Iraq and Afghanistan are brave "partners in freedom" and important strategic allies, only flawed intelligence is ever regretted, presidents don't get "do-overs," others are always blamed, and Osama bin Laden is downgraded to a mere cog in a damaged Al Qaeda.
It is in many ways a brazen rewriting of history while the history is still unfolding.
"While there's room for honest and healthy debate about the decisions I've made – and there's plenty of debate – there can be no debate about the results in keeping America safe," Bush proclaimed last week at the U.S. Army College in Carlisle, Pa.
The legacy chorus in the final days features U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former political adviser Karl Rove.
Bush is in the midst of a rite for all two-term U.S. presidents, who, unlike prime ministers in the Canadian system, leave office on a fixed date beyond their control.
Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have all done this in recent history and Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien tried it in Canada.
Some U.S. presidents try a late game stab at Middle East peace, some ride off in a cloud over controversial pardons, but no one in American history has had a steeper climb at cleansing his image than George W. Bush.
He is fighting to the end.
Yesterday, in the wake of a front-page New York Times story blaming much of the economic crisis on Bush, the White House responded by saying the story was an example of "hindsight with blinders on and one eye closed."
Bush leaves office with the lowest popularity rating since such measures were first formulated.
He leaves behind three images seared in the world's consciousness. There was Bush in the flyboy suit on the aircraft carrier declaring Mission Accomplished in the Iraq war on May 1, 2003.
There was Bush on Aug. 30, 2005, hamming it up on the guitar in California while New Orleans drowned.
And there was Bush, the champion of the free market, pleading with Congress to agree to an unprecedented government intervention in an economy teetering on the edge of Depression.
He is the man who brought us "Bring It On," to an Iraqi insurgency who did just that, promised to capture the still-free bin Laden "dead or alive," and praised his incompetent patronage appointee Michael Brown with a "heckuva job, Brownie," as Louisiana and the U.S. Gulf Coast suffered with the carnage of Katrina.
Even his high moments were only reminders of failure to come.
He soared with the bullhorn in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and his subsequent address to Congress, but that is now a symbol of goodwill squandered.
His final, would-be victory tour of Iraq will always be remembered for him ducking shoes.
He will not get credit for other accomplishments. His efforts in helping Africa cope with HIV/AIDS went largely unnoticed and his unprecedented effort to smooth the transition to the Barack Obama administration will be a footnote.
All this from a man who used to dodge questions about his place in history because in history "we'll all be dead."
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar and former White House adviser, says Bush is following presidential precedent, but he wonders if anyone is paying attention.
"You can't worry about your place in history, because it will be out of your hands," says Hess, now at the Brookings Institution and author of What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect. "But it would be an unnatural act to become president of the United States and not wonder how history will judge you."
All two-term presidents do the same, Hess says, because they are not defeated at the polls, but watch the sands of time run out.
Hess recalls writing a State of the Union message for Dwight Eisenhower in 1961, a report sent to Congress after the election of John F. Kennedy. Although Eisenhower did not read it, it was entered in the record as a rendering of eight years of Eisenhower accomplishments.
It is Iraq and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that will always define the Bush presidency.
The Pew Research Center found that only 11 per cent of Americans believe Bush will be remembered as an outstanding or above-average president, by far the lowest positive end-of-term rating for any of the past four presidents.
Under Bush, the American view of the presidency as an institution has plummeted but not nearly as far as the world's perception of the U.S.
Still, the Pew study found that Americans support Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes after 9/11 and about half the country still believes in torture as a means of extracting information from terrorists or terror suspects.
In the Carlisle speech, Bush proclaimed the U.S. had removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, shut down terrorist training camps and liberated 25 million Afghans.
That ignores the fact the war in Afghanistan is going so poorly Obama will substantially beef up the American troop presence in the country to try to turn things around.
Bush's version of Iraq involves the liberation of 25 million Iraqis and the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, but he overstates the coalition that joined him in the war and does not mention weapons of mass destruction, the 4,210 U.S. deaths or the 98,000 Iraqi deaths, as tabulated by icasualties.org.
Moira Whelan, director of strategy at National Security Network, says Bush is "rewriting history," ignoring the fact Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and that the invasion of Iraq was a major recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
When Bush tried to claim in an interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz that Iraq turned out to have been a major haven for Al Qaeda, she pointed out that was not until the U.S. invaded.
"Yeah, that's right. So what?" Bush replied. The point, he said, was that Al Qaeda had made a stand.
No weapons of mass destruction?
"That's true. Everybody thought they had them," Bush said in the same interview. The point, he said, was that Saddam had the capability to produce such weapons.
In a C-SPAN interview last week, Bush said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks "came out of nowhere." On Aug. 6, 2001, however, at his Crawford, Tex., ranch he was presented with an intelligence brief entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
As he rides into the sunset, this is a much more reflective man, a guy who unexpectedly grabbed CNN interviewer Candy Crowley's hand and walked with her hand-in-hand last week.
"I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging," he said Friday, as his portrait was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
He lamented all those banquets where comics make fun of the president, then he gets up and makes fun of himself and "everybody has a jolly time, except the president."
He said prayer gives him strength and says every day of his life is joyous, "some days happy, some days not happy; every day joyous."
And he might take one last stab at a joyous valedictory address.
He said last week he has talked to a speechwriter about delivering a farewell address to a nation which seems to be collectively saying "good riddance."