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As Bush re-emerges on public stage, a mixed presidential legacy takes shape


As former President George W. Bush steps back onto the public stage, he’s facing both criticism from detractors who point to his lingering unpopularity and divisive impact on the GOP, and praise from supporters who cite the importance of “compassionate conservatism” to the modern Republican Party.

While the former two-term president has kept a relatively low profile since leaving office in 2009, focusing on private speaking engagements and his burgeoning painting hobby, he will be back in the spotlight Thursday for the dedication of his presidential library in Dallas, Texas.

His re-emergence at this week’s event – which will feature all of the United States’ five living presidents – arrives just as his lasting political legacy comes into focus.

Mladen Antonov / AFP - Getty Images

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas will be dedicated on Thursday.

The controversies of the Bush administration – including the conflict in Iraq, the waging of the “global war on terror,” the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis – saddled the former Texas governor with staggering unpopularity by the end of his presidency, which helped give way to President Barack Obama’s ascendancy and an ongoing identity crisis within the GOP.

The library dedication offers Bush loyalists an opportunity to highlight what they see as the positive legacy of his eight years in office. But even among supporters, there is a sense of resignation that he won’t win the kind of historical vindication that once seemed assured.

“I’m increasingly doubtful, just because I think the lens of history is not changing,” said Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary. “A lot of us used to say President Bush will look good and he’ll be vindicated in the public eye. But realistically speaking, I don’t see a lot of the people who write history all of a sudden changing their mind about George W. Bush.”

The persistent focus on those controversies has made it difficult for Bush to repair his public image since leaving office. Thirty-five percent of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of Bush in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted at the beginning of this month; 44 percent of Americans said they viewed Bush unfavorably. (A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday featured rosier numbers for Bush – 47 percent approval vs. 50 percent disapproval.)

“He's had a little uptick in the polls, but I think in terms of historians, he'll rank near the bottom of mediocre presidents,” said strategist Bob Shrum, a top adviser to the two Democratic presidential nominees who lost to Bush, Vice President Al Gore and then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. “I don't think the Iraq War can be redeemed. What was done to the economy and budget will be permanently part of his legacy.”

Benny Snyder / AP

Letters written from around the world and sent to the White House offering thoughts and prayers after the 9/11 attacks are displayed at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.

And while Bush might have shied away from the spotlight in the four years since leaving office, his effect in American politics is undeniable. The specter of Bush was a constant presence during the 2012 campaign, when Obama warned that his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, would return the country to the “failed policies of the past.”

A further study in contrast came during last summer’s Republican National Convention, where Bush was nowhere to be found in Tampa. Former President Bill Clinton, rather, was one of the featured prime-time speakers at his party’s confab, a stark reminder of the popularity gap between the two.

For Bush supporters, the economic collapse in 2008, along with Katrina and the extended conflict in Iraq, are blemishes against him – but they do not believe that he deserves to shoulder the primary blame. And for those allies of the former president who have toured the library (and continue to defend their former boss), they describe the new library as a blunt and forthright assessment of the Bush presidency.

“I think visitors are going to be surprised to see a frank discussion of what was done and why it was done,” Fleischer said. “It doesn’t shy away from controversy. The museum takes on the biggest issues for which the president was criticized.”

For all of the baggage that continues to surround Bush’s eight years in office, many of his supporters argue that the unpopular former president’s record offers Republicans more clues about their path to resurgence than cautionary tales.

Bush, for instance, unsuccessfully led a charge for comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, an initiative which conservatives are now revisiting amid the GOP’s slide with Hispanic voters. (Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.)

And following some of the harsher conservatism of congressional Republicans in the 1990s, Bush tried to put a somewhat softer face on the party – much as the party is trying to do now – during his 2000 bid for the presidency.

“He established the idea of compassionate conservatism, which is a concept that most Republicans realize was a winning message and one the party needs to return to in order to win,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior political adviser to Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

Benny Snyder / AP

An exhibit is shown in the museum area at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.

Those aspects of Bush’s political strategy are what helped make him such a formidable opponent, according to Shrum.

“The attempt he made with Kennedy and McCain to do immigration reform was right on the merits, but also right on the money politically as well,” he said.

But as the party he helped cleave continues to search for a path forward, Bush himself said that he did not think the GOP is so hopelessly moribund that it’s beyond repair.

“The party ought to nominate somebody who can stand by principles and explain why conservative principles are better for the vast majority of the citizens,” Bush told Parade Magazine in an interview published last Sunday. “I’m not one who believes that the Republican Party is doomed forever.”

The person to do that might end up being Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and the brother of George W. Bush. Of his younger sibling’s future potential ambitions, Bush said: “I hope he will run.”

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