George W. Bush will return to the spotlight this week for the dedication of his presidential library, an event likely to trigger fresh public debate about his eight years in office. But he re-emerges with a better public image than when he left Washington, D.C., more than four years ago.
Since then, he has absented himself from both policy disputes and political battles. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests time and Bush’s relative invisibility have been beneficial to a chief executive who left office surrounded by controversy.
Days before his second term ended in 2009, Bush’s approval rating among all adults was 33 percent positive and 66 percent negative. The new poll found 47 percent saying they approve and 50 percent saying they disapprove. Among registered voters, his approval rating today is equal to President Obama’s, at 47 percent, according to the latest Post-ABC surveys.
Majorities said they still disapprove of Bush’s performance on the Iraq war and the economy, but his economic approval numbers nearly doubled between December 2008 and today, from 24 to 43 percent, with 53 percent disapproving. Iraq remains the most troublesome part of his legacy. Today, 57 percent say they disapprove of his decision to invade, though that is down from 65 percent in the spring of 2008, the last time the question was asked.
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Historians say it will take years, even decades, for any substantial revision of his presidency. Bush has said he is content to let history judge him and told the designers of his presidential museum to present the facts and let visitors decide whether he was right.
Some allies see Thursday’s official opening of The George W. Bush Presidential Center on the edge of the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas as an opportunity to begin to set his presidency into broader perspective.
Thousands of dignitaries — including all five living presidents — are expected at the invitation-only dedication of the 226,565-square-foot, $250 million library, museum and political institute commemorating the 43rd president’s eight years in the White House.
“Obviously, it’s a big moment for him,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a telephone interview from London. “It’s a chance for him to explain that his political philosophy encompasses much more than the decisions he had to take after 9/11.”
The George W. Bush Foundation raised the money to build the center. The foundation donated the library and museum portions of the center to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration on Wednesday.
Historians say there’s a long way to go before the ink is dry on the history books that are still being written about his presidency.
“War is a substantial part of his legacy,” said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor specializing in presidential studies at the University of Texas, Austin. “Where Afghanistan was an arguably necessary war, the decision to go into Iraq was controversial … and in some minds oversold, if not worse.
“People who are starting to pull together the history books wonder why and if it’s worth the investment,” he said.
Tom Schieffer, a Fort Worth attorney who spent eight years as an ambassador in the George W. Bush administration, said: “The legacy of George W. Bush will always be shaped by 9/11 and all that followed. It was literally a day that changed the world. … He was determined to do everything he could to see that it never happened again.”
The war in Iraq, which he launched on the basis of faulty intelligence in the aftermath of 9/11, left the U.S. divided. His final months in office brought a collapse of the financial system that led to the worst recession since the Great Depression. In between, his administration’s wobbly response to Hurricane Katrina damaged his image.
But he returns to public view at a moment some parts of his record are being viewed more charitably. His advocacy for an immigration overhaul and his relative success at attracting Hispanic voters, for example, are seen as a model for a Republican Party that has awakened to its glaring deficit in the Latino community.
Thursday’s events are likely to be shorn of partisanship, though commentary around them may not be. The guest list will be topped by Obama and all living former presidents, including Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and Blair, who stood steadfastly with Bush after the 2001 attacks and his decision to invade Iraq 18 months later, will be among the many dignitaries and Bush administration alumni who will gather.
Karen Hughes, who served as a counselor to Bush, said the former president told her he considers the day “a joyful opportunity to give thanks” — to the other presidents for being there, to those who served in his administration, to the workers who built the architecturally handsome Bush center.
Members of Bush’s team said they’re prepared to take on critics, if necessary, amid the media attention.
“Clearly some pretty significant distortions have been fostered by the current president and others,” Hughes said. “Those of us who worked for him see it [the dedication ceremony] as an opportunity to set the record straight in some cases.”
Bush advisers think that over time, more attention will focus on aspects of his presidency that were overshadowed by his national-security and economic records. They point to his initiative to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, which has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives; his efforts to bring accountability and higher standards to public education; and his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform, which was rejected by his party.
One section of the Bush museum, known as the Decision Points Theater, focuses on four of his key decisions: the invasion of Iraq, the troop surge, the financial crisis and the response to Hurricane Katrina. Visitors will hear the information available to the president at the time and then choose what they would do in each case. Bush, on video, will explain his decisions.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, of Rice University, recently toured the Bush museum; he called it “beautifully designed” but predicted it would spark controversy.
“It’s going to be mocked and trashed by liberal Democrats, and conservative Republicans are going to say what a marvelous place it is,” he said. As for Bush’s potential place in history, he said, “It’s going to be hard for him to rehabilitate fully.”
Stanford University’s David Kennedy predicted judgments about Bush are not likely to change unless perceptions of Iraq and what triggered the financial crisis change first.
But H.W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas, said it’s possible that Bush’s legacy could undergo a genuine reworking as time passes.
“The worse a president’s reputation when he leaves office, the better chance there is for revision,” he said. “Every so often there’s a new generation of historians, and they have to come along and challenge the conventional wisdom.”
Material from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Associated Press is included in this report.