Imagine—just for a second—that it's 2020, and George W. Bush has restored his reputation. (I know, it's hard to imagine, but be creative.) Now try to answer this question: what would it take to actually make that happen?
The easy answer is that somehow between now and then, Iraq becomes a flourishing democracy, a source of cheap oil for the U.S., and a staunch ally in fending off the spread of terrorism in the region. Or that—by some sort of miracle—the American economy recovers, and Dow 20,000 becomes a reality. But neither of those scenarios seems particularly likely at the moment. So how would a person go about restoring Bush's legacy without the benefit of those gifts? How do you sway public opinion in a climate where 98 percent of historians view your tenure as a failure—according to a recent poll by the History News Network—and only 13 percent of Americans believe you've helped the country's problems, according to a December Pew survey?
Image experts suggest you acknowledge the negatives (Iraq, the economy) but then remind the public of the positives: education reform, funding to fight AIDS in Africa. You paint the president as a man faced with unprecedented challenges (9/11, a new age of terror)—and no blueprint for how to deal with them. You repeat, and repeat, and repeat again that under trying circumstances, George W. Bush made the American people safer—in an entirely new era of national security. You take Karl Rove and Dick Cheney out of the public eye, and you start planning Bush's second act. Will he become a global humanitarian, as Carter did? An environmentalist, like Gore? Or exit the limelight entirely? Above all, according to former speechwriters, friends and PR execs who spoke with NEWSWEEK, you must take responsibility for the failures to regain the public trust. "Whether it's in politics, business or Hollywood, we are willing to forgive if we fully believe that a person is being repentant—if we believe it goes beyond just words," says Mike Paul, a former Republican aide who now heads his own reputation management firm, MGP & Associates. "This is really a defining moment for him."
No matter how you dice it, trying to rehabilitate an image at the end of a presidency is no simple feat—especially for W. Over the last few months, the 43rd president's poll ratings have plummeted to Nixonian depths, and he leaves behind a trillion dollar deficit and an economy in shambles. Memories of flood-ravaged New Orleans remain fresh in the public psyche, while the billion-dollar war in Iraq drags on, with a body count of some 4,000 U.S. soldiers to date. Historians, pundits and politicians alike predict he'll be remembered as being among the worst presidents in American history.
But, as Winston Churchill once put it, history can be kind to those who write it. So can time. Harry Truman's problems in office—economic strife and an unpopular war—were similar to Bush's, yet he's now applauded for his handling of the Cold War. When Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon in 1974, many believed it cost him his election—but today, the move is often recounted as an act of courage that helped heal the country after Watergate. Jimmy Carter left office with a 34 percent approval rating, according to Gallup—but in 2006, 61 percent said they approved of his time in office.
Even Nixon, who had a lower approval rating than any other president upon exiting the White House, was, in his later years, regarded as a respectable elder statesman. "It's not uncommon for a president to end up in a very different place 30 years after he leaves office than where he was when he was in office," says Kasey Pipes, a political historian and former speechwriter for Bush. "It's still very early in the process when you think about it in historical terms."
That's been something of a mantra coming out of the White House, perhaps of necessity; Bush himself recently told ABC's Charlie Gibson that he doesn't "spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history." But those around him are trying to figure out how, in these final days, they can at least get the ball rolling in the right direction. Rove and longtime Bush strategist Karen Hughes are said to be heading up a Bush Legacy Project—an unofficial image restoration effort that's likely behind his vast outgoing media tour, a list of suggested talking points sent out to administration officials last month en masse (among them: that Bush "kept the American people safe" and lifted the economy through tax cuts), and a 40-page downloadable PDF presently on the White House Web site, entitled, "100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record."
When asked about Bush's legacy, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said he couldn't comment specifically on the legacy project, but that the overarching strategy "is to provide opportunities for the president … to communicate the achievements and the accomplishments and the challenges we've tackled." He added: "Obviously we have a lot of issues to deal with."
That's an understatement. But Nixon had a lot of issues to deal with when he left office too—yet over time, "he shifted the narrative from criminal to great diplomat," says Dan Abrams, the former MSNBC anchor who now runs his own media strategy firm, Abrams Research. Nixon did much of the repositioning himself; he wrote a number of books, traveled the world, and made a serious effort to establish himself as an éminence grise. He also, until his death, headed his own private Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation in sunny Yorba Linda, Calif.—a $21 million hillside shrine where, until the exhibit was demolished in 2007, visitors learned that Watergate was really a "coup" engineered by Nixon enemies. As one Nixon scholar put it at the time, "You didn't know whether to laugh or cry."
What's fascinating about Nixon, says Pipes, is that he truly set out to rehabilitate his presidency—and himself—when it seemed as if the world was against him. Reagan, on the other hand, had enough of an established following that he didn't necessarily need to. Among his admirers were the members of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which, over the past decade, has placed the 40th president's name on close to 100 public landmarks, including schools, highways, an aircraft carrier and the former National Airport, in Washington. "The difference between Bush and Reagan is that when Reagan left office, you knew exactly how history would judge him, because he succeeded on the two things he'd set out to do: grow the economy and take down the Soviet Union," says founder Grover Norquist, a conservative lobbyist and the president of Americans for Tax Reform, created during the Reagan years to help promote his tax act. "The challenge for Bush is that he leaves with not a lot of successes."
The job of rehabilitating Bush may take more sophisticated strategizing. His legacy advisors are said to be planning a library and institute in his name, but he's made it known he has no interest in, as he puts it, remaining on the world stage. Without a post-presidential redemption to look forward to, experts say Bush is erring when, again and again, he refuses to accept responsibility for at least some of what, over the last eight years, went wrong. He has discussed in recent interviews his many "disappointments," such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, as well as "missteps," like the unfurling of the "Mission Accomplished" banner after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. But admitting actual "mistakes," we know by now, don't come as easily.
At his final press conference, when asked the state of the economy, Bush noted that the "problem started before my presidency." His response to the badly executed Iraq occupation was that "hard things don't happen overnight." And in defending the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, he quipped: "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed." But perhaps most heatedly discussed was when he told Charlie Gibson last month that his biggest regret was the "intelligence failure in Iraq." "We need to come to grips with reality," says former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who publicly broke with Bush over his handling of the Iraq war after leaving the job. "Things didn't turn out the way we expected or hoped, and we need to accept responsibility and acknowledge that. Saying that the intelligence was faulty is just another way of pushing responsibility onto others—and that's not going to get him very far."
However he chooses to spin it, the real challenge for Bush and his allies may be knowing when the public is ready to hear it. "There's a lot of anger toward this administration and this president, and talking about the successes at this point I think may be falling on deaf ears," says Abrams. As Nick Ragone, a senior VP at Ketchum who is also a presidential historian, puts it: "PR is not a very good retroactive tool."
So where does that leave Dubya? In the hands of history, apparently. He's said he wants to be remembered as the "man who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace." Well, "if, 20 or 30 years from now, Iraq is flourishing, I suppose everybody will say, 'Well, Bush was right," says Lanny Davis, a long-time friend of Bush's (from their days at Yale) who worked under the Clinton administration. "But that's time, not spinmeisters or legacy projects." No matter how you spin it, this legacy, it seems, won't be easily salvaged.