As new library opens, Bush hopes for a reassessment of his legacy

Holly Bailey
·National Correspondent

DALLAS—More than four years after George W. Bush left the White House, there seems to be one word the former president has adopted to describe how he feels about the decisions he made in office: “comfortable.”

Bush has repeatedly used the word in interview after interview over the last several days as he returned to the spotlight to promote Thursday’s opening of his presidential library here on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

"I'm comfortable with what I did," Bush told the Dallas Morning News in an interview published last week. "I'm comfortable with who I am."

Asked about one of the most controversial aspects of his presidency—his decision to invade Iraq—Bush upped the ante even further, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he’s “very comfortable” with that decision.

“I am comfortable in the decision-making process. I think the removal of Saddam Hussein was the right decision for not only our own security but for giving people a chance to live in a free society,” Bush declared.

Indeed, those closest to him insist Bush is not someone who second-guesses the decisions he made as president. But that doesn’t mean he is not concerned about his legacy and the way the public perceives him.

Aides say the 43rd president personally played a role in choosing what went into “every single exhibit” at his library. He and his supporters hope the facility will encourage the public to reassess his presidency—particularly on domestic issues that were overshadowed by controversy over his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He literally looked at every exhibit and said, ‘I want this, I want that,'” said Mark Langdale, who, as head of Bush’s private foundation, oversaw construction of the library. “He views this as a way for the public to get all the facts so that they can make an educated decision about how they regard him and what he did in office.”

In some ways, it appears that at least some of that reassessment has already started. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released earlier this week found 47 percent of those polled approve of Bush. That’s the highest approval rating he’s received in seven years. Still, the former president’s numbers remain dismal at best. A CNN poll released Wednesday found that 55 percent of those polled believe Bush’s presidency was a “failure.” That is, however, an improvement over 2009, when 68 percent thought he was a “failure.” When he left office, Bush dismissed his low poll numbers and insisted history would be his ultimate judge—a statement he’s repeated again this week as he prepares to open the doors of his library.

While those close to him insist Bush does not “fret” about how the public regards him, he is concerned about Americans having what he sees is an “accurate picture” of his presidency, one aide says.

“If you know George W. Bush, you know that he’s comfortable in his skin,” says Margaret Spellings, a longtime Bush adviser who served as his secretary of education. “Does he fret and worry about this stuff? I would say very, very little. He really believes that history in its full context, if it’s understood, will certainly bode well for the era and the decisions that he made. And that’s what he wants.”

Still, there have been signs of the tension the Bush family has felt as Democrats and even some Republicans have continued to trash his presidency. While the family has mostly stayed silent about the attacks, Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, last summer used his speech at the Republican National Convention to condemn President Barack Obama for blaming his brother for the nation’s struggling economy instead of taking responsibility for what he had done over the last four years.

"Mr. President, it's time to stop blaming your predecessor for your economic problems," the former Florida governor declared. "You were dealt a tough hand, but your policies have not worked."

In an emotional voice, he added, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor. And during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe."

Jeb Bush’s remarks were giving voice to what those close to George W. Bush say is frustration among his friends and family that the former president hasn’t gotten his due credit on some issues. Those include education reform, his work to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa, and his successful push to offer prescription drug coverage to those covered by Medicare—an accomplishment that was initially unpopular but has come to be praised by both Democrats and Republicans. The library touts all of these issues, as well as Bush’s efforts to prod his party to be friendlier to Latinos by embracing immigration reform.

But Karen Hughes, a longtime Bush adviser, says the new library should not be viewed as a “defense” of her former boss’s presidency—though she said she’s glad that its opening might prompt a reassessment of his legacy.

“I am glad that’s happening,” Hughes said. “Obviously those eight years of the Bush presidency were very consequential years full of lots of shock—from the financial shock of 2008 to the shock and horror of the September 11th attacks to the worst natural disaster with Hurricane Katrina. They were very consequential years for our country.”

But, she added, “I think as time passes and emotions even out that people will take a much more objective look, especially as they walk through this museum, of the many, many, very incredibly positive and good things that President Bush did to both meet the threat of terrorism but also shape the future.”

But even Bush has acknowledged it may take years, possibly even decades, for the public to view his presidency in a more positive light.

In his interview with ABC, Bush insisted he feels he made the right calls with the information he had at the time—especially on the war in Iraq.

“But history will ultimately decide that, and I won't be around to see it,” he said.