Video: Bush becomes a wartime president

updated 12/29/2008 6:17:58 PM ET 2008-12-29T23:17:58

As George W. Bush prepares to leave the White House, Hardball takes a hard look at his legacy. Beginning with 9-11 and now ending with Chapter 11 for many Americans, the Bush presidency was marked by war and crisis.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER BUSH PRESS SECRETARY: There's really been nothing that's been quiet about the last eight years.  And the reigning question is, will history show, also, that he made the right decisions? 

We deconstructed "the Decider" and his decisions and their ongoing consequences.

August 2001 – it was a slow news summer of Chandra Levy and shark attacks. George W. Bush spent the month on vacation at his ranch in Crawford but dangers were lurking in the shadows. On September 10th, 2001 Hardball was devoted to a topic very much on everyone's mind now, the economy.

(Hardball, September 10, 2001)
CHRIS MATTHEWS, Hardball – September 10, 2001: Rising unemployment fuels the blame game in Washington. Is the downturn President Bush's fault?

Just hours later, we were all asking different questions.

(TODAY Show, September 11, 2001)

KATIE COURIC, FORMER TODAY SHOW ANCHOR: "We have a breaking news story to report.  Apparently a plane has just crashed into the world trade center here in New York City....”

EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think his presidency was, in a sense, shaped by what happened that day.

On the morning of September  11th, George W. Bush was in Sarasota, Florida reading to school children in a classroom. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FORMER BUSH WHITE HOUSE SECRETARY: Andy Card had walked in and whispered into his ear "Mr. President, a second plane has hit the second tower, America is under attack." And I could see in the President's face—he was just looking there, I'd never seen that look in his face.

Like all Americans, he was shocked and his initial statements suggested 'The Decider' was not quite sure of his next move.

BUSH, SARASOTA, FLORIDA; SEPTEMBER 11th , 2001: Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR, THE NATION: I think there was a sense after George W. Bush kind of disappeared in those first frightening hours after the towers were hit, and the Pentagon.  Where he didn't quite know how to orient himself.

And that morning, the people he relied on to inform his decisions were scattered. 

TOM KEAN, 9/11 COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: The kind of people who would be advising the President were not there.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Peru, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon, which had just been hit, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney were in the secure command center beneath the White House.

Against staff and Secret Service concerns for his safety, the president decided to return to Washington.

RICHARD CLARKE, COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISER: He had gathered his wits and was in the take-charge—kind of mode, and wanted to be back here calling the shots—and making decisions.

BUSH ADDRESS FROM OVAL OFFICE 9/11/01: We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.

MICHAEL GERSON, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: He immediately saw this broader context.  It was not an isolated attack. Now that didn't come from his foreign policy advisors. It very much came from the top down.

The United States had clearly been attacked and was at war but who was the enemy?

CLARKE: I think we all said we were at war.  We differed over perhaps the rest of that sentence, as to who we were at war with.  Seemed to be pretty obvious we were at war with al-Qaida.

Before 9/11, confronting Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network had not exactly been high on this president's ‘to-do' list.

KEAN:When the Bush Administration came into office it wasn't a priority. People knew it was there. The Clinton Administration told them it was there as a problem.

BOB WOODWARD, WASHINGTON POST: A month before 9/11, there was this famous, top-secret presidential daily briefing that had the headline "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”  They didn't get energized, andas the President told me, his blood was not boiling about Bin Laden and al-Qaida before 9/11.

But by September 14th Bush's blood was boiling.

BUSH ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2001: I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!

GERSON: An entirely unscripted momentAnd it showed both elements to me of Presidential leadership. The rhetorical element kind of summarizing the feelings of the nation in grand words fit for history. And I could help contribute to that.  But also then, this determination of character that comes after a crisis.

George W. Bush was now a war president with a war council. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, and CIA Director George tenet had become his closest advisers.

CLARKE: He had put together a team in the national security field that looked like the dream team.

That so-called dream team designed a wide-ranging new foreign policy for this president and a new war.

MARY MATALIN, POLITICAL STRATEGIST: The global War on Terror was a response to the reality that this enemy did not have borders, did not have states, was not—territorially ambitious, it was ideologically ambitious enemy that—in no way responded to previous strategies.

BUSH TO CONGRESS ON SEPTEMBER 20, 2001: Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR: In some ways, Bush is then really at his best.  Why?  Because what he's doing is he's channeling the very real emotions of not only the United States, but, the world.

Less than a month after 9/11, the Bush administration launched the War on Terror.  The first front was obvious. 

BUSH STATEMENT ANNOUNCING AFGHANISTAN WAR ON OCTOBER 17, 2001: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida  terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

ROBINSON: The decision to attack Afghanistan was absolutely inevitable after nine one one.

STEPHAN HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think that decision was made almost immediately.  And I think several people, in effect, made it.  And made it independent of one another.  And then got together and confirmed this.

The war was waged in a new and strategic fashion with lots of air power and fewer American troops. 

DANA PRIEST, THE WASHINGTON POST:  President Bush will get a lot of credit in history for what he did right after 9/11, in rallying the country, and then coming in with a war plan that would get U.S. troops, and U.S. equipment, into Afghanistan very quickly.

By December, Afghan rebels working in concert with American and British forces had seized Kabul and defeated much of the Taliban leadership, which had been collaborating with al-Qaida.

WOODWARD: It looked like we'd won the Afghan war, the Taliban had been overthrown, the base camps that Al-Qaida had in Afghanistan had been destroyed.  He was really on top of it. But over time Bush's initial success gave way to a bloody stalemate.

DAVID FRUM, FORMER ECONOMIC SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT BUSH: There's now a big question mark about whether or not—especially staying in Afghanistan was such a good idea.

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, CHIEF PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT:  Nearly seven years after the U.S. drove the Taliban and al-Qaida out of Afghanistan. The fight has now turned more deadly than ever.

Since 2001 more than six hundred U.S. soldiers have been killed in the Afghanistan war, 2,500 wounded with no end in sight.

WOODWARD: I think we're, somewhat, in this never, never land with the al- Qaida and bin Laden now, because the energy and the resources were siphoned off for a new front, a new war.

Of course, that new war was Iraq as Bush made the decision that could define his presidency.

BUSH GIVES STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS ON JANUARY 30, 2002: Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.

KEAN: Did we take our eye off the ball?  Of course we did.

MATTHEWS ON HARDBALL, MAY 25, 2004: Why did this president and this vice president decide to go to war with Iraq?

GENERAL ANTHONY ZINNI: Well, I believe the president was hit hard with 9/11 as we all were.

It's a question I've been asking on "Hardball" for years: Why did President Bush decide to invade Iraq? A pre-emptive war against a country that had not attacked us; a concept that seemed almost un-American. 

ROBINSON: Why did George W. Bush decide to invade Iraq?  If I knew the answer to that question definitively, I would write a book.

There have been books written on Iraq but no single answer. 

DOUGLAS FEITH, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR POLICY: The president had a sense that we had a Saddam Hussein problem.  And something had to be done about the problem.

Video: Bush’s questionable war with Iraq The FBI and National Security Agency quickly linked al-Qaida to the 9/11 attacks.  But according to former counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke, the president was determined to link Iraq to 9/11.

CLARKE: I understood that this was an instruction to find evidence—and to circle that evidence—and say that Iraq and Saddam had a role in 9/11.

ROBINSON: His instinctive reaction after 9/11 was not just to, "Let's go get al-Qaida and the Taliban  in Afghanistan.”  But, "Saddam Hussein.  Let's go after Saddam Hussein.”  And I think that was from the gut rather than from the head.

In fact, the president prided himself on making decisions ‘from his gut.'

WOODWARD: I went down to his ranch in Crawford in August of 2002, interviewed him for hours about the first book in the war in Afghanistan and it looked like we might be heading to an Iraq war. 

(Bush/Woodward audiotape played on "Meet the Press" on November 24, 2002.)

BUSH: I just think it's instinctive. I think it's—I believe—I'm not a textbook player, I'm a gut player.

WOODWARD: It was so evident that he consults the inner George W. Bush for these things.  And sometimes, you gotta go to the textbook.

FRUM: He would often make decisions on the basis of less information than other people would feel comfortable making a decision.  That the decisions were often made in very immediate ways, often driven very much by emotion.  And that could serve him well, But it could get him in a lot of trouble.

As his war cabinet put plans for an invasion in motion, Bush used the bully pulpit to rally public support.

BUSH GIVES STATE OF THE UNION ON JANUARY 30, 2002: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

But this speech at West Point was the shot truly heard round the world as Bush proclaimed the need for wars of pre-emption  to protect the American homeland in an age of terror.

BUSH WEST POINT SPEECH: Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.

It would become known as ‘the Bush Doctrine.'

FEITH: The president decided that it would be just too dangerous to leave Saddam Hussein in place and allow Saddam with whom a confrontation down the road with us seemed inevitable—to pick the time and place of that confrontation.

It marked a tectonic shift for American foreign policy designed in part by a group of advisors both inside and outside the White House. They were known as  the neoconservatives.

MCCLELLAN: The neoconservative influence was certainly very strong inside the White House, of Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz to people like Richard Perle, to Secretary Rumsfeld , the Vice President.  Now, I don't want to paint it in a black and white situation, where it was all these neoconservatives pushin' the President.  ‘Cause the President did have this heartfelt belief in—spreading freedom and democracy but they played right into those instincts.

But the lofty rhetoric of democracy was not enough to rally the american people behind a pre-emptive war.

COLIN POWELL AT THE U.N.:  Why should any of us give Iraq the benefit of the doubt?  I don't.

That's where weapons of mass destruction came in.

BUSH SPEECH IN OHIO ON OCTOBER 7, 2002:  Wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

The CIA and Defense Department, British and German intelligence compiled dossiers of intelligence on Saddam's weapons—much of it from highly unreliable sources.  Yet this is what the president would use to make his case for a new kind of war.

BUSH GIVES STATE OF THE UNION ON JANUARY 28, 2003:  The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

MCCLELLAN: It became about, "How do we make the strongest case?”  And in the process, we dropped or ignored some of the uncertainties with the intelligence.  

In meetings the president's advisers deferred to their decider, but maintain there was rigorous internal discussion.

MATALIN: He really encouraged debate, dissension. And when he felt that he had exhausted all of the available data, and all the available opinions, he would make his decision.

But working with the White House from the outside, 9/11 commission Chairman Tom Kean encountered an attitude that gave him pause.

KEAN: There was in this presidency, also, very much an us and them mentality and decisions were made by a small group of people.  And when you do that, you make mistakes. 

The chief of that ‘small group,' of course, was the vice president.

WOODWARD: Cheney was a steamroller.  He pressured for the invasion of Iraq. 

CHENEY/VETERAN OF FOREIGN WARS SPEECH  ON AUGUST 26, 2002: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.

After war council meetings Cheney would usually have the last word with the president.

FRUM: The vice president's sitting beside the president's chair.  But, the vice president would not speak.  Then the meeting would end; everybody would leave.  The Vice President would be left alone and that's when he would speak.  Now, what did he say in that room?  Really, there are only two people who know.

Some now view the Cheney relationship as one of the key flaws in the Decider's decision-making process.

WOODWARD: All of Cheney's evaluations never got really tested by other people. This idea of whispering in the ear, I think, in any large institution is a disaster.

And their close relationship may explain why one meeting in the White House apparently never took place.

JAMES PFIFFNER, PROFESSOR OF POLICY, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: It seemed that President Bush never brought together all of his top advisors--in making a decision and letting them discuss the pros and cons of whether to go into Iraq before him and—and make a decision.

(Hardball discussion on April 29, 2004)

MATTHEWS: Did you advise the president to go to war?

RUMSFELD: Yeah. He did not ask me, is—is the question, and to my knowledge, there are any number of people he did not ask.

MATTHEWS:  Did that surprise you as Secretary of Defense?

RUMSFELD:  Well I thought it was interesting.

WOODWARD: Didn't ask Colin Powell, didn't ask George Tenet, the CIA Director.  And I asked him, I said, "How did you not ask these key people?”

And he literally said, "I know what they felt.  I know what they thought.”

By March 2003 Bush had clearly made his final decision.

BUSH ADDRESS TO NATION ON MARCH 19, 2003: At this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

The initial days of the invasion were a success. 'Shock and awe' seemed to do the job.  American military might had toppled Saddam.

And after six weeks of fighting, Bush declared victory. ‘Mission accomplished.'

BUSH ABROAD ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON MAY 1, 2003: My fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.

ROBINSON: If you declare mission accomplished, that's the moment when you're supposed to say, you know, "and we're going home."

Yet, it was clear that the American forces did not have Iraq's civilian population under control. Looting was rampant.  And sectarian violence broke out between Shiites and Sunnis.

HAYES: The question was, "How did we go from that point, where we were greeted as liberators, where there was jubilation in the streets of Iraq, to a point six months later where it was close to chaos?”

RUMSFELD PRESSER ON APRIL 11, 2003: Stuff happens! And it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.

PRIEST: He was just saying, "Oh, they're they're dead-enders.  And there are a couple people looting.”  And no, this was the start of something really bad. 

The reality of Bush's decision to invade Iraq became all too clear a year later, with these shocking images of four American contractors killed in Fallujah, this would not be a quick and painless war.

After electing George W. Bush twice, in November 2006 American voters sent him an angry message.

BUSH DURING A WHITE HOUSE PRESSER ON NOVEMBER 6, 2006:  What's changed today is the election is over, and the Democrats won.

The president's approval rating had gone from a post-9/11 high of 90 percent all the way down to 31 percent.  So what happened? Two words:  Iraq and Katrina. It goes back to 2003 when Bush, having declared victory, decided to delegate the Iraq occupation, essentially outsourcing war policy to Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney.

WOODWARD: If you look at it, he subcontracted and outsourced a lot.

In May 2003 he asked ambassador Paul Brewer to head up the transition from American occupation to Iraqi rule.   Bremer would report to Rumsfeld.

PAUL BREMER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF RECONSTRUCTION AND HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE FOR POST-WAR IRAQ: Our job is to turn and help the Iraqi people regain control their own destiny.

Bremer made two decisions that many critics argue set the stage for the Iraqi insurgency. He disbanded the Iraqi army and removed Saddam's Ba'ath party members from the new government both complete reversals of Bush's earlier policy. Video: Iraq, Katrina allow Democrats to take Congress

ROBERT DRAPER, AUTHOR: When I asked President Bush about  these rather consequential decisions. He said to me, "You know, I don't really remember.  You should talk to Hadley, his national security advisor. I thought this was very telling, in terms of how detached he was.

As Iraq descended into a bloody quagmire, Donald Rumsfeld's master plan for a fairly light force of troops was exposed as dangerously flawed. 

Those troops faced growing insurgency and a potential civil war while the administration denied its existence.

RUMSFELD PRESSER ON JUNE 30, 2003: I guess the reason I don't use the phrase "guerrilla war" is because there isn't one.

At the same time Iraq was becoming a nest for outside terrorists.

PRIEST:They were wrong that doing what they did in Iraq would affect—counter-terrorism.  And, in fact,  it just served to do the opposite.  It drew new recruits into Iraq. 

As the war raged on, we learned the administration was wrong about something else.  Saddam had not possessed weapons of mass destruction.

FLEISCHER: Arab intelligence was wrong.  Israeli intelligence was wrong.  German intelligence was wrong.  This was the tragedy.  We went to war for a reason that turned out to be wrong.

After all the rhetoric, it turned out there never really was a mushroom cloud, just a smokescreen. And the news kept getting worse: Shocking photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad exposed widespread mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers giving America a huge black eye internationally. 

BUSH PRESSER ON OCTOBER 5, 2007: This government does not torture people.

DRAPER: We began to see a growing credibility chasm, not just a gap, but a chasm—that—that owes itself to the president telling us that we're on a certain path, though the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

And that credibility chasm was about to get deeper in August 2005 when a new storm appeared on the horizon back at home.

MCCLELLAN: Katrina left an indelible stain on this presidency.

Hurricane Katrina exposed a dysfunctional federal bureaucracy, and a president who appeared to be out of touch.

SUSKIND: When you're operating on instinct, on gut, from inside a bubble, the bubble of the Oval Office, the world kind of goes to hell.  You can't run the world that way. It's too big and too complicated.

BUSH PRESSER: Again I wanna thank you all and, Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job.

As people stood in desperation on their rooftops and in the new orleans Superdome, the President had a photo taken from air force one.  The Decider was now the Observer.

FORMER GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO, D- LA.: If, instead of a fly over, he had flown in, and walked with me in the streets,  it may have spurred the action that never—never really occurred.

HAYES: I think what Katrina did more than anything was—take suspicions that the American public had after the execution of post-war Iraq. It took those concerns and it basically confirmed them.

And in November 2006 Americans responded at the voting booth, giving Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress...a clear rebuke to the president.

BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESSER ON NOVEMBER 8, 2006: If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumpin'.

That thumping led him to make a decision he had resisted just months earlier.

BUSH ON APRIL 18, 2006:  "Now I know the speculation. But I'm the Decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.”

BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESSER ON NOVEMBER 11, 2008:  Now, after a series of thoughtful conversations, Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that the timing is right for new leadership at the Pentagon.

Although Bush called it a resignation, he had fired Donald Rumsfeld.  Vice president Cheney, a close friend and colleague of Rumsfeld wasn't happy. 

WOODWARD: He didn't consult Dick Cheney.  He called him in a day or two before it happened and President Bush said, "I'm replacing Rumsfeld.”  Cheney said, and I think this is significant, he said—"Well, I disagree, Mr. President, but it's, obviously, your call.”

It marked a waning of Cheney's influence.  With Rumsfeld gone and Robert Gates in at Defense, the president decided to implement a new war strategy.

BUSH ON JANUARY 10, 2007: I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. The vast majority of them—five brigades—will be deployed to Baghdad.

It became known as ‘the surge,' and Bush had the man to make it happen:  General David Petraeus.

PRIEST: General Petraeus will be one of the heroes of this era because he has adapted the strategy to the situation. And with some luck on the ground, things that were happening there within the Iraq population—he's taken advantage of that. 

Sen. Barack Obama and other Democrats opposed the surge, as did some Republicans. But over the course of 2007 and 2008, the strategy took shape and largely succeeded in drawing down the violence.

GERSON: I think that that decision, which was controversial even within the administration, is going to be remembered as one of the President's—contributions after—after he's gone.

WOODWARD: Iraq is much better—more stable, less violent—but the war isn't over. They worry about the next surprise, ‘cause that's what Iraq has done—continually dealt surprises.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, the numbers speak for themselves: more than 4,000 U.S. troops killed, 30,000 wounded and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead.

(Bush on "Meet the Press" on February 8, 2004.)

TIM RUSSERT, MEET THE PRESS HOST: Do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?

BUSH: I think that's an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or a war of necessity? It's a war of necessity. We - in my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence I looked at that says the man was a threat.

VANDEN HEUVEL: It was a war of choice.  It was not a war of necessity.  The world was against it. 

FLEISCHER: That region was a powder keg.  I'm glad that Saddam Hussein's finger has been removed from the powder keg.  So, I don't believe it was a mistake.  But the majority of the American people do.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Anybody who wants to say that George Bush has had not much domestic impact compared to foreign policy – take a look at the Supreme Court. They will bear George Bush's stamp for 30 or 40 years.

By 2005, the court had gone eleven years without a new appointment—the longest stretch in American history.  That all changed that summer when justice Sandra Day O'Connor  announced her retirement and chief justice William Rehnquist died from throat cancer. Bush nominated judge John Roberts of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to replace the Chief Justice.

MCCLELLAN:They connected very much on a personal level.  Not just a professional level. But he liked Justice Roberts a lot.

Video: Bush’s decisions affect Supreme Court FRUM: Had you polled a 100 people—a 100 experts on the Supreme Court and said, "If you had a responsible—somewhat right of center—President and there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court, who would you pick?”  Well, of course he'd pick John Roberts.

Switching one conservative chief justice for another didn't change the philosophical make-up of the court. But Bush still had the O'Connor seat to replace. And as with many decisions, he went with his gut.

BUSH: "This morning I'm proud to announce that I'm nominating Harriet Ellen Myers to serve as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court..."

This time the Decider came in for deafening criticism.

HAYES: For a lot of conservatives it was a real slap in the face.  They knew nothing about her judicial philosophy.  It was unclear that she even had a judicial philosophy. 

(Myers and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, with press)

Question: "Senator Hatch what do you say to conservatives who are hostile to this nomination?

Hatch: "Some of my colleagues are, but...”

Bush's choice of his loyal White House counsel and fellow Texan  swiftly swept away much of the goodwill that met the Roberts nomination.

FRUM: It's the best and the worst sides of George Bush. At his best, he approaches decisions very conscientiously. And then there's the other Bush wants to show his power, who wants to reward his friends, who feels beleaguered and badly understood. And that was the George Bush who sent up Harriet Myers.  

The outcry over Myers from both conservatives and liberals caused Bush to quickly back-pedal. Myers withdrew, and he named a U.S. appeals court judge with bona fide conservative credentials.

PETE WILLIAMS:, NBC NEWS JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Justice Alito tends to be a much more solidly conservative justice.  And what that means is the Court has moved to the right.  It has become—more favorably inclined toward restrictions on abortion.  It has become less willing to entertain the use of affirmative action, especially in school admissions.  And probably making it a little tougher to prevail on job discrimination cases, especially in cases involving equal pay for men versus women.

Bush's imprint on the Federal Judiciary goes well beyond the supreme court and long into the future.

BUSH: A lot has happened since 2000. I have appointed more than 1/3 of the judges now sitting on the federal bench, and these men and women are jurists of the highest caliber with an abiding belief in the sanctity of our constitution.

Today, 62 percent of federal judges were selected by Bush or his Republican predecessors, the culmination of a determined conservative strategy dating back to the Reagan administration.

WILLIAMS: The conservatives were carefully cultivating a group of federal judges, Constitutional experts, moving them along the line through the federal courts, the courts of appeal.  Getting them in a position where they would be ready to be nominated. And the President was able to harvest their good work.

Whatever else one might say about George W. Bush, the Decider-in-Chief has achieved his goal of remaking the federal courts for a long time to come.

In the waning days of the Bush presidency, a new type of storm, a financial storm hit America. Hard. Just weeks before, President Bush had predicted good economic weather ahead.

BUSH: "My belief is that the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

September 17, 2008.  Just days after investment giant Lehman brothers went bankrupt - Americans went on a bank run — it was the day Wall Street stood still.

STEVE FORBES: On that one Wednesday, over $140 billion were drawn.  People were scared, they just wanted out. Clutch the cash, like food in a famine. 

But with this storm, as with Katrina,  President Bush was mostly out of sight. The next day he finally spoke for all of two minutes. 

BUSH:The American people can be sure we will continue to act to strengthen and stabilize our financial markets and improve investor confidence. Thank you.

He took no questions as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression was looming. The next day, September 19th, flanked by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Bush announced an unprecedented  $700 billion plan for the Feds to buy bad debt from banks. 
Video: Economy plagues Bush legacy
BUSH: Given the precarious state of today's financial markets government intervention is not only warranted, it is essential.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: We have never had a government intervening in the market to the extent that the Bush Administration has intervened.  What he himself did were acts of what might be called socialism.

It was a 180 turnabout for a man who confidently took office as a  free market conservative. 

BUSH STATE OF THE UNION 2001: Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited; engaged, but not overbearing.

GRETCHEN MORGENSON, NEW YORK TIMES: A very crucial decision that was made was "hands off"of Wall Street and, you know, the large institutions and the big banks  way that that kind of laid the groundwork for the financial crisis.

For years Bush's laissez-faire approach seemed to work.   After a 9/11 downturn, the U.S. economy came back strong fueled by Bush's tax cuts and a massive housing boom, one he zealously promoted.

BUSH INAUGURAL SPEECH – JANUARY 20, 2005:To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will build an ownership society.

But by 2006, some economists were characterizing the housing boom as a housing bubble like the Internet bubble of the 90s but much bigger.

FRUM: It was not like there were a whole lot of other voices in the country saying—"Stop this housing bubble before it inflates.”  People were enjoying it. And Congress was with them.

MORGENSON: You had home owners that were lured into very risky mortgages that they didn't understand that had very punishing aspects to them, interest rates that were going to escalate dramatically, and prepayment penalties that were punishing.

August 2007. Two Bear Stearns investment funds based on sub-prime mortgages went belly up.  Soon home prices tumbled and mortgage holders began to default.  As the crisis grew, Paulson and Bernanke took charge. Bush, the Decider, once again farmed out critical decisions.

FORBES: He's obviously not into economics. Most people aren't. But, when you're in the Oval Office you've gotta make sure you get on top of it.  Abraham Lincoln  knew nothing about war or military. And he learned very quickly. And that's what you've gotta do. And this President did not.

In September 2008 Paulson and Bernanke crafted the $700 billion bailout to try to stop the firestorm that was quickly going global. The president found himself espousing measures before the world that were once anathema to him.

BUSH: Those of you who have followed my career know that I'm a free market person. until you're told that if you don't take decisive action, our country could go into a depression greater than the Great Depression.

Victimized by his own anti-regulation ideology, George W. Bush suffered the final, humiliating blow to his legacy... the one delivered by the American people on election night.

DRAPER: The signs that we have been seeing lately are signs of a man  who's ready to go home to Texas.  And who recognizes that his power has diminished to near nothingness.   And that perhaps, America will be better served with the page turned.

WOODWARD: The financial crisis may be the event that defines his presidency as much as the Iraq war.

Obama's election and the Democratic sweep of Congress represent the American people's opinion of the Decider's presidency. But what will be history's verdict?  I put that question to presidential historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University and Mark Halperin, Editor at Large, Time magazine. 

MATTHEWS: Have we ever had a president who relied so much on his gut as George W. Bush?

SEAN WILENTZ, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I don't think so.  I can't think of one right away.  One who took decisions and stuck by them, that's the key I think.  It's not so much the instantaneousness of making decisions, I don't even think that Bush worked that way.  But  I don't think we've had as stubborn a president, certainly not in recent times, one who was unwilling to change his mind to change course.

MATTHEWS: Can you find this, Mark, where the Bush decisions come from?  He's the Great Decider. 

MARK HALPERIN, TIME MAGAZINE: So resolute and stubborn, you know, he said in his acceptance speech after he was re-nominated he said,  "In Texas, you know, people look at that as just walking, not strutting.”  I think the two things that we can't know—as much as he's been written about, as much as we've all talked about him, is his relationship to giving up drinking and his relationship to his Lord. I think both of those things contributed to his discipline and his stubbornness. He did not want this job as much as most people who seek it.  And then he got it, and I think he just decided he was gonna do it his way, and he never deviated from that.

Video: Rating Bush’s legacy MATTHEWS: We have the Adams Family and we have the Bush Family of father and son presidencies.  In the case of this father and son relationship, how much of that is important? 

WILENTZ: In the first case, the younger Adams was on the scene pretty much after his father was away.  This case, the father's looking over the shoulder, potentially.  And—that has been a factor, I think, in the presidency.  I mean, you saw it in the buildup to Iraq.  It wasn't George H.W. Bush talking, it was Brent Scowcroft talking, but nevertheless, it was pretty clear that the view from Kennebunkport was rather dark, what was about to happen.  I don't know any president that's had a father present looking over your shoulder, nothing like that.

MATTHEWS: I always like to ask politicians or about them, who's in the room when they make their big decisions.  It's a great way of cutting to the quick. 

WILENTZ: The number of voices that were in that room were pretty small, the ones that really counted.  You hear accounts—you read accounts, even, about cabinet meetings and there were two or three people in the room who really counted and everybody else there was kind of  stuffed dummy and that was the end of it.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, so it was Cheney—

WILENTZ: And—well, Cheney's people... you know, Scooter Libby and the others, Addington and the others.  Condi Rice was important up to a point on foreign policy.

MATTHEWS: Did she challenge the President or just back him up? Was she an enabler?

WILENTZ:  From where I was sitting, she looked more like an enabler than an advisor.  She's comes from a very different tradition. She's the Brent Scowcroft protégé, after all.  And so if there was someone who was going to be restraining—the more evangelical side, and I think that's the word for it, of foreign policy, it would have been she.  And you didn't see too much of that.

MATTHEWS: Rate him as commander in chief.

HALPERIN: I do think he deserves high marks for his public presentations after a rocky start in the first few hours, the joint session speech, at Ground Zero, a number of other times when you can't be sure of it, but II'm confident that he performed there very well and other presidents may not have performed as well.

I also think he gets high marks for what we didn't see as commander-in-chief.  Not just the fact that there has not been another attack, but we know that he has spent an extraordinary amount of time and psychic energy in organizing homeland security, in dealing with threats around the world, again sometimes overstepping and hurting America's image in the world.

MATTHEWS: Let's shift to a couple of interesting areas, one is politics.  Mark, you know politics well.  The influence of Karl Rove, the man the President Bush referred to as the architect.

HALPERIN: I think Karl played as big a role as anybody in alienating not just the Democrats in Congress, but half the electorate.  And he's been punished with the rise of the liberal blogosphere, liberals on cable TV in a way that the conservatives used to have with the Heritage Foundation, talk radio, et cetera.

MATTHEWS: A lot of blowback here.

WILENTZ: There is blowback.  But also, I mean, there was subordination of policy to politics, partisan politics, in a way that was unusual that was, I think, unprecedented.  

I mean, you saw that even with the war.  I mean, not too long after that wonderful speech of Bush's before the joint session, there was Karl Rove talking to the Republicans saying, "We're gonna run on this issue, we're gonna make this a political issue.”  And that was just exactly the wrong thing to do, I think, in a case of war, a good war president, a good commander in chief pulls together, reaches across the aisle, doesn't politicize the war.  This war got politicized right away. 

MATTHEWS: Is George Bush a tough act to follow? 

WILENTZ: There are a lot of big problems out there.  And some of which were George Bush's creation, some of which were not.  And I don't envy President Obama one bit having, in effect, the Great Depression and World War II placed on his plate at the same time.  So, a tough act to follow in some ways—yes, he is a tough act to follow because the mess we've gotten into requires leadership to get us out of.  And unless you can do that, you may not be able to become the kind of President you could have been.

HALPERIN: Can I say one thing positive... I think he has an achievement that is more from the bully pulpit than it is programmatic.  But if you look at No Child Left Behind, and if you look at AIDS in Africa and some of the other initiatives, I think one thing he really believes in, which is he elevated the public imagination, the public sensibility, the notion of every life being precious, every spirit being important.

MATTHEWS: Well, thank you Professor Sean Wilentz, and thank you Mark Halperin.

George W. Bush has taken solace in comparing his dismal popularity ratings to Harry Truman's.   That's understandable since, history now regards Truman as one of our better presidents.  But in a recent informal survey of some 100 American historians, 98 percent agree with Sean Wilentz and rate the Bush presidency a failure.   And more than 60 percent said he was the worst president ever.  Will the passage of time soften that harsh opinion? Mr. Bush can only hope.  But as Bush once said,  "History, we don't know. We'll all be dead.” 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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