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AMIDST THE celebrity sightings, record-breaking crowds, and inaugural hoopla, our 43rd President, George W. Bush, left town out the back door this Tuesday. And as the newly “former” President lifted off the Andrews Air Force Base tarmac in a plane no longer called Air Force One, he left behind a legacy that is still incubating, hotly debated on just about every point imaginable.
Current polls tell an overwhelming story about Bush’s eight years in office. They depict him as a man out-matched for the job, as an ineffective leader in times of crisis, and as one of the worst Presidents in modern history.
But polls are not historical crystal balls. Rather, they tap into the here and now, and will give way over time to a new undercurrent of thought regarding our 43rd president. This is true for two primary reasons: he was a leader of great personal integrity, and he was able to exercise his Presidential power effectively.
I’ve long felt that President Bush is the best bits of Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, rolled up in a Texas oil-man’s body. I know that in a piece defending Bush’s legacy, it probably seems counterintuitive to draw comparisons to men widely considered to have failed the country.
But what made Nixon and Carter bad presidents? Nixon certainly implemented a broad array of important policy, bringing an end to the war in Vietnam and opening up trade with China, to name a few. And the Baptist peanut farmer from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, had character certainly not lacking in depth.
History views them unkindly because they didn’t have both. The discrepancy in Nixon’s character crippled his leadership and left his legacy forever tarnished. And Carter was unable to seize control of the executive branch to make important decisions. He had a heart of gold, but his waffling leadership is all we talk about today.
From my vantage point in the Bush administration over the past year and a half, I was able to experience the paramount personal kindness of the President. I was able to see him cry with the wives and mothers of fallen soldiers, joke around with his military aids, and never fail to thank low level staffers for their work.
It is this core essence of the man—the side of him that shone mostly brightly when the lights dimmed and the cameras stopped rolling—that formed the foundation of his presidency. It was this quality that enabled him to navigate the bare-knuckles politics of Capitol Hill, the pay-to-play lobbying of K Street, and the mind-numbing power of his own office.
He often talked about his faith, and his understanding that even our world’s greatest men are “just little guys” in comparison to the Almighty. This humility, in addition to his care for humanity, created a cohesiveness of leadership inside the White House that was based on principle, and which allowed the president to establish a loyal team, capable of implementing his political vision.
Throughout President Bush’s two terms, opponents consistently underestimated his political skill. Perhaps this was partly due to his no-frills, good ol’ boy communication style. But his record of success makes him look like a political wizard. He worked with both houses of congress to secure permission to enter Afghanistan and Iraq, to pass tax cuts, to implement No Child Left Behind, to engineer an economic stimulus package, and to obtain military money and support during the surge. He was at his best when the political odds were stacked highest against him.
President Bush left our nation’s highest office an unpopular man. But two facts are undeniable: he led with great integrity, and he had his way politically during his time in office. Granted, his decisions have been disputed, but the fact that he made important decisions when he needed to make them is indisputable. History looks kindly upon presidencies of this makeup, and it is easy to see why: leaders are esteemed when they show strong care for the American people, and when they are able to achieve their own goals.
I know I have been touched by President Bush. It was an honor to serve him for a short time. Aspiring future leaders would do well not to dismiss his example, and to view his legacy through a lens untainted by the current sway of public opinion.
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