The appearance of President Obama and former first families at the opening of the George W. Bush Library and Museum at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University was a tribute to bipartisan spirit and the office of the presidency. Out of the spotlight for four years, Bush more than earned the respectful reception to his library through the low-key dignity with which he has approached his post-presidency. And early accounts suggest he’s created a library that doesn’t preach. Rather, it lays out the options facing Bush on the major challenges of his presidency — Iraq, Afghanistan, the bank bailout, Hurricane Katrina, etc. — and asks visitors what they would have done in his shoes.
This should be an effective teaching tool, introducing young people to the rigors of the presidency. But Bush is making a larger statement by choosing to present his eight-year stewardship as a series of “Decision Points.” (He took the same approach in his best-selling memoir of the same name.) Bush is offering up his briefing papers and memos and then inquiring: What, if anything, would you do differently?
Like some other ex-presidents, from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, Bush wants even his detractors to give him credit for making tough calls. He’s saying: You may not agree with what I did, but consider what it looked like from the other side of the desk. That may be a key to understanding how Bush saw his presidency, but it loads the dice in significant ways. Presidential leadership involves more than choosing between options. Expertise, restraint, and finesse are useful presidential tools that Bush arguably lacked, and didn’t fit into his this-way-or-that-way mindset, which the library reinforces.
Still, as Obama pointed out, Bush’s directness sometimes paid off, such as in the days immediately after 9/11 and, later, in the fight for global health. Every president’s legacy has its nuances — even that of a president who explicitly rejected nuance in favor of certainty.