Best, and worst, moments in George W. Bush presidency
Published: April 25, 2013 07:56PM
Updated: April 25, 2013 08:04PM

George W. Bush’s presidential library was dedicated Thursday, an event that brought the 43rd president back into the spotlight in a way he hasn’t been since leaving office in 2009.

Bush is experiencing something of a comeback in the minds of the American people, with nearly half - 47 percent - now approving of the job he did in office.

With that in mind, we thought it was worth highlighting Bush’s seven best moments as president - moments that look (for now) as though they will be remembered by historians as successes. Below that we highlight his worst moments.

The moments are ranked below with No. 1 seen as the time for which Bush will be most fondly remembered.

BEST

7. His speech in Texas House after Bush v. Gore was decided.

After the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore in Bush’s favor, the country remained at loggerheads over who had really won the election. With that fractiousness as the backdrop, Bush delivered a triumphant yet gracious speech on the floor of the Texas House on Dec. 13, 2000. “I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past,” Bush said.

6. The passage of Medicare Part D.

The arm-twisting over Bush’s prescription drug plan is famous/infamous in political circles; the 15-minute vote - begun at 3 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2003 - wound up lasting about three hours, and it was later revealed that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, offered to endorse a retiring congressman’s son for his seat in exchange for a ‘yes’ vote. No matter how the bill became a law, polls now show the program has bipartisan support, and seniors like it very much. Conservatives still gripe about the program’s cost, but as with entitlement programs in general, Americans like it.

5. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)

The passage of PEPFAR in 2003 was Bush’s big entree into combating the global AIDS epidemic, and few things have garnered him such praise from all sides of the political spectrum. After spending $15 billion over the first five years, the program was renewed in 2008. A 2009 Stanford University study found that the program saved a million lives in Africa and HIV/AIDS rates declined by 10 percent in countries that received funding.

4. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout.

We just got through an election in which Bush’s stewardship of the economy wasn’t exactly a feather in the GOP’s cap - to put it mildly. But while the market crash occurred on his watch and conservatives still aren’t happy about bailing out the big banks (or anyone else), economists are settling around the idea that the TARP bailout that Bush successfully pushed for averted an even worse crisis. The period itself will never be looked upon as Bush’s finest, and “it could have been worse” isn’t exactly something you put on your tombstone, but Bush closed out his tenure by securing a tough, bipartisan deal that many say averted catastrophe.

3. The Iraq surge.

It remains to be seen how Iraq emerges from the decade-long war there, but at one point it seemed all was lost. With the war dragging on and thousands of Americans dying, Bush in 2007 did something politically risky and unpopular: he asked for more troops. The so-called “surge” wound up working in the minds of the American people, with a 2010 CNN/Opinion Research poll showing 60 percent thought it was a success and 33 percent calling it a failure. President Obama even acknowledged at the tail end of the 2008 campaign that the surge was working beyond anyone’s expectations. Iraq was never Bush’s strong point - particularly when it comes to the “weapons of mass destruction” justification for war - but as with TARP, he may well have avoided an even worse situation by doing something that wasn’t popular at the time.

2. The capture of Sadaam Hussein.

On Dec. 13, 2003, the former Iraqi leader was pulled out of what has been compared to a rathole in an altogether cathartic experience for the American people. A trial ensued, and then Hussein was hanged. “And now the former dictator of Iraq will face the justice he denied to millions,” Bush declared. “The capture of this man was crucial to the rise of a free Iraq.”

1. (tie) His bullhorn speech at Ground Zero three days after 9/11. His address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20. Throwing out the first pitch (a strike) at Yankee Stadium at Oct. 30.

Moments of great tragedy are also moments where leaders emerge, and Bush’s presidency began with with a huge moment after which he acquitted himself very well and soared in popularity to almost unheard-of heights. (Bush’s handling of Sept. 11, 2001, was what, in the end, gave him a second term in office.) And Bush’s biggest success in the minds of the American people is that the country wasn’t attacked once during the remaining seven years of his tenure.

WORST

7. The Plame affair

The 2003 leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a covert operative in the CIA consumed the administration for months and led to a rift between Bush and then-Vice President Cheney during their second term, after Bush refused to pardon Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, in connection with the case. It later turned out that the source of the leak was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who said he leaked her identity accidentally. But many saw it as politically motivated, given that Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, had questioned the administration’s case for going to war in Iraq.

6. The 2006 “thumping”

The 2006 midterm election left Bush the lamest of lame ducks for his final two years, in large part because of what were perceived as the failures in his administration. Democrats won both the House and the Senate, along with a majority of governorships - the first time they had a majority of all three since the 1994 Republican Revolution. Bush summed it all up at a press conference by calling it a “thumpin’”.

5. ‘Mission Accomplished’

Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003, on what should have been a momentous occasion. But the banner that hung behind him that day will live in infamy. The banner preemptively declared “Mission Accomplished” in a war that would last another decade and cost thousands of American lives. The Bush administration had said it wasn’t responsible for the banner, but that later turned out not to be the case. Bush has called it a “big mistake.”

4. The 16 words

Bush’s statement in his 2003 State of the Union address that “the British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” has come to symbolize the botched case for war and what critics call the lies of his administration. There remains some disagreement about whether the words were justified, but CIA director George Tenet later admitted that he never should have approved that statement in Bush’s speech, and it became a proxy for the administration’s case for war.

3. Abu Ghraib

Bush’s anti-terrorism policies came under a microscope throughout his presidency - including Guantanamo Bay, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping. But no one policy was as damaging as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. The picture above remains the biggest symbol of the mistreatment and torture that occurred at the prison in Iraq - much of it captured in pictures that were released for the world to see. The episode, while not directly implicating members of the administration, remains a huge black eye on United States foreign policy.

2. (tie) ‘Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva a job’. The Hurricane Katrina flyover. Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the last straw for Bush’s second term, with his widely criticized handling of the recovery pretty much precluding him from any kind of success in his final years in office. It was punctuated by his admonition that FEMA director Michael Brown was “doing a heckuva job” (amid a large number of complaints that Brown wan’t up to the job), an iconic image of Bush flying over the wreckage of Katrina on his way back from a vacation rather than going there immediately, and rapper Kanye West saying during a Katrina telethon that Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” The last moment registered with Bush, who later called it the worst moment of his presidency.

1. The market crashes and the recession begins

Bush’s term ended on a low note, with the market crash of 2008 requiring emergency government intervention and resulting in a long recession that the country is still climbing out of. The bank bailout that Bush spearheaded has gotten positive reviews, but Bush continues to endure criticism for the policies that led to the crash, and he will forever be linked to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.