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Watching a President in real time, historians can identify clues as to whether later generations might see him as an important leader. Does he change the terms of the foreign- and domestic-policy debates? Is he willing to take bold and innovative steps that might be politically risky? With Bush, the answer to both questions is yes. But only with the clarity that history provides will later Americans know for certain whether the President's major decisions--and the way he made them--were wise or not.
Someone other than Bush might have responded to the 9/11 attacks more incrementally. Bush almost immediately declared a worldwide war on terrorism, fully aware that it would probably take decades to fight, that Americans might grow frustrated and impatient with it, and that it might provoke brutal retaliatory attacks for which Americans might blame the President. Bush waged the Iraq war knowing that if optimistic assurances about finding weapons of mass destruction should prove wrong he might lose re-election. You see the same willingness to break the envelope on domestic issues, in tax policy, Social Security reform, conservative social issues.
In the end, however, great Presidents are those later viewed as both bold and wise. If Americans in 2034 believe that with his boldness, Bush successfully used a moment of U.S. global pre-eminence to make the world more peaceful and democratic, he will probably do well before the bar of history. If not, he'll have a tougher time.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN
The President and The Rest of Us
Presidencies are defined in part by the challenges that confront them. Dramatic events, like wars or 9/11, create openings for Presidents to be remembered. We will remember President Bush for having been in office during great events, but we will finally judge him on his response to those events. His signature event, the war in Iraq, will ultimately be judged on whether it brings greater freedom, democracy and security to the world and to our nation. World War II did all of that; Vietnam did not.
Presidents who succeed in wartime have been able to sustain their countrymen's spirits during the long years of struggle. F.D.R. understood that he could no longer be a partisan leader, that he had to reach out to all Americans. He appointed Republicans to top positions in his Cabinet; he put out an olive branch to business; he created countless ways for ordinary Americans to be involved in the war, through buying war bonds, joining the civilian-defense corps, bringing scrap rubber and aluminum to village greens, accepting increased taxes to ensure that soldiers had all the supplies and equipment they needed. And, of course, the draft meant that nearly everyone knew someone overseas. This war has been waged in a very different manner. It remains to be seen if Bush will be able to sustain our spirits if the war continues to defy the expected hope for victory.
DAVID M. KENNEDY
Sagely Reading America's Mood