To nobody's surprise, all four living former presidents were on their best behavior last week at the dedication of the library and museum named for the latest of them,
The honoree's father, George H.W., along with
Never was heard a discouraging word about the war in Iraq nor the economic morass the honoree left behind. The former presidents took the microphone in turn to praise Dubya not as a great national leader but as a well-meaning guy whose heart, despite all the brickbats thrown on other occasions, was in the right place.
Subjects of controversy were left to exhibits at the new presidential complex library that consider key decisions he made in office. They present his reasons and give visitors an opportunity to say what they would have done. Mr. Clinton for one lauded the junior Bush's openness in inviting their views.
The 43rd president was given due credit for his focus on fighting the deadly scourge of HIV/AIDS and attempting education and immigrations reforms. In the spirit of the occasion, he joked of America's hallowed right to disagree with its leader: "I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right."
But on the whole the celebration was an exercise in the suspension of disbelief — over his major decisions in foreign policy, including treatment of war detainees, and in dealing with a domestic economy that hung on the ropes as he departed office.
On this, his best day since then, George W. Bush maintained the same composure he has shown throughout his return to private life — silent and immune to the public criticism that has followed his tenure. His major contribution to his party has been in keeping a low public profile, steering clear of defending his tenure and of criticizing Mr. Obama's presidency.
By choice or party decision, he was absent from the
After the 9/11 attacks, the argument that Mr. Bush's mobilization of homeland security kept America safe thereafter sustained him politically through two full terms. But his inability to finish the job in Afghanistan was a major element in Mr. Obama's election in 2008.
Poignancy was added to the celebration by the appearance in a wheelchair of the 41st president, the 88-year-old and recently hospitalized father of the honoree, displaying his customary good nature and obvious pride in his son. For all his own shortcomings in his single presidential term, the country generally has retained a softer spot for him than for his eldest offspring.
At this time, a minor debate has broken out over how history will appraise the son. One lesser-known academic has argued that prominent historians and presidential scholars have engaged in a rush to judgment in casting George W. as the worst American president to date.
The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll indicates, however, that his approval rating has climbed from 30 percent in 2008 to 47 percent now, and his disapproval has dropped from 68 percent then to 50 percent.
But he still he has a way to go to enjoy the kind of opinion turnaround that another once-dismissed president, Harry Truman, experienced after leaving office in 1953. From a low of 22 percent approval, he rose steadily until he is now often listed among the 10 most highly regarded presidents. That seems a height the man known as Dubya is unlikely ever to attain.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.