Reflecting on George H. W. Bush's Legacy

A forum at his presidential library turned into a series of testimonials to Bush.

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas—Every presidential library has its own distinct approach to its namesake and to history. John F. Kennedy's facility in Boston focuses on keeping alive the legacy of Camelot. Jimmy Carter's library and policy center in Atlanta promote charitable good works and peacemaking. Ronald Reagan's library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif., emphasize his role in winning the Cold War and rebuilding America's self-confidence.

George H. W. Bush's library in College Station, Texas, is different. It isn't self-congratulatory or full of hyperbole. Instead, it reflects the 41st president in taking a relatively straightforward approach to explaining his administration, a change from the legacy obsession that captures too many past presidents and their promoters.

At a forum marking the 20th anniversary of Bush's taking office in 1989, I participated in a panel discussion on Bush's economic and domestic policies and attended discussions of his national security policy and the leadership he exhibited. They turned into a series of testimonials to Bush himself—his foresight, his maturity, his sense of responsibility.

Roger Porter, Bush's White House domestic adviser and now a professor at Harvard, said Bush did many things he didn't get credit for at the time—and some positive things for which he was widely criticized. One was the 1990 budget deal with congressional Democrats, for which he was pilloried by conservatives for breaking his "no new taxes" pledge. Porter and former White House economics adviser Michael Boskin argued that the surge in the economy under President Bill Clinton years later could be traced at least in part to that deal in 1990.

Several foreign policy advisers said Bush's calm and reasoned handing of the collapse of the Soviet empire made that period a lot smoother than it otherwise would have been, especially in the delicate case of the reunification of Germany.

The highlight of the forum last Friday was the appearance by former President Bush himself. Walking stiffly with a cane because of hip surgery, he looked his age of 84. He joked to the crowd of several hundred at the auditorium of his College Station library that he sometimes can't believe that he was indeed president from 1989 to 1993—it seems so long ago. But he obviously is proud of his achievements and is confident that history will treat him kindly.

So are his former aides, who remain devoted to him. And history is moving to his side as well. A recent C-SPAN survey indicates that historians are now giving Bush higher ratings; in the latest survey, he has gone up from the 20th best president to the 18th.

At the forum, several of his aides came forward with a simple and gentle reminder: We told you so.