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Assessing George W. Bush’s legacy

By Sigurd Neubauer


Ever since leaving office in January 2009, President George Walker Bush has kept out of the limelight by mostly refraining from publicly commenting on politics or current affairs. He has even reinvented himself as a painter. Throughout his tenure at the White House, the 43rd President became known for his compassionate conservatism, decency, and humor, but his critics often lambasted him for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Throughout his tenure, Bush made a conscious effort not to contribute to America’s polarization by not being a divider,” recalls Tevi Troy who served as his Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services. Troy, PhD, is also a distinguished presidential historian at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a consultancy, 1600 Lessons: Leadership Lessons from our Nation’s Chief Executives, which coaches companies on how to tackle everything from infighting to building a better organization and preparing for the big moments.

An avid tennis player, Troy admires Bush’s commitment to self-improvement as expressed through painting. Photo credit: Courtesy

Throughout his tenure, Bush made a conscious effort not to contribute to America’s polarization by not being a divider: Troy


“Bush would discuss both publicly and privately his objections to nativism, isolationism, and protectionism. He always sought to fight these issues,” Troy explains, adding: “Unfortunately, today we see too much of this within the public discourse.”

To drive home his point, Troy refers to Dana Perino – a Fox News personality who previously served as Press Secretary in the Bush-Administration. “Bush once told Perino in stark terms that ‘when you’re on that Podium, you speak for me and I don’t want you to criticize the other party in my voice.’” Perino, Troy notes, took that to heart and “was very careful about how she spoke from the Podium from that point on because of how Bush had told her to act.”

Bush, the scholar explains, was also an avid reader of history who understood his place in it. When pressed on his legacy, Bush would often point out that the public is still debating the record of the first George H. Bush (1924-2018) presidency. Bush, the son, Troy reveals, always insisted on letting history sort out his own legacy. “In retrospect, that was a wise approach,” the scholar says, pointing out that his reputation has dramatically improved since leaving office. 

When pressed on how Bush is seen today, Troy observes: “From a historical perspective, Bush is seen better today than he was while in office, including by the liberals and the news media,” the scholar says, but emphasizes that “within the ‘Trump World,’ Bush is seen very critically.” Trump supporters “dismiss Bush and [Ronald] Reagan (1911-2004) for having created problems that they want to correct.” 

The scholar points out that some 10-15 years ago, he would not have predicted that the most recent Republican incumbent – Donald Trump – would be a critic of Bush whereas much of the rest of American society would come around on the 43rd President. 

Troy attends Bush's 'thumping speech.' Photo credit: Courtesy

“I vividly remember how negative the media coverage of Bush was during the 2000s, but I believe that it is a recurring issue pertaining to whoever the former Republican President is, the [liberal] media tends to like him better than any current Republican.” 

To make his point, Troy argues that even though Bush Sr. was considered by all accounts for being “a gracious and fine fellow,” he was nonetheless criticized terribly during his time in office. But once he left the White House, the 41st President was later recognized for the gracious person that he was.

“This is part of the phenomenon,” Troy notes, but argues that there is also “a bit more appreciation of the younger Bush’s legacy today and what he sought to accomplish.”

While the Iraq War of 2003 continues to be sharply criticized by both ends of the political spectrum, the reversal of how Bush is seen is triggered by an understanding that there are other aspects to his legacy that matter. Some of it is, of course, brought up to contrast him to Trump but it is also part of the aforementioned phenomenon centering on whoever is the current Republican leader and contrasting him to previous Republicans. 

This phenomenon, Troy recalls, was also the case for Reagan who was terribly criticized during his own time in office. “I remember when he was in office there were Reagan with Hitler mustache t-shirts on college campus when I was a student. I also remember the Bush-Hitler slogans when Bush was President.”

While contrasting Bush to Trump is convenient for the media, Troy points out that people are now starting to appreciate other aspects of his legacy, which the scholar-practitioner welcomes. 

Before his U.S. Senate confirmation, Troy served in the White House; in the Bush campaigns; and within other administration positions, which enabled him to routinely brief the President.

Responding to how Bush was a person, Troy points out that he wasn’t the great campaigner that either Reagan or Barack Obama were, “but in a room he was incredibly charismatic. You could feel his presence; and he knew how to tell a joke; he gave people nicknames to make one feel like they were part of the club.” The scholar adds that “Bush was incredibly well read; he read something between 60-90 books a year.” The President even had a reading contest with Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

“Bush was the kind of the guy that one wants to be friends with,” Troy reveals, pointing out that the former President is all about self-improvement. The scholar is referring to his paintings and how they have improved. “He’s a friendly and approachable guy who keeps up with people and even commented on my regular commentary for The Wall Street Journal

Bush, Troy argues, modeled himself after his father’s decision not to get involved in politics. Bush is also close to former President Bill Clinton but not with Obama. On why that is, the scholar points out that Obama had competition with the Clintons over who the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party should be following Bush’s eight years at the White House. Obama, as we know, won that battle. Obama was also harsh against Bush during his own campaign, which explains why there is not much of a relationship between the two of them. Neither of the three former Presidents have any relationships with Trump, Troy says.

Troy is sworn in by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, 2005
Compassionate conservatism  

“Compassionate conservatism was far-sighted. It was a sense that tax cuts and de-regulations are both good things, but they don’t necessarily solve the problems for people who are in despair and face the biggest of challenges. In the twenty-first century, we have seen how additional Americans are dying from despair, drug addiction, suicide, and alcoholism. Bush wanted to explore what America as a society could do – but not just from Government – but from all aspects of society to help the least among us. Compassionate conservatism was trying to channel that,” the scholar explains.

No Child Left Behind was one of these initiatives meant to help improve the school system, but Bush also supported faith-based initiatives which played a crucial role in helping America’s least fortunate. 

“He wanted to bring these initiatives – along with their knowledge from the communities in which they served– to help in ways in which distant government bureaucrats could not – to try to address some of the problems pertaining to social ills,” Troy adds. 

On whether or not Bush’s approach to America’s social ills have been forgotten by his Republican successors, Troy notes that the phrase ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ does not draw a lot of attention today “but there is a recognition among Republicans for the need to help those least among us but the focus has mostly been how to help through government services without any thought given to how to reform Medicare or Social Security.”

A committed conservative, Troy – who opted out from serving in the Trump-Administration – argues that government programs are necessary and important for some services, but they are inefficient. “Relying too much on the government has long been a solution favored by the Left – but increasingly now by the Right as well – is problematic. This approach is not aligned with the vision of what Bush called ‘Compassionate Conservatism.’”

Sen. Reid defeated immigration reform. “It was all about cynicism:” Troy. Photo credit: U.S. Senate


Bush was passionate about immigration reform. “He had an immigration approach that made it through the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007/08 and almost through the U.S. Senate. The idea was it ought to become harder to come into the country illegally, but at the same time making it easier to enter America legally; Bush also had a skills-based approach to help assess ‘who will be the first in line.’ We want to be a compassionate nation, but also a smart one who assesses the best skills that are out there,”  Troy proclaims.

“Right now, we’re in a situation where someone who has top skills – whether it is in computer programming or in engineering – it is hard for them to get into America legally. As we have seen with the Biden-Administration, there does not seem to be too many barriers. Today we have a messed-up immigration problem, but Bush had an elegant solution for it,” he explains.

“Regardless of where Americans stand on immigration – whether one favors policy A, B, or C – what the country needs today is a policy. Any policy, but America has none,” Troy says, pointing out that people are admitted into the country, but they’re not allowed to work once they arrive. 

It also takes many years to process an asylum claim while those trying to enter legally, it takes years for them as well. Neither does America have a skills-based program for potential incoming immigrants. “More than any particular immigration policy, I am for a coherent one,” Troy argues. 

On why Bush failed to reach a compromise on immigration, Troy doesn’t’ mince words: “Harry Reid 1939-2021,” the then-Senate Majority Leader from Nevada, “saw that Bush had the votes but held it up over Senate Recess and then lobbied the members of his party so that it wouldn’t pass. That was the last moment when America could have had a coherent immigration reform,” the scholar says, noting that Reid did so because he considered immigration to be a wedge issue that if unresolved would benefit the Democrats.  “It’s a black stain on Reid’s legacy,” the scholar says.

President Bush onboard Air Force One on September 11, 2001 en route from Sarasota, Florida, to Barksdale Air Force Base. Photo credit: The White House
For Bush, social conservatism was not just about Life versus Abortion but rather about patriotism; marriage; family; support of American institutions; including of the military: Troy 

Afghanistan and Iraq wars

“The Afghanistan war was seen as a necessity because that is where Al-Qaeda was hiding after the September 11 attacks. The Iraq War was more controversial, but people forget that Saddam Hussein was a problem; and they forget that he was giving bounties to Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel; and that he did claim that he was pursuing Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMD), but there were obviously some bad intelligence on the matter,” the scholar explains. But for Troy, who considers the Biden-Administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan to have been perhaps an even greater mistake than the Iraq War itself, leaves it up to history to assess.

President Bush's September 11 address at National Cathedral. Photo credit: The White House
Compassionate conservatism was far-sighted. It was a sense that tax cuts and de-regulations are both good things, but they don’t necessarily solve the problems for people who are in despair and face the biggest of challenges
The George W. Bush Presidential Center, which architect Robert A.M. Stern designed in close consultation with President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush, features an exterior of brick and Texas Cordova Cream limestone
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