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Time will not do George W. Bush any favours

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

George W. Bush, despite his fondest wishes, isn't going to do a Truman.

In 1953, Harry Truman left office a desperately unpopular president. Today, he is viewed as having been a good president at worst and a very good one at best. The passage of time has been kind to the man thrust into the presidency on the death of Franklin Roosevelt.

The resurrection of Mr. Truman's reputation has inspired hope in unpopular politicians departing office that the perspective of time and the work of historians will change the verdict for future generations.

Invariably, their plea to history is that unpopularity flowed from having made hard decisions that time will make look better. As Mr. Bush said in his final speech, "You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

When tough decisions are bad ones, however, then both contemporaries and historians tend to draw the same conclusions. We expect politicians to make tough decisions, but we hope they will make correct decisions, which Mr. Bush did not.

Just as consequential as the hard bad decisions were a bunch of easy bad ones he made.

For example, he cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans, dropping the top marginal tax rate from 39.5 per cent to 35 per cent. He raised the estate tax ceiling to $3.5-million, with the result that the rich got richer. Those tax cuts helped to push the federal surplus he inherited from the Clinton administration into eight years in the red.

He expanded coverage for seniors' drug benefits without appropriating the money to pay for the expansion, thereby adding to the deficit. He did the same thing with education reform in the shape of the No Child Left Behind law: new requirements but not enough money to meet them. He went through eight years and barely used a presidential veto.

These, and many other decisions, were easy in the sense that they let spending rip without having to offend any constituency, let alone any Republican legislators who controlled Congress for most of the past eight years.

Mr. Bush leaves office with his country massively in debt, in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, facing years of huge deficits, with unemployment rising fast, banks and financial institutions tottering, a large trade deficit, an enormous oil deficit, and rising greenhouse-gas emissions.

In the parlance of American politics, the colour red is used for Republicans. It's a fitting colour for a Republican president who gave his country red ink everywhere, on corporate balance sheets, individual bank accounts, and local, state and national budgets.

He departs with the U.S. embroiled in two wars: one in Iraq that's finally going better, the other in Afghanistan that's getting worse. The "war on terror" has not struck the American heartland since 9/11, but terrorist attacks have struck many other parts of the world.

Mr. Bush dismisses charges that his country's reputation nosedived around the world on his watch. It did rise in India and parts of Africa; everywhere else, however, the U.S. is held in less regard today than when he took office, according to mountains of worldwide polling evidence.

Domestic evidence is equally overwhelming. Mr. Bush departs with an approval rating of about 20 per cent.

Mr. Truman's standing was down in the dumps when he left office. China had gone Communist, sparking cries of "Who lost China?" The Korean War was dragging on with no end in sight. Communism seemed on the march. The little man from Missouri seemed incapable of getting a grip on how to stop it. The Republicans had taken control of Congress, and they wanted less government and lower taxes, as always. Time for a change, they cried, after two decades of Democratic presidents.

Mr. Truman faded away to Missouri with his wife, Bess, to live a quiet life. In recent decades, courtesy of much historical review of the record, the end of the Cold War and the deceit of some of his successors, Mr. Truman's reputation glows as an honest, straightforward leader who made tough decisions, all right, many of them correct.

Mr. Bush has been working hard in recent months at improving his reputation, giving interviews and speeches defending his record. He will presumably keep at this work in retirement, hoping for a Trumanesque revival if not soon, then later, perhaps even much later.

Such a revival is rare. The record largely shows that a politician enters history more or less with the reputation he had on leaving office. Whether or not that reputation is deserved is almost beside the point.

You could argue, for example, that the reputations of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy greatly exceed the actual merits of their records. The labours of critical historians have not dented the public's impressions that these were admirable presidents.

It is doubtful that historians could revive George Bush's reputation. Harry Truman he was not; Harry Truman he will not become.

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