He is one of the most controversial figures in American life. And as he approaches the end of his presidency, George W. Bush has finally joined the raging national debate about his legacy. In recent interviews and public statements, Bush has been more contemplative and revealing than ever as he assesses his eight years in office, attempts to lift his public image out of the trough, and shapes perceptions of his era. In this series, U.S. News reviews the Bush presidency from the beginning in 2001—with a special focus on five of his most fateful decisions, including going to war in Iraq and, more recently, approving a huge bailout of the financial industry.
The "war on terror." Almost from the moment he learned of the 9/11 attacks, Bush made protecting the nation from what he called "the evildoers" his first priority. On the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001, he was preparing to address a class at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., when an aide told him that a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Bush thought the pilot had suffered a heart attack and lost control of the aircraft. Minutes later, as he read to the children in front of the TV cameras, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card whispered in his right ear: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack." Bush looked puzzled and dazed. He later told author Bob Woodward what he was thinking. "They had declared war on us," Bush said, "and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war." In some basic ways, many of the most important subsequent decisions of his presidency stemmed from that gut reaction, from his approval of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects to his moves to pursue and destroy terrorists and their allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For Bush, his course was suddenly crystal clear. He had a mission. "It was a 100-degree turn of the ship of state," says Ari Fleischer, Bush's first White House press secretary. "He ran [for president] of the United States having a humble foreign policy. He did not run on a muscular foreign policy." But he quickly invented one.
Most Americans still remember Bush's bravura performance three days after the terrorist attacks when he stood on a pile of rubble at ground zero in New York. Brandishing a bullhorn, he promised rescue workers and the nation that he would respond with righteous wrath against the terrorists "who knocked these buildings down."
Some say he missed the chance to unify the country behind larger goals, such as creating a massive volunteerism movement or a campaign to lessen reliance on Mideast oil. Instead, "he called on the country to shop" in order to return to normalcy, says Matthew Dowd, Bush's former political adviser who broke with him over the Iraq war.
But Bush's focus was narrowly targeted—to wage a global war against Islamic jihadists. "He wanted action, solutions," writes Woodward in Bush at War. "Once on a course, he directed his energy at forging on, rarely looking back, scoffing at—even ridiculing—doubt and anything less than 100 percent commitment. He seemed to harbor few, if any, regrets." He still feels that way.
Bush's defenders say his aggressive actions to fight terrorism will stand the test of time. "He has kept us safe," says Fleischer. "We have not been hit since 2001. That's a monumental accomplishment."