Bush's legacy may hinge on outcome in Iraq

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As George W. Bush is about to enter his second term, some questions come to thought:

Q: What kind of grade are historians likely to give him?

A: Based on his record thus far, I think that the historians who turn out those ratings - most of them liberals and not easily won over by a conservative president - may rate him as "average." They may well grade him even lower than that later on if Iraq is perceived by them as a Bush failure.

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They may refer to the administration of John Quincy Adams (1825 to 1829), concluding that both Bush and Adams failed to come up to their potential by not being able to dispel the angry opposition left over by the contentions following their elections. Indeed, they may well view Bush as a president who, after expressing intentions, on taking office, of bringing the country together, abandoned this healing approach as he responded to the Sept. 11 attacks with an aggressive foreign policy, including the invasion of Iraq, that left half of Americans in strong and sometimes angry dissent.

Q: But will this less-than-flattering historical perspective hold?

A: Well, it certainly hasn't for Eisenhower and Reagan. Ike has been lifted toward the "near-great" category as his papers and books by and about him have revealed a truly outstanding peacetime president. And we've just seen Reagan, who suffered much disdain from intellectuals during his presidency, vaulting toward the same "near-great" rating as historians hail his role in ending the Cold War. Both of these men were scored as "dummies" by their critics when they were serving as president.

Adams, with only one term, set the seal on his performance - and rating - after just four years. But Bush has four more years to make his mark as an above-average or better president.

In any upgrading of the Bush image, the Iraq venture must again look successful, as it seemed to be at the beginning. That would require a consolidation of the current regime there, following an election. And there would have to be a quieting down of the tumult and the opposition.

Such progress in Iraq is, as I see it, the essential ingredient in the Bush upturn in both stilling dissent at home and in winning the applause of those who write the histories.

Then, with his Iraq mission improving markedly, Bush could look elsewhere for accomplishments that would make him look better in history. In foreign affairs, his announced intention to seek an Israeli-Palestinian settlement just might lead to positive results. But we all know of the pitfalls that lie along that path.

And if Bush could substantially move along his legislative agenda - further education reform, social security reform, tax code simplification, tort reform, along with other measures - it would do much to improve the record that historians will look at.

Q: Here some people might ask: Why did John Quincy Adams lose a second term while George W. won?

A: A biography by David Jacobs depicts Adams in this way: "Reserved, moral, able to labor twice beyond ordinary human exhaustion, vain one day and self-abusive the next, self-righteous, irritable, possessed with a firmness of purpose fluctuating between virtuous determination and stubborn inflexibility - this was the Adams character."

Adams was certainly a brilliant fellow - but evidently someone whose moods were hard to read. He was known for being difficult to get along with.

So it's pretty clear why he was unable to make the personal appeal that would have quieted contention and drawn supporters needed for reelection.

George W. certainly has stirred up a lot of contention. But, despite this, he has a likable way about him that could help him greatly later in shaping a second term in which he would seek to heal the nation. He has, I think, again indicated he is headed in this direction.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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