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Don’t ‘misunderestimate’ George W. Bush

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Americans typically support newly elected presidents and those who have left office. It’s incumbents they often dislike. George W. Bush is no exception. Although he lost the popular vote in 2000 by a half-million ballots but achieved an Electoral College victory over Vice President Al Gore by the barest of margins (after a Supreme Court decision in Bush’s favor), his initial approval rating was 57 percent, 10 points above the percentage of votes he garnered from the electorate. His support would soar over 90 percent after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as Americans demonstrated their propensity to “rally ’round the flag” and commanders in chief during wartime. 

When Bush turned the Oval Office keys over to Barack Obama in 2009, however, with “endless wars” still raging in Afghanistan and Iraq, Osama bin Laden very much alive, and a financial crisis threatening another Great Depression, his approval score had plummeted to 34 percent. He seemed destined to inhabit the failed presidency category of FDR’s successor, whose opponents branded him with the snarky aphorism, “To err is Truman.” 

Yet Harry Truman’s reputation rebounded in the early 1970s amidst Richard Nixon’s Watergate-infused presidency and the publication of an endearing oral history of the plain-speaking “Man from Independence.” The band Chicago even recorded a 1975 paean to the 33rd president, singing, “America needs you, Harry Truman. Harry, could you please come home?”

So far, no songs lauding Bush 43 have made it to the airwaves, but he seems to have overcome Oliver Stone’s scathing portrayal of him in the 2008 film “W.,” along with comedian Will Ferrell’s more good-natured impersonation, which added a faux Bush malaprop, “strategery,” to American political lexicography. Was it simply Donald Trump’s unprecedented presidency that reversed Bush’s approval rating slide and raised it to 61 percent by early 2018? Even among historians surveyed by C-SPAN in 2021, he rose four places in as many years, now ranking 29th out of 44 presidents. By contrast, Trump landed 41st in the historians’ rankings, and nearly half of Americans polled by the Gallup organization just before he left office predicted that history would rate him as a “poor” president.

Yet nostalgia for a more traditional president can’t be the sole explanation for the more positive re-evaluation of Bush’s administration. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks provides an opportunity to reassess what followed. Few presidents are tested so early in their tenures by such grave crises. Those who were — Lincoln (the Civil War) and FDR (the Great Depression) — and extinguished the existential threat, have gone down in history as among the greatest chief executives. 

Bush should be given credit for starting his presidency on a bipartisan note after the divisive Bush v. Gore election controversy. He immediately extended an olive branch to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to find common ground on education reform, inviting the Camelot heir and his family to the White House for a screening of “Thirteen Days,” a film about JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Yet, as Bush vacationed at his Texas ranch that summer, and spent precious time on the relatively minor issue of stem-cell research, his administration failed “to connect the dots,” as the 9/11 Commission would later conclude, and al Qaeda wrought its unparalleled destruction on the homeland that crystalline September morning in New York City, Northern Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

We saw Bush — who ran on a platform of eschewing regime change abroad and lowering taxes at home — transform into a wartime president before our very eyes: from his tense speech to the nation that night in the Oval Office, where he looked like the proverbial deer transfixed by headlights, to his compelling address at the National Cathedral later that week, to his moving ad-libbed response to first responders as he stood atop a crumpled fire engine amidst the smoldering heap of the collapsed World Trade Towers at Ground Zero in Manhattan. With his arm draped around the shoulder of a weary firefighter, he declared into a bullhorn, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” 

Eighty-eight percent of the American people and an overwhelming majority in Congress initially supported the United States’s and NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan to expel the extremist Taliban regime, which had provided a haven for al Qaeda. Installing a pro-Western government in Kabul, however, failed to achieve Bush’s cowboy boast that the U.S. would take Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” In fact, the cunning terrorist escaped to Pakistan. It took a daring Seal Team raid, ordered by President Obama in 2011, to breach bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound and fatally wound him.  

Claiming that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had conspired with the 9/11 terrorists and possessed weapons of mass destruction, in March 2003 Bush launched an invasion to remove the Iraqi dictator. Although American public opinion never supported Operation Iraqi Freedom to the same extent as it did the Afghan war, Bush narrowly defeated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for reelection in 2004. Despite the removal of Saddam, failure to find WMD, the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities committed by U.S. Army personnel, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (viewed as torture by human rights advocates), ill-considered decisions to disband the Iraqi army and remove partisan functionaries, mounting fatalities and horrific injuries among American military, and an insurgency by Iran-backed Shia forces, took their toll on American and international support for the war. Bush’s Republican Party suffered losses in the 2006 midterms, including its majorities in both houses of Congress. Avoiding another 9/11 disaster on the president’s watch failed to muster public support.

I attended a small gathering of students and faculty in 2007 at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, where President Bush spoke and fielded questions. In person, he was eloquent, fluent, witty and warm, traits that rarely came across in his televised speeches and press conferences. If people had seen that George Bush, might he have been a more popular incumbent? 

As a former president, he has displayed a Churchillian penchant for painting, especially poignant portrayals of wounded warriors and immigrants; a bipartisan relationship with Bill Clinton, whom he calls his “brother with a different mother”; and transformation into an adoring grandfather. His elegant and heartfelt eulogy for Bush 41, a genuine statesman and war hero, revealed that we should never “misunderestimate” 43 and his capacity for growth.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. She is co-editor of the forthcoming book, “41: Inside the Presidency of George W. Bush.” Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.

Tags 9/11 20th anniversary 9/11 attacks Al Gore Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump George W. Bush Invasion of Iraq John Kerry Presidency of George W. Bush

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