Here's the curious thing about the defenses of George W. Bush during his legacy tour this week: rather than saying he did a good job as president, his allies are emphasizing that he had a really hard job. Bush's presidential library, getting the full celebration in Dallas this morning, "reflects the president's viewpoint on some of the difficult choices he faced," former chief of staff Andy Card told NBC News. After 9/11, the administration decided to go on offense, former aide Dan Bartlett said, and "With that came a lot of difficult decisions... And it's difficult, only four years after a president leaves office, to pull out a scorecard." In a video at Bush's library, Condoleezza Rice explains there were some controversies over Iraq and waterboarding, but, "If you were in a position of authority on September 11, every day after was September 12." George W. Bush is "smarter than you," former Bush aide Keith Hennessey tells his MBA students at Stanford. Bush could go toe-to-toe with him in meetings, and Hennessy only had to think about economic issues, while Bush had to think about foreign policy, too. Bush suffered under a stereotype of "a good ol' boy from Texas who is principled and tough, but just not that bright." Former aide Josh Bolten urged allies to get some perspective: "I think it would behoove certainly the Republican Party not to continue... with criticism of a record that really wasn't so bad."
Being president is really hard. "I made some very controversial decisions," Bush said on the Today show Thursday. "Have you rethought any of them?" Matt Lauer asked. "No," Bush said, saying the homeland had remained secure. "Look, you do what you do," Bush explained, sounding like the aging pop-philosophizing Boomer he is. "I gave it my best…. I gave my best shot for America. And that's all you can do in life." That is all most of us can do in life, but most of us will never be president of the United States.
Being an ex-president, it seems, is pretty hard, too. "I told President Obama this was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history," Bill Clinton said at the dedication ceremony in Dallas. Indeed, Bush personally oversaw the development of "every single exhibit," Yahoo's Holly Bailey reports. It seems he wanted Americans to know his job wasn't easy. One display in Bush's presidential library is set up to show that being president isn't as easy as it looks. Bush told ABC News that he's "very comfortable" with his decision to invade Iraq. "As far as I'm concerned, the debate is over." But he wants you to be comfortable with it. An interactive exhibit called Decision Points Theater "gives players chances to compete against each other by second-guessing or affirming Bush's decisions about Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks," USA Today reports. Viewers listen to fake advisers before deciding what they would do as president. This is not an innovation of Bush's library. Ronald Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley, California, has something similar, about the invasion of Grenada. As Starlee Kline explained on This American Life, when a kid plays Reagan, he's given several choices. "Each time the kids choose to do what [Reagan] did, a bell goes off as though they've won a tropical vacation in Grenada, instead of an invasion," Kline says. The tour guide responds, "Nicely done, that is another correct response according to President Reagan." (Above right, Bush's post-9/11 bullhorn is on display, as NPR's Don Gonyea tweets.)
"I'm obligated to state the obvious, which is that George W. Bush is hardly flawless," Karl Rove writes in The Wall Street Journal Thursday. He says Bush had bot moral clarity and courage to make unpopular decisions. Rove writes:
Even his use of phrases like 'the axis of evil,' which drove critics batty, was grounded in a true understanding of the North Korean, Iranian and Saddam Hussein-ruled Iraqi regimes.
One way to judge Bush's understanding of Iraq might be that he said a line written by speechwriters, and then stood strong as Jon Stewart made fun of that line. Another way to understand the comprehensiveness of his understanding might be to look at the lack of planning for the occupation of Iraq, and so, for example, the task of reopening Baghdad's stock exchange was given to a 24-year-old. Rove's soft bigotry of low expectations continues. "Mr. Bush ran in 2000 promising to restore honor and dignity to the presidency," Rove says. He does not explicitly say Bush accomplished this. Perhaps that is because listing "not having sex with an intern in the Oval Office" as one of Bush's accomplishments might underscore how small that list is.
A wave of faint praise for Bush has hit in recent days. National Journal noted he was punctual. Carl P. Leubsdorf, former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News, tells Politico, "We've been reminded of what a classy human being he and all the Bushes are," because they haven't stepped into partisan politics since leaving the White House. "The Bushes always had good manners."
Bush himself told ABC News that his latest form of self-expression, painting, isn't as easy as it looks, either. Of his self-portrait in the bathtub, Bush says, "By the way that's not that easy to paint -- water hitting water, you know." Laura Bush told NPR that Bush's library will display his paintings "maybe if he gets better." Molly Ivins predicted this all in Time, just after Bush was elected in 2000. Ivins wrote, "Think how pleasantly surprised we're going to be when we discover George W. is, as he has been all his life, sort of adequate."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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