The George W. Bush Presidential Center was dedicated Thursday morning at Southern Methodist University, bringing all the living presidents to Dallas for the ceremony. The complex includes a library, museum and public policy center, and its dedication draws Bush's presidential legacy back into the limelight.
Bush has remained out of the public eye since he left office – in contrast to his predecessor Bill Clinton, who was active in the 2012 presidential campaign and remains so in his various charitable endeavors. A CNN poll released Wednesday showed a 13 percentage point drop in the amount of people who see Bush's presidency as a failure. Now, only 55 percent of those questioned say Bush was a failed president, down from 68 percent in January 2009 when he left office.
While public opinion seems to be shifting in his favor, Bush still inspires passionate discussion of the decisions he made in office and the ways his policies still affect the country. Keith Hennessey, a former economic adviser to Bush, said his personal experience working with the former president showed Bush's intellect firsthand despite the wide public perception that he is unintelligent:
[W]hile my job involved juggling a lot of balls, I only had to worry about economic issues. In addition to all of those, at any given point in time he was making enormous decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, on hunting al Qaeda and keeping America safe. He was making choices not just on taxes and spending and trade and energy and climate and health care and agriculture and Social Security and Medicare, but also on education and immigration, on crime and justice issues, on environmental policy and social policy and politics. Being able to handle such substantive breadth and depth, on such huge decisions, in parallel, requires not just enormous strength of character but tremendous intellectual power. President Bush has both.
While not always so complimentary of his predocessor, Obama spoke kind words about Bush ahead of the dedication ceremony:
One of the things I will insist upon is whatever our political differences, President Bush loves this country and loves its people and shares that same concern, and was concerned about all people in America, not just those who voted Republican. I think that's true about him and I think that's true about most of us.
Yet those still critical of Bush have a laundry list of things he mishandled during his tenure. The editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger lists the former president's "horrendous mistakes": the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war; torture of terrorism suspects; the federal response to Hurricane Katrina; and spending away the budget surplus he inherited, playing a part in the current debt crisis. They argue these things mean that even as time has passed, Bush's presidency shouldn't be looked upon with rose-colored glasses:
Yes, Truman and Eisenhower were rehabilitated, but even the most creative and partisan historian will have a hard time giving Bush a passing grade. The former presidents and foreign dignitaries who gather today to dedicate Bush's library will be polite and say nice things.
But on balance, Bush was among the worst presidents in our history. His mistakes were enormous, and they haunt us still.
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