For Bush, End to 50 Years in Public Life

He had a great resume, but at home and abroad, the Bush presidency ends with doubts

AMERICA says "hail and farewell" tomorrow to its 41st president, and brings to a close for George Bush a 50-year period spent largely in service to his country.

Destined to be the youngest aviator in the United States Navy, Mr. Bush was barely 18 when he volunteered for military service during World War II.

A half-century later, Bush has garnered a list of titles that reads like a Who's Who of American government. He served as congressman, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ambassador to the United Nations and China, chairman of the Republican Party, and vice president of the US.

Despite his stunning resume, it remains unclear what history will say about President Bush.

An intensely competitive and patriotic man, he would clearly like to be remembered as the free world leader who brought the cold war to an end, and who presided over the coalition defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Yet historians and political scientists point to the irony that while Saddam still rules in Baghdad, Iraq, Bush is going into retirement in Houston. And while the cold war has ended, the future of democracy in Russia and the other former Soviet states still hangs in the balance.

Stephen Ambrose, director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, skips over those major events and says bluntly: "The first thing that stands out about the Bush presidency is that he is one of three since World War II, along with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, who got defeated for reelection."

For that reason, Bush's rating among post-World War II presidents will be "not very high," Dr. Ambrose says.

Tom Cronin, a professor at Colorado College, is equally tough on Bush. Dr. Cronin is coauthor of "Government by the People," a perennially best-selling college text on political science.

He gives Bush a tentative B+ in foreign policy, but only a "gentleman's C" in domestic affairs.

Though Bush presided over the end of the cold war, "he won't get much credit for it," Cronin says. "People will view that as a 30- or 40-year effort."

Further, the final foreign policy grade for Bush will depend on what happens next. The work in Iraq and Russia is unfinished.

Ambrose agrees, observing: "Bush did a credible job as the American president who was lucky enough to be in office when the cold war came to an and the Berlin Wall came down. The debate among historians will center around those events, the big events of his presidency."

He continues: "The debate will be, What did he do to bring those about? Was it just dumb luck to be there, or did he make a meaningful contribution? Did he react appropriately? Did he take advantage of opportunity? It all depends how it turns out."

Ambrose wonders what historians will say if Russia's nascent democracy movement collapses. What if tyranny returns? And what if Saddam again becomes a major threat?

Earl Black, a leading authority on Southern politics and history, speaks in a similar vein of Bush's foreign policy.

Dr. Black, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, says: "In international events, Bush was only responding belatedly. It is a matter of claiming credit for events largely outside his control."

He says: "Aside from the impressive response to the invasion of Kuwait, most of the other efforts are basically continuations of other people's policies.... He could not really claim to have done a great deal more than urge on events that were already happening."

Yet Black saves his hardest words for Bush's domestic policies.

"There really aren't any major achievements to point to," Black says. "Bush saw himself as someone who would consolidate the achievements of the Reagan years. That was a major misjudgment, for it looked like disinterest.

Bush is also a prisoner of Republican ideology that says, `Government is not the answer.' He basically must have made the assumption that the halo from the Reagan years would carry through the 1992 election."

Ambrose compares Bush's inactivity on the domestic front with his predecessors: Dwight Eisenhower, who brought about the Interstate highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway; Lyndon Johnson, who started Medicare and Medicaid; Harry Truman, who integrated the miltary; Teddy Roosevelt, who launched the conservation movement; Franklin D. Roosevelt, who began social security.

"These were things that had effects on everybody's lives forever afterward," Ambrose says. "Where was it with George Bush?"

Nevertheless, the experts see some hope for Bush in the history books. If Russia's democracy eventually flourishes, if Saddam soon falls, if the economy suddenly blossoms, then he will be judged to have played it just about right.

Only history can tell.

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