George W. Bush's last-ditch attempt to burnish his legacy.

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Dec. 18 2008 6:31 PM

Magical History Tour

George W. Bush's last-ditch attempt to burnish his legacy.

President George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
President Bush

Introspection has never been President Bush's strong suit. "I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself," he told Robert Draper in 2007. "I'll try. But I don't spend a lot of time."

As his second term wanes, however, Bush is getting in touch with his inner president. At an event Thursday hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Bush promised to "share some thoughts about the presidency—you could call it 'reflections by a guy who's headed out of town.' " He has also revisited the ups and downs of his own presidency this month in interviews with ABC and CNN and in speeches at the U.S. Army War College, Texas A&M, and West Point. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, Bush is marking it up with a big red pen.

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The tour is going well so far, give or take a shoe. At the Baghdad press conference, he was able to hail the new status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq as the twilight of the old era and the dawning of a new one. At the U.S. Army War College, he actually listed his foreign-policy accomplishments, including "a vastly upgraded network of homeland defenses," "a revamped intelligence community," and "a strong coalition of more than 90 nations—composing almost half the world—who have committed to combating terror." At West Point, he told a seamless story about how 9/11 led us to invade Afghanistan and then, logically, Iraq. "[W]e offered Saddam Hussein a final chance to peacefully resolve the issue," Bush said. "And when he refused, we acted with a coalition of nations to protect our people—and liberated 25 million Iraqis." Why wait for the memoir? It's all here.

By now, the broad strokes of the Bush legacy refurbishment plan are clear. It rests on three planks:

1) Bush's presidency never deviated from its core principle of promoting freedom.

2) Mistakes were made, but only in unwavering service to this principle.

3) Bush succeeded in making the United States safer.

For Bush, the last point is the most important. A talking point he raises often is the absence of domestic terrorist attacks since 9/11. It's a wobbly leg to stand on. Who's to say what al-Qaida's planning schedule looked like? After all, more than eight years elapsed between Feb. 26, 1993, the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and 9/11. For doubters, Bush provides a short list of foiled plots: "an attempt to bomb fuel tanks at JFK Airport, a plot to blow up airliners bound for the East Coast, a scheme to attack a shopping mall in the Chicago area, and a plan to destroy the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles."

You can see why Bush is focusing his legacy-polishing on Iraq and security. In those cases, the countervailing evidence is harder to dredge up. Unlike, say, the economy. You can't throw a shoe these days without hitting a piece of horrific economic news, which, fairly or not, will inevitably be part of Bush's legacy. Still, Bush tried to put a happy face on the numbers: "It's hard to argue against 52 uninterrupted months of job growth," Bush said at AEI.Indeed, it is. But there is the small matter of what happened after that.

Bush is also finally admitting some mistakes—something he had trouble doing a few years back. They're relatively minor. "I came in wanting to change the tone of Washington," he said, "and frankly I didn't do a very good job of it." Of course, he's not the culprit. "I have never used my position as president to personally denigrate somebody," he said. The AEI conversation was a polite event, so Katrina, weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, the Valerie Plame affair, and the U.S. attorney firings never came up.

Bush also offered tips to the incoming president. Make sure information gets to the Oval Office in a timely manner. Let everyone air their views and debate one another, so you've heard all points of view before making a decision. Keep government interference in the market to a minimum. Everyone was too polite to mention that, even according to some fellow conservatives, his administration was marked by poor information flow, little dissent, and government overreach.

The real irony of Bush's rehabilitation project, though, is that he's taken it up even as he insists that only history can judge him. "You can't possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency," he told Draper. "Until I'm dead." Maybe he feels like a little legacy-burnishing in his last month in office can't hurt. And maybe there's no contradiction between defending one's actions and acknowledging that they will ultimately be judged by history.

In the here and now, however, this insistence on waiting for the verdict of history has one practical—and, to Bush, appealing—effect: It allows decision-makers to deflect legitimate criticism. If you believe a president's decisions are best judged by long-term outcomes, then by all means let history handle his legacy. But if you think presidents should be judged by their ability to weigh available evidence, ask the right questions, and make intelligent choices based on what they know, then—well,  there's no time for judging like the present. Future historians, as well as lame-duck presidents, are free to conclude that you were mistaken.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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