MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris. With President Bush on the verge of becoming former President Bush, there's a lot of focus on what his legacy will be. The president and his advisers suggest history will judge him better than the current analysis, given the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To consider the Bush years, I'm joined by NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Don has covered Mr. Bush since he was Governor Bush. Good to talk to you, Don.
DON GONYEA: Glad to be here.
NORRIS: Now, when you consider the Bush legacy - boy, there's a lot to get your arms around.
GONYEA: Right, and what we want to do first is look back, go through some of those iconic moments. Certainly, we're all focused right now on the economy, also still on Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Middle East. But you go back, there's education reform, there's global AIDS relief. There are just all sorts of things. This is, as you recall, how it started.
(Soundbite of George W. Bush's inauguration ceremony, 2001)
P: I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear...
BLOCK: That I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.
P: That I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.
GONYEA: That was January 20, 2001. On the surface that day, it was all ritual and routine, the peaceful transfer of power masking the rancor over the 2000 Florida recount and the intervention of the Supreme Court in Mr. Bush's favor. Once in office, he proceeded as though he'd won a mandate. With narrow Republican majorities in Congress, he immediately won approval for education reforms known as No Child Left Behind, and for a series of huge tax cuts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, 2001)
P: We recognize loud and clear the surplus is not the government's money. The surplus is the people's money, and we ought to trust them with their own money.
GONYEA: Still, by that first summer, there was a growing sense of public indifference toward Mr. Bush. A Republican senator defected, costing his party control of that chamber. The president's job-approval ratings began to slip. Then came September the 11th.
(SOUNDBITE OF 9/11 ADDRESS TO THE NATION, 2001)
P: These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.
GONYEA: Three days later, the president stood with rescue workers amid the rubble of ground zero.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH AT GROUND ZERO, 2001)
P: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
P: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
GONYEA: And a week later came a speech to a joint session of Congress, where he brandished an aggressive foreign policy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADDRESS TO CONGRESS, 2001)
P: Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: The president's approval ratings soared, exceeding 90 percent. American forces went to war in Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban government. Then, Mr. Bush turned his attention to Iraq. There was no evidence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and the September 11th attacks, but the administration repeatedly made the link. The president warned of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, though none would ever be found. Mr. Bush even included this line, known to be false at the time by the CIA, in his 2003 State of the Union address.
(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS, 2003)
P: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
GONYEA: Six weeks later, the war in Iraq began. Baghdad fell. In May, President Bush landed in a fighter jet on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California. A giant banner proclaimed, "Mission Accomplished."
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, MAY 2003)
P: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD OVATION)
GONYEA: Still, Osama bin Laden eluded capture, and it became clear that the mission in Iraq was far from over. The insurgency grew, violence and chaos ensued. In July of '03, the president was undeterred.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, JULY 2003)
P: There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.
GONYEA: In 2004, the president campaigned for re-election on the need to fight terrorists to prevent another 9/11. He barely eked out a victory, despite a weakening economy and growing discontent over Iraq. Once again, he claimed a mandate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTION DAY SPEECH, 2004)
P: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.
GONYEA: And he used that capital to push for something big: an overhaul of the Social Security system, promoting changes allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes into the stock market. For months, the president pushed the idea, which got no traction in Congress or in the nation at large. But in the summer of '05, Mr. Bush also got his first chance to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. He nominated a highly regarded conservative, John Roberts.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANNOUNCEMENT OF JOHN ROBERTS AS SUPREME COURT NOMINEE, 2005)
P: He has profound respect for the rule of law and for the liberties guaranteed to every citizen. He will strictly apply the Constitution in laws, not legislate from the bench.
GONYEA: Roberts, 50 at the time, would become chief justice and soon be joined by another conservative appointee, Justice Samuel Alito - lifetime appointments whose impact will long outlive the president's term. But at around that same time came one of the low points of the entire Bush presidency.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE NEWS REPORT, 2005)
U: Hurricane Katrina is battering the Gulf Coast and is now swamping New Orleans. The huge...
GONYEA: New Orleans was devastated. The administration seemed completely unprepared. And one moment seemed to sum it all up: when the president lavished praise on Michael Brown, the embattled head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, 2005)
P: Again, I want to thank you all for - and Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24...
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
P: They're working 24 hours a day.
GONYEA: Through it all, Iraq continued to get worse. There was pressure on the president to fire one of the leading figures in his administration, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. This was in April of '06.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, APRIL 2006)
P: I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.
GONYEA: Later that year came the midterm elections, when Democrats captured both the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years. Mr. Bush reacted.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, NOV 8, 2006)
P: If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping.
GONYEA: It was a repudiation of the president. A day after the election, Donald Rumsfeld was out. In his final two years, Mr. Bush was often overshadowed by the race to replace him. His approval ratings continued to drift downward, to 30 percent and below. In the presidential primaries, Democratic candidates cast him as the villain, while Republican candidates distanced themselves. The president did not attend the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Then this fall, another blow - an economic crisis more severe than any since the 1930s. The president stayed mostly in the background as appointees struggled to deal with the financial meltdown. At year's end, President Bush made his final visit to Baghdad as commander in chief, where an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at the president as a gesture of defiance and protest. Mr. Bush managed to duck, then joked that it was a size 10.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW, 2008)
P: I didn't feel the least bit threatened by it. These journalists here were very apologetic. They were - you know, they were - said this doesn't represent the Iraqi people. But that's what happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves.
GONYEA: A final indignity and a metaphor for the reversals the president has seen in his second term.
NORRIS: Don, all this leads to this overall question of the Bush legacy. The early reviews have not been very kind. Could that verdict change, as the presidents' allies suggest? Has it happened for other presidents?
GONYEA: Well, it has happened for other presidents. Harry Truman is the one that the Bush White House likes to point to most often. Left office not popular - now revered. Woodrow Wilson - there are others, you know. But there are also some who left office very unpopular and remained so. I can say Nixon. I can say Hoover. So...
NORRIS: And there are some that just sort of fade into history.
GONYEA: And there are some that, literally, just kind of disappear. And, you know, generations later, you talk to young people, they barely even know who it was. There is a massive reconstruction that has to happen given that this president leaves office with two wars going, messy wars, and obviously the mess that the economy is today.
NORRIS: Now that President Bush is passing the baton to President-elect Obama, could the new president help burnish his image?
GONYEA: Well, here's the interesting irony. Iraq will be one of those things this president is judged on. If President Obama manages to navigate some kind of a soft landing and things turn out not so awful there, that will reflect positively on President Bush. Of course, if things continue to go bad, then it's bad for President Bush, and possibly bad for President Obama as well.
NORRIS: Same might be said of the economy.
NORRIS: Thank you, Don.
GONYEA: Thank you.
NORRIS: And NPR's Don Gonyea will continue to cover the White House in the new administration.
BLOCK: You can find an interactive timeline of the Bush years at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.