“He’s enjoying the hell out of life, “ a close friend told National Journal. “He’s his loosey-goosey self again, the way he used to be.”

Various confidants describe 43 as “mellow,” “serene” and “tranquil,” happy with his self-imposed exile from the political grind he never really liked and ecstatic with his new life below the radar.

“You have no idea how relieved he is to be out of the game,” one of his oldest friends said. “He doesn’t miss politics even a little.”…

“Of course he’s confident” about turning around his reputation, one longtime counsellor told National Journal. “How else could he be? But he’s got a ways to go to mending his record – if it can be done.”

***

Days before his second term ended in 2009, Bush’s approval rating among all adults was 33 percent positive and 66 percent negative. The new poll found 47 percent saying they approve and 50 percent saying they disapprove. Among registered voters, his approval rating today is equal to President Obama’s, at 47 percent, according to the latest Post-ABC surveys…

“Obviously, it’s a big moment for him,” former British prime minister Tony Blair said in a telephone interview from London. “It’s a chance for him to explain that his political philosophy encompasses much more than the decisions he had to take after 9/11. We forget this sometimes. . . . This is a much more rounded person with many more dimensions to him than the caricature often portrays.”

***

Fifty-two percent have a favorable opinion of Obama according to the latest Fox News poll, while 49 percent of voters have a favorable view of Bush

Despite a slight increase in his favorable ratings, the new Fox poll nonetheless finds that George W. Bush fares least well among the former presidents in terms of current popularity. Clinton tops the list, with 71 percent of voters viewing him favorably. He’s followed by Carter and George H.W. Bush who each garner 59 percent favorable ratings…

Overall, Bush had an average 51 percent approval rating across his entire presidency. Up to this point in his presidency, Obama has an average approval rating of 48 percent.

***

It is possible that documents and archives will reveal Bush in a more positive light, but there’s no getting around the fact that his decisions on Iraq and on fiscal policy have led to huge problems. He not only committed U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 9/11, his decision to invade Iraq kicked off a 10-year war of choice that has destabilized the Middle East and drained the United States of blood, treasure, and the will to intervene abroad. He cut taxes across the board and borrowed money to pay for the wars as well as a new prescription-drug program for seniors. That led to a ballooning deficit and debt, and left the country ill-positioned to deal with the Great Recession that set in toward the end of his term.

It’s not that there weren’t accomplishments during the Bush era. He receives deserved praise for his international drive to fight AIDS, and his controversial No Child Left Behind Act institutionalized the overdue concept of accountability in U.S. education. The even more controversial legal and military methods he adopted to fight terrorists have been largely validated by the Obama administration, which has in many cases continued their use. And he was a pioneer in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, a worthy cause that has now been revived.

But all of that is overshadowed by the deficits, the economic collapse, and, above all, Iraq. “Ultimately, what will drive how he’s viewed is how the Iraq experiment turns out,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar and longtime Bush-watcher at the University of Texas-Austin. “The mismanagement of Iraq will always be there, but it will fade if Iraq turns into a flower of democracy.”

***

All of this overheated rhetoric and fear-mongering has come from academics who profess to live the life of the mind. In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information.

There is a difference between punditry and scholarship. The latter requires biding one’s time and offering perspective as the evidence emerges and the passions of the day cool. An assessment of Harry Truman’s presidency looks quite different today than it did immediately after he left the White House in 1953. And no historian, especially Schlesinger, would have predicted in 1961 that 21st-century scholars would rank Dwight Eisenhower among the nation’s greatest presidents.

George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.

***

President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He’s highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer. It was occasionally a little embarrassing when he would jump ahead of one of his Cabinet secretaries in a policy discussion and the advisor would struggle to catch up. He would sometimes force us to accelerate through policy presentations because he so quickly grasped what we were presenting…

In addition to his analytical speed, what most impressed me were his memory and his substantive breadth. We would sometimes have to brief him on an issue that we had last discussed with him weeks or even months before. He would remember small facts and arguments from the prior briefing and get impatient with us when we were rehashing things we had told him long ago.

And while my job involved juggling a lot of balls, I only had to worry about economic issues. In addition to all of those, at any given point in time he was making enormous decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, on hunting al Qaeda and keeping America safe. He was making choices not just on taxes and spending and trade and energy and climate and health care and agriculture and Social Security and Medicare, but also on education and immigration, on crime and justice issues, on environmental policy and social policy and politics. Being able to handle such substantive breadth and depth, on such huge decisions, in parallel, requires not just enormous strength of character but tremendous intellectual power. President Bush has both.

***

Fact is that both Bush and Clinton do small acts of kindness every day, with little or no public notice.

Why? Because, like past presidents, they realize the office is bigger than they are. Because they are deeply grateful for the job we gave them, and they feel obliged to return the favor.

Our presidents and ex-presidents are not perfect. You won’t always agree with them. You might not even think they’re worthy of the office. But try to remember what Clinton told me a few days before he left Arkansas for Washington (and a few years before the Lewinsky affair made it sadly ironic): “You don’t check your humanity at the Oval Office door.”

Remembering that is to respect the office. And it’s the decent thing to do.

***

“We’re just laying out the facts. And that was a fact,” Bush said. “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. But history will ultimately decide that, and I won’t be around to see it.

“As far as I’m concerned, the debate is over. I mean, I did what I did. And historians will ultimately judge those decisions.”

***

But in his more than four years of governing, Obama has also adopted or let stand a series of Bush initiatives, illustrating how the policies of one administration can take hold and how the realities of governing often limit solutions.

Bush’s signature education plan, No Child Left Behind, remains the law of the land, though the Obama administration has granted states waivers to give them flexibility in meeting performance targets. A Bush Medicare prescription drug plan, criticized for its cost, is now popular with beneficiaries, and Obama has sought to improve it by providing relief for seniors with high bills. Obama continued the unpopular bank bailouts and expanded the auto industry rescue that Bush initiated in 2008.

Bush authorized a military surge in Iraq in an effort to tame the conflict there. Obama completed the withdrawal of troops from Iraq but also authorized a military surge in Afghanistan before beginning a drawdown of troops that is expected to be completed at the end of 2014.

“The responsibilities of office drive presidents toward pragmatism,” said Joshua Bolten, a former Bush chief of staff. Where those policies are effective, he added, “the successor has good reason to adopt them.”

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