George W. Bush received three standing ovations last week, the first for the mere mention of his name.
Bush was in town for the Atlantic Council's annual fundraiser, where he received the Distinguished International Leadership Award from the influential think tank. More than 800 guests from 70 countries — including former presidents, prime ministers and military leaders — gave the 43rd president a warm, enthusiastic welcome.
He was introduced via video by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said, "Ultimately, true leadership requires being, deep down, a good person."
Bush responded with vintage Dubya: self-deprecating jokes, references to his mom and dad, and highlighting the importance of global diplomacy — specifically his administration's work on the AIDS crisis. "I'm honored to get this award," he told the audience. "I'd really like to dedicate it to the generosity of the American people and ask you to spread the word about what this great compassionate nation has done."
He did not mention Iraq, nor did anyone else on this night of celebration.
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"Time has done the reputation of President Bush a lot of good," said Fred Kempe, president of the bipartisan Atlantic Council.
The organization has considered giving Bush the award for the past few years, but the Iraq War was always the stumbling block. This year, the jury looked at his work fighting AIDS, his foreign policy in Africa and his leadership in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. "Our conclusion was that, the longer time goes on and his presidency is reassessed, the better he looks," Kempe said.
Washington, it seems, has developed Bush nostalgia. Just nine years after he left the White House, many conservatives pine for their misunderestimated good old boy from Texas. Looking in the rearview mirror, the last Republican president suddenly appears measured, compassionate, principled — in short, presidential. Even liberals who could not wait for Barack Obama to move into the White House are grudgingly penitent, privately admitting that they didn't appreciate Bush's good qualities.
Fifteen years since the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner was unfurled celebrating victory in Iraq, the debate about the war rages on. Critics of the invasion believe it will always define Bush's presidency. Admirers think history will be kinder to him. We'll all be dead before there's a verdict one way or the other.
When Bush left Washington, his popularity was in the tank, with just a 33 percent approval rating. Those numbers have doubled: 61 percent of Americans, including a number of Democrats and independents, say they have a favorable view of him, according to a CNN poll released this January.
But this newfound appreciation may have less to do with history and more to do with political beer goggles: It's 2 a.m. in nation's capital, and suddenly every past president looks good.
No one wants to say it out loud, but Donald Trump may be the best thing that ever happened to George W. Bush.
Friends say the 43rd president hates the "L" word — "legacy" — and he declines most interviews on the subject, including one for this article.
Bush "has always understood that history would have a different view of his presidency and of its consequences as the years passed," said presidential historian Jon Meacham. "He is a big reader of biography and history and knows that perspectives change as the passions of the moment cool; issues that loom large in real time often fade over time."
It takes 25 to 30 years to form an accurate assessment of any presidency. "Unless you're Lincoln or FDR," Meacham said, "you're going to have divided opinion in real time."
The headlines that seem so important inevitably fade: Harry Truman was very unpopular when he left office on 1953, only to see his historical stock rise as the Cold War institutions he created are widely credited with preventing another world war. Dwight Eisenhower was criticized for the Korean War, which some now regard as vital to the balance of power in Asia. Lyndon Johnson remains divisive: pilloried for the Vietnam War, lauded for his groundbreaking work on civil rights. For his part, Meacham believes Bush will viewed as a more sophisticated and significant president than he is judged today.
But presidential character? That's on display from Day 1, and to many, Bush — compared with Trump's tweets, tantrums and general disregard for truth — looks like a scholar and a gentleman.
Like most establishment Republicans, the Bush family was quietly dismissive of Trump — who repeatedly insulted Jeb Bush and other primary opponents during the 2016 campaign. But in interviews with Mark Updegrove, author of "The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush," both men spoke candidly about the businessman turned politician.
"I don't like him," said George H.W. Bush in May 2016. "I don't know much about him, but I know he's a blowhard. And I'm not too excited about him being a leader." His son, surprised when Trump became the GOP nominee, focused on the new Republican standard-bearer's moral fitness: "The question for the country to decide — on both candidates, by the way — is to what extent should we be insisting upon integrity and solid character."
Neither Bush, writes Updegrove, voted for Trump: George H.W. picked Hillary Clinton. George W. did not cast a ballot for president.
The White House punched back when the book came out in November: "If one presidential candidate can disassemble a political party, it speaks volumes about how strong a legacy its past two presidents really had," an unnamed White House official told CNN. "And that begins with the Iraq War, one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in American history."
Bush's legacy has been saddled with scorching critiques from a number of foreign policy experts who view him as a naive follower of neoconservatives who charged into the Iraq War on the heels of bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction; who took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan — allowing al-Qaida to recover; who failed to adequately plan for the postwar societal disintegration and humanitarian crisis that followed the invasion.
But the current embrace of Bush has nothing to do with his politics or policies.
"It's nostalgia for the personal characteristics," said one Republican fundraiser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about his party's leaders. "Bush had a swaggering, wiseguy kind of personality, but he knew when to deploy it and when to behave like a president. He wasn't particularly articulate in his use of syntax. But he was someone who had real fidelity to the Constitution, to the norms of presidential behavior, to his wife. He ... seemed to be a good man."
Bush's longtime friend Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., believes people are responding to Bush's "genuineness."
He is "a person who doesn't have to be critical of everybody else, a person who understands how big these problems are, a person who just has a sense of the right way to conduct yourself as a former president."
How a president behaves after leaving office is a bigger factor in the legacy question than one might guess. As a general rule, Americans want dignity and statesmanship from their past presidents. Bush has kept a low profile: painting, promoting philanthropic causes, hanging out with Bono and Bill Clinton. He's made millions giving corporate speeches, while avoiding the appearance of cashing in on his White House years.
And he's been careful not to publicly weigh in on Trump since the election. In a widely reported speech last October, Bush gave an address on leadership without once mentioning the current president by name — but pointing a finger nonetheless. "We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed," he said. "It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy."
Even those who believe Bush was wrong to invade Iraq rarely question his patriotism or his respect for the office. Madeleine Albright, who also spoke that day at the George W. Bush Institute event in New York City, writes in her new book: "We disagreed often about matter of policy. However, I have always admired the man's easygoing optimism and his personal decency, qualities that have become far less common in public life than they should be."
In other words, Trump — named or unnamed — has become the prism from which every president's character is judged, especially Bush, his Republican predecessor.
"The current rising fondness for him has a lot to do, obviously, with the temperamental contrast he offers to the incumbent," said Meacham. "Disagree with him as you will, he inarguably upheld the dignity of the office and represented a center-right sensibility that's facing an existential crisis right now."
There's another take on this nostalgia, a darker view that warns of romanticizing Bush and his administration.
"Trump is a uniquely dangerous and unfit president in many ways, but he tempts liberals to paint the Republican leaders who preceded him in an afterglow of decency and high-mindedness that is hard to detect if you go searching for it in the recent past," Brian Beutler, editor in chief of the progressive Crooked Media, wrote last October. "The unremitting awfulness of the George W. Bush presidency — particularly its early years — has been rewritten in a faction of the liberal imagination as a kind of golden age when political debate was more honest and fact-driven. Things are in some ways worse now, but if that era ever existed, it predated (Bush) by many years."
The arguments for and against Bush — his policies, his priorities, his performance — fall roughly into two camps.
One believes that the decision to invade Iraq overshadows anything else Bush did during his eight years, a choice that plunged this country into a crippling war that continues to this day, a war with an incalculable price in terms of money, foreign policy, lives lost and global terrorism.
"The Bush-Cheney administration paved the way to a war with false statements, from misrepresentations, and what I think you can justifiably call lies," said David Corn, a liberal critic and co-author of "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War." "That war was poorly planned, poorly implemented, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It also gave rise to ISIS and created far more problems than it might have solved." There is no way, Corn said, to look at the 43rd presidency without seeing it defined by "the disaster in the Middle East."
The other camp allows that the Iraq invasion was controversial and flawed. "I think there's a recognition that, whether based on bad intelligence or just a bad policy decision, that the Iraq invasion wasn't the finest moment in his presidency," Kempe acknowledged. "Where people start to differ is the surge, a really courageous corrective. A lot of people feel that he doesn't get enough credit."
The surge put things on a better path — which Obama did not build on, said Kempe, who argues that Bush left Iraq on a positive trajectory.
As the years have passed "people have been able to put Iraq in perspective in a way that they were not before," said Steven Hadley, who advised Bush on national security affairs. "And people were then able to look at some of the other things that were going on in the administration that were pretty positive."
He ticks off Bush's work on education, immigration, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), malaria in Africa, international development and, especially, keeping the country free from a major terrorist attack after 9/11. "I think there is both a sense that it was a more of bipartisan era and also a sense that the Congress and the White House were able to work together to do some things that really mattered."
Inevitably, Americans compare past presidents with the current officeholder. For the past few years, Bush has routinely appeared on snarky lists of America's worst presidents, joining James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses Grant and Richard Nixon. Where he ends up a century from now is anyone's guess.
Team Bush, of course, wants the president to be judged on his own merits: As a leader they see as a principled politician, as a man of character. "He had a reverence for the office of the presidency and wanted to make sure that he did nothing to discredit that office," Hadley said.
"I hope you don't make this 'Bush is a contrast to Trump' or 'Bush as a critique of Trump,' " he added. The reassessment is happening "as a result of the passage of time. And I think it would have happened even if somebody else other than President Trump had been elected."
Probably not. But historians, for good or ill, will have the final word.
"I believe that the Greeks had it right when they said, 'Character is destiny,'" said Meacham. "When we talk about George Washington we don't talk about the Jay Treaty. We talk about his virtues and the tone that he lent the early years of the American experiment."
The reason history had been kind to Truman, Eisenhower and will be so to Bush, he believes, is that "they understood that the national interest was more important than their personal one — and that's not a sentimental point. They knew that it was important to do things that were right, and that history was a lot longer than that given news cycle. And that's something that Trump does not understand."
Bush understands. As he left the stage, the audience gave him one last sustained ovation. One guest turned to her companion and sighed, "I hardly recognize the Republican Party these days."