For those Canadians who hate Americans, and believe in their hearts that they are intrinsically superior to the citizens of the United States, George W. Bush's two terms have been a radiant period, an era when familiar impulses of nationalist bigotry were reinforced by unbridled, exuberant rage. At the same time, liberal Americans who see the Republicans as the party of the devil have enjoyed eight years of intense self-righteousness. It's unlikely that either group will ever know such satisfactions again.
This is not to minimize the tragedies of the Bush years, from Iraq to New Orleans to Wall Street, or to suggest that Bush-haters failed to experience those grave events with a proper seriousness. The point is that in hard times (and our times turned bitterly hard on 9/11), there's much relief to be found in placing the blame.
It seems clear that Bush's legacy is now carved in stone. He's the perfect recipient of blame for everything that happened during his administration. He's made a few remarks suggesting that he dreams of a reversal in opinion resembling the moral upgrade that time eventually conveyed on Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, both of them much-derided in office. That hope has grown increasingly wan.
Bush has never been the complete failure his enemies have always pictured, but his greatest success is hard to appreciate. After 9/11 demonstrated the incompetence of America's intelligence system, history assigned Bush the task of preventing anything similar happening again. For a national leader, nothing out-ranks the safety of the citizens. Few would have bet on success in this project -- 9/11 having seemed so easy for the suicide killers -- yet this continent has, amazingly, enjoyed seven terrorism-free years
Somehow, the plans of terrorists have been frustrated. That may be Bush's greatest success.
The fears everyone experienced in 2001 have so diminished that Americans and others now regard as bothersome the security systems that may have saved their lives.
Bush's style of diplomacy, which has too often involved an insouciant disregard for the attitudes of allies, has made whatever he's accomplished in world affairs nearly invisible. Five years ago, only about 50,000 people in all of Sub-Saharan Africa were receiving anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS. In 2003, Bush launched the $30-billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Now, 1.7 million people in the region receive the treatment. This year, Bush signed a commitment to spend $48-billion that, among other things, extends the number being treated to three million and provides training for 140,000 health-care workers specializing in HIV prevention and treatment. That's the largest contribution that any state has ever made to fight a single disease. By organizing that bipartisan program, Bush fundamentally changed future American involvement in Africa. But it's unlikely that one in a 100 of his fellow Americans knows about it.
Like everything else that was positive in his era, it was buried beneath his mistakes. He proved to be a sadly inadequate manager of government. That's especially surprising when we recall that he's the first president who ever came to office with an MBA on his record -- and a Harvard MBA at that. His many bad appointments, made out of political motives, friendship or perhaps pure laziness, came to the surface in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina roared over New Orleans and inept federal officials made a tragedy much worse than it had to be.
Whatever his mistakes, Bush saw in the fall of 2001 that the struggle against terror was the great challenge to 21st-century democracy and therefore the great challenge of his life. He was a war president, as he said, but the Iraq war proved his failure as a leader. Perhaps because of a narrow, incurious nature, he didn't understand that a democracy cannot successfully fight a war without the enthusiastic assent of the citizens.
Somehow, he orchestrated a war in which no one sacrificed except the military participants and their families. While soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush Republicans conducted business as usual, their corporate supporters gratefully receiving tax cuts while awarding each other lavish bonuses. Understandably, the citizens were revolted. The greatest of the failures that undermined his presidency was Bush's lack of a moral imagination.