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Jan 18th, 2009

History’s Judgment: How Bush Should Spin His Legacy

By Jessica Bennett
Newsweek Web Exclusive
January 16, 2009


Imagine — just for a second — that it’s 2020, and George W. Bush has restored his reputation. … Now try to answer this question: what would it take to actually make that happen?

The easy answer is that somehow between now and then, Iraq becomes a flourishing democracy, a source of cheap oil for the U.S., and a staunch ally in fending off the spread of terrorism in the region. Or that — by some sort of miracle — the American economy recovers, and Dow 20,000 becomes a reality.

But neither of those scenarios seems particularly likely at the moment. So how would a person go about restoring Bush’s legacy without the benefit of those gifts?

How do you sway public opinion in a climate where 98 percent of historians view your tenure as a failure — according to a recent poll by the History News Network — and only 13 percent of Americans believe you’ve helped the country’s problems, according to a December Pew survey?

Image experts suggest you acknowledge the negatives (Iraq, the economy) but then remind the public of the positives: education reform, funding to fight AIDS in Africa.

You paint the president as a man faced with unprecedented challenges (9/11, a new age of terror) — and no blueprint for how to deal with them. You repeat, and repeat, and repeat again that under trying circumstances, George W. Bush made the American people safer — in an entirely new era of national security.

You take Karl Rove and Dick Cheney out of the public eye, and you start planning Bush’s second act. Will he become a global humanitarian, as Carter did? An environmentalist, like Gore? Or exit the limelight entirely?

Above all, according to former speechwriters, friends and PR execs who spoke with NEWSWEEK, you must take responsibility for the failures to regain the public trust. …

No matter how you dice it, trying to rehabilitate an image at the end of a presidency is no simple feat — especially for W. Over the last few months, the 43rd president’s poll ratings have plummeted to Nixonian depths, and he leaves behind a trillion dollar deficit and an economy in shambles.

Memories of flood-ravaged New Orleans remain fresh in the public psyche, while the [trillion]-dollar war in Iraq drags on, with a body count of some 4,000 U.S. soldiers to date. Historians, pundits and politicians alike predict he’ll be remembered as being among the worst presidents in American history. …

Rove and longtime Bush strategist Karen Hughes are said to be heading up a Bush Legacy Project — an unofficial image restoration effort that’s likely behind his vast outgoing media tour, a list of suggested talking points sent out to administration officials last month en masse (among them: that Bush “kept the American people safe” and lifted the economy through tax cuts), and a 40-page downloadable PDF presently on the White House Web site, entitled, “100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record.” …

“The difference between Bush and Reagan is that when Reagan left office, you knew exactly how history would judge him, because he succeeded on the two things he’d set out to do: grow the economy and take down the Soviet Union,” says founder Grover Norquist, a conservative lobbyist and the president of Americans for Tax Reform, created during the Reagan years to help promote his tax act. “The challenge for Bush is that he leaves with not a lot of successes.”

The job of rehabilitating Bush may take more sophisticated strategizing. His legacy advisors are said to be planning a library and institute in his name, but he’s made it known he has no interest in, as he puts it, remaining on the world stage. Without a post-presidential redemption to look forward to, experts say Bush is erring when, again and again, he refuses to accept responsibility for at least some of what, over the last eight years, went wrong.

He has discussed in recent interviews his many “disappointments,” such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, as well as “missteps,” like the unfurling of the “Mission Accomplished” banner after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. But admitting actual “mistakes,” we know by now, don’t come as easily.

At his final press conference, when asked the state of the economy, Bush noted that the “problem started before my presidency.” His response to the badly executed Iraq occupation was that “hard things don’t happen overnight.” And in defending the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, he quipped: “Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed.”

But perhaps most heatedly discussed was when he told Charlie Gibson last month that his biggest regret was the “intelligence failure in Iraq.” “We need to come to grips with reality,” says former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who publicly broke with Bush over his handling of the Iraq war after leaving the job.

“Things didn’t turn out the way we expected or hoped, and we need to accept responsibility and acknowledge that. Saying that the intelligence was faulty is just another way of pushing responsibility onto others — and that’s not going to get him very far.”

However he chooses to spin it, the real challenge for Bush and his allies may be knowing when the public is ready to hear it. So where does that leave Dubya? In the hands of history, apparently. He’s said he wants to be remembered as the “man who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace.”

Well, “if, 20 or 30 years from now, Iraq is flourishing, I suppose everybody will say, ‘Well, Bush was right,'” says Lanny Davis, a long-time friend of Bush’s (from their days at Yale) who worked under the Clinton administration. “But that’s time, not spinmeisters or legacy projects.”

No matter how you spin it, this legacy, it seems, won’t be easily salvaged.

Related book chapter

The Political Personality of U.S. President George W. Bush. Book chapter by Aubrey Immelman in Linda O. Valenty & Ofer Feldman (Eds.), Political Leadership for the New Century: Personality and Behavior among American Leaders (pp. 81–103). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Related research paper

The Political Personalities of 2000 U.S. Presidential Candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. Paper presented by Aubrey Immelman at the 23rd Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Seattle, WA, July 1–4, 2000. Abstract and link for full-text (49 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons:

Related colloquium

Moral Crusader vs. Flyboy: The Political Personalities of Al Gore and George W. Bush. Forum presentation by Aubrey Immelman, November 3, 2000. Forum Lectures, 351. Retrieved from Digital Commons website:

Conflict in Iraq video

Rating Bush’s wars (MSNBC, Jan.16, 2009) – A “Hardball” panel talks about the impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars on the Bush legacy. (10:46)

2 Responses to “Exit Stage Right: The Bush Legacy”
  1. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Wholesale Slaughter in Iraq Says:

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  2. The Immelman Turn » Blog Archive » Iraq ‘Biggest Regret’ — George W. Bush Says:

    […] Exit Stage Right: The Bush Legacy (Jan. 18, 2009) […]

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