In his final days as president, George W. Bush remains an extraordinarily divisive figure. My last column, which focused on Bush's current moves toward outreach, caused such a reaction—pro and con—that it seems worth examining, one last time, what it is about this man that generates such scorn on the one side and such devotion on the other.
The column discussed how Bush was acting in a very gracious and cooperative manner toward President-elect Barack Obama, in contrast to the harsh and rancorous tone that Bush helped to foster in Washington over the past eight years. That piece generated nearly 200 comments on our website. Few took a middle ground.
Bush inadvertently stirred up the divisions again on January 7 when he hosted Obama, along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, at the White House. By all accounts, this ultimate power lunch was marked by goodwill and good cheer, but many of Bush's critics said it was too little, too late.
A new CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll found that only 27 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance. And such ratings have caused intense frustration in the president's inner circle. A senior White House official sent me an E-mail arguing that Bush's achievements aren't being properly recognized. "I just read your piece about the president's lack of reaching out to Dems early on in the administration (before the '08 election)," the adviser wrote. "I disagree—and don't think it's possible for any president to have passed as much legislation as the President has if he didn't have that bipartisan support, even on the most controversial issues, like FISA reform. But the one thing that burns me up about this criticism of the President is that he has never once personally attacked any of them—and yet, they get away with calling him a liar, a thief, and a war criminal. I think that if there's criticism for the tone in Washington that we share some of the blame, but not all of it—the most vitriolic and hateful things were said openly about him, and he never rose to the bait. Just something to keep in mind for the future in case you continue to write about this in the future—thanks for hearing me out."
Well said. But this adviser's defense, however heartfelt, does not explain why Bush has generated such intense reactions for so long. Based on the outpouring of comments on the U.S. News website, the pro-Bush side generally cites his character, his willingness to stick to his guns no matter how much he is criticized, and his success in keeping the country safe from major terrorist attacks since 9/11. The anti-Bush group argues that most of his major policies have failed, that people trusted him but he let them down, especially in the Iraq war, and that has been too arbitrary and inflexible.
On the plus side, John Skookum of AZ, a Bush fan, wrote: "Good for you, Mr. Bush. What a change from the open contempt that the Clinton White House treated you with during the previous transition. You're going to be another Harry Truman. Reviled in office, and revered in retrospect. Well done, sir. Enjoy your retirement."Janis Moakler of ME wrote: "Only the maniacal 'Bush haters' can deny the good qualities about this president." Mike of NJ added: "The lack of reality necessary to be a Democrat is amazing. If America so disgusts the left, get the heck out. NOW."
On the anti-Bush side, Angusr of CA wrote, "Of course he is changing his colors. He does not want to be indicted for war crimes." Added "of CA": "President Bush's selection of a running mate nine years ago sent a shock wave through those of us who have followed Dick Cheney throughout the last 30-plus years. It is no surprise to me that President Bush destroyed the nation's resolve, economy, and status throughout the world." And a reader in Ohio wrote, "Bush is still an idiot."
Expressing a more balanced view—a rare stance in assessing Bush—was Tony L of NY. "Yes," he said, "Bush was a horrible president who was unwavering in his political stance, even when wrong. Yes, he is a respectful man of good character. The possibility that both assessments could be true is something his detractors have never been able to accept. Just because someone doesn't agree with you or your views doesn't make him a bad person."
In recent years, Republican Ronald Reagan also was a polarizing figure, as was Democrat Bill Clinton. But Bush appears to have divided America at least as much as they did, and largely because he was such a decisive person. It was his own choices that, by and large, led to his polarizing impact, not fate or circumstances beyond his control. One can only hope that Barack Obama, when he takes office on January 20, can somehow get past the animosities and vengefulness of the past and move toward a more harmonious era.