Undecided We Stand: Debating Bush's Legacy President Bush leaves office as one of the least popular presidents ever, but he says it's up to history to judge him. Bush likes to recall that Harry Truman was widely reviled when he left the White House 56 years ago but decades later became an icon of strength in adversity.
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Undecided We Stand: Debating Bush's Legacy

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Undecided We Stand: Debating Bush's Legacy

Undecided We Stand: Debating Bush's Legacy

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President Bush will leave office in 13 days. During his time in the White House, he's had some of the highest poll numbers in presidential history - and some of the lowest. Those eight years have included the 9/11 terror attacks, two wars - still ongoing - Hurricane Katrina, and an economic crisis worse than anything the U.S. has seen in half a century. His hope now is that history treats him better than the polls.

NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea has covered the entire Bush presidency. He spoke with a historian, a presidential scholar, and a journalist who authored a recent biography of Mr. Bush to get their first take on the Bush legacy.

DON GONYEA: For some former occupants of the Oval Office, it takes just a snippet of tape to sum up what we remember most about them.

(Soundbite of vintage recordings)

Former President FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Former President JOHN F. KENNEDY: The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.

Former President RICHARD NIXON: Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got.

Former President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GONYEA: But what will it be for George W. Bush? There's his moment with the bullhorn at ground zero days after 9/11, his declaration of war in Iraq, a pair of conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, the current economic crisis. President Bush says it's up to history to judge him. And he likes to recall that Harry Truman was unpopular when he left the White House, but in the decades since has become an icon of strength in adversity. On CNN recently, the president acknowledged his low standing with the public.

(Soundbite of CNN interview)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm sure people have disagreed with my decisions, but they've been made with a lot of deliberation, and they have been made with one thing in mind: what's best for the United States of America.

GONYEA: The early part of the Bush presidency is defined by 9/11. Author Robert Draper has written what is to date the only comprehensive biography of the president that Mr. Bush has cooperated with. The book is called "Dead Certain."

Mr. ROBERT DRAPER (Author, "Dead Certain"): The nation very much needed a president with that level of certitude, with that clarity of vision such that he could say, you're either for us or you're for the terrorists. He brought forth from the public a great amount of pride in America and a great amount of determination.

GONYEA: The country got behind its president when he launched the war in Afghanistan. But then he used 9/11 as a justification for going into Iraq, despite the lack of evidence of a connection between those attacks and Saddam Hussein. The war was controversial from the beginning, dividing the country, and over time driving Mr. Bush's once record-high public approval ratings way down. Professor George Edwards of Texas A&M.

Professor GEORGE EDWARDS (Political Science, Texas A&M University): Certainly, if Iraq should turn into a stable democracy and a model for the Middle East, that would be a huge plus in his legacy. I don't think that there's much you can do about what I would say not being on top of all issues, not having planned for the aftermath of Iraq. That was a disaster, and there's nothing that can rehabilitate that.

GONYEA: Historian Robert Dallek has written books on FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. He says the negative impact of the Iraq War will have a lasting effect on Mr. Bush's legacy and on the U.S.

Dr. ROBERT DALLEK (Historian; Author): The bad name that the United States has been given as a consequence of the torture, Abu Ghraib, the waterboarding - America's standing around the world has been badly injured by this Bush administration.

GONYEA: Nonetheless, Bush biographer Robert Draper says Mr. Bush leaves office confident that history will see him as being on the right side of important challenges.

Mr. DRAPER: He believes he has installed terrorist-fighting tools in the form of enhanced interrogation techniques, as they say. And he believes they were right in terms of leaning into the global AIDS crisis. And so you can view all that, and on the one hand it sounds pretty positive. And then on the other hand, you see a, you know, an economy in tatters and America fighting two wars.

GONYEA: The economy's problems will only make it harder for the president's image to be rebuilt. Here's Professor Edwards.

Professor EDWARDS: Not anticipating the financial crisis that we're experiencing right now is again, something that's certainly not all his fault, and it's never fair to blame everything on a president. But certainly, doing very little to anticipate this or pre-empt it or prevent it is not going to look well in history.

GONYEA: Although historian Robert Dallek is a strong critic of President Bush's performance overall, he does give him some credit for his approach once the economic crisis hit. He cites a willingness to help financial institutions and the auto companies, breaking with many of his conservative allies to do so.

Dr. DALLEK: And as Cheney said, we don't want to be remembered as a Herbert Hoover. Now, it doesn't mean he solved the economic crisis of the country. But at least he tried some things, and I think he deserves some credit for that.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Texas A&M's George Edwards says President Bush will also get credit for being decisive, for good or for ill.

Professor EDWARDS: Certainly, history will view this as a consequential presidency. George W. Bush was one who thought boldly and aimed explicitly to make a lasting impact.

GONYEA: Bush biographer Robert Draper agrees that whatever individuals feel about this president, he'll be regarded as consequential. But historian Dallek has a different prediction.

Dr. DALLEK: Fifty, 75, 100 years from now, I think Bush will be a forgotten president.

GONYEA: Dallek notes that President Bush cites the avoidance of another 9/11 attack as a major accomplishment of his administration. But Dallek also holds that people don't remember you for what didn't happen. He then adds this thought.

Dr. DALLEK: The most memorable presidents, without question, are those who had some kind of catchphrase - a bumper sticker, if you will. Theodore Roosevelt, the Square Deal; Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal; John Kennedy, the New Frontier; Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society; Reagan remembered for saying, it's morning in America. What is there with George W. Bush? What's the bumper sticker? I don't know.

GONYEA: Of course, President Bush won't simply be on the sidelines. He says he'll make his own case by writing his memoirs. And at age 62 and in good health, he expects to be around a long time to play a role in what will surely be a continuing debate over his legacy. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

SHAPIRO: You can retrace some of the highs and lows of President Bush's eight years in office through an interactive timeline at npr.org.

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