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 elevation of Dick Cheney. When Bush asked Cheney, the head of his vice presidential search team, to actually become his running mate, it was clear that he valued Cheney's Washington experience above all. "If times are good, I'm going to need your advice," Bush told Cheney, "but not nearly as much as if times are bad. Crisis management is an essential part of the job." Cheney went on to become the most powerful vice president in history. He was, for example, "a steamroller in pushing war with Iraq as the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein," Woodward reports.
The DNC's Dean says, "The most dreadful decision he made that hurt him the most was picking Dick Cheney as his running mate." He adds that "Cheney became a huge influence and that led to a lot of other bad decisions." High on Dean's list of negatives was Cheney's convincing Bush that "once you are elected, you can do whatever you want" regardless of the law and the Constitution, an echo of Zelizer's analysis about the expansion of executive power.
Dean's assessment may be a rhetorical stretch, but there is no doubt that Cheney was a powerful force pushing the new president to expand his powers. Cheney also was a strong voice for conservative policies such as tax cuts, measures to promote business, and proposals to allow more domestic energy production.
Bush's defenders say Cheney was vital, especially in the early years, in guiding the new president through the labyrinth of foreign policy, national security, and domestic issues. Bush had little hands-on experience as a Washington insider. Cheney, by contrast, had been White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, a U.S. representative from Wyoming, and defense secretary under President George H. W. Bush. Whether Cheney was given too much power will be debated by historians for decades.
As his days in office dwindle, Bush, 62, finds himself looking ahead to retirement with mixed feelings, as most presidents do. He plans to write a book and run his presidential library and policy center at Southern Methodist University. But he told ABC: "I'm going to have a lot of time to think. My day is going to go from getting up early-early and being at the Oval Office at 6:45 a.m., and having a lot to do when you get there, to waking up at 6:45 a.m., getting Momma the coffee—and kind of wandering around trying—'What's next, boss?' " His friends say his new mission is already clear. He will continue his bid to place the Bush legacy, now widely seen as unpopular and misguided, in the best possible light and to put a positive spin on all the fateful decisions he made as America's 43rd president.