Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

George W. Bush

The truism about the President is that he is steady, clear, reliable, someone who knows what he believes and sticks with what he knows. The truth about him is more perplexing. He campaigned as a bipartisan conciliator; yet under his presidency, the U.S. has become even more culturally and politically bifurcated. He promised a foreign policy based on humility and contempt for nation building; but his Administration has embarked on the most ambitious nation-building project since World War II. He pledged centrist, inclusive conservatism, and yet he has supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and has courted the religious right. He was touted as a fiscal conservative, but he has hugely expanded government.

For all this, he is both loved and reviled. He is loved for his undeniable charm, good humor and geniality. He is reviled for excessive rigidity, indifference to those outside his political orbit and lack of reflection and curiosity. But he is also rightly respected for the way he led the country out of one of its darkest hours into a world where it seemed safe again to engage in partisan bickering and cultural warfare. His rhetoric in those grim days rose to the challenge of ordinary greatness; he calmed and rallied in ways few could have predicted. And in Afghanistan and then Iraq, he conducted historically successful wars with a poise and calm that forged a deep bond with the American people.

The war will be the prism through which he will be judged. If successful, his battle against terrorism and campaign for democratization in the Middle East will be viewed as a hinge of history, in which a closing door opened and light came slowly, gradually in. But if deemed a failure, the war will stamp his legacy as having created a more bitterly divided country and a more chaotic, fractured world. We do not know yet. In his latest press conference, he pledged to stay the course. We do know that this unassuming man became a radical gambler with his fate and with humanity's. Perhaps, as he saw it, he had no choice. But the decision to shape world events, rather than be molded by them, is the one by which his presidency will be measured.

From the Archive
Bush in High Gear: The President's team is launching elaborate air and ground operations. A guide to his re-election effort