The L-Word: Legacy

It started cropping up this week.  That word that is spoken in hushed tones and never attributed to the administration — it’s the L-word for legacy.  Presidents in their end times start to think about legacy, or at least their “people” do.  After a beating back of the immigration bill, the president went to Capitol Hill last week to negotiate with Senators and it is said that he wants to make immigration his domestic legacy issue.  In that lunch, Senators got up and said, “You’ve got to give us something on borders, the folks back home are killing us.”  Those pesky voters, they are always getting in the way of legacy for some and re-election for other and both groups were represented in that room. 

George W. Bush has never been a legacy kind of guy.  Dozens of times, I have told my listeners, “We got what we asked for — a president who doesn’t care about the polls. 
We said we wanted someone who would do what he thinks is right regardless of what the polls say and that’s what we got.”  It’s the American Pendulum at work.  Americans take good ideas and go too far with them and then they have to bring them back. We do it with presidents, too.  President Clinton did everything according to polls and didn’t stand for anything and President Bush seems to do everything outside of the polls and has a tin ear on certain issues no matter what the people, his constituents think about it.

So what does the gallant President do when pursuing his legacy at home?  He rushes home from the G-8 Summit, with a rock star visit to Albania in between, to visit Capitol Hill to lobby Senators for his position on immigration.  The problem with the President’s position on immigration is that is doesn’t mesh with his position on the War on Terror, his foreign policy legacy. He’s supposed to be the national security president and open borders and amnesty don’t mesh with a focus on national security.

I’ve talked to enough soldiers to know you secure the perimeter first in any war and then you defend from there.  The staunchest supporters of the President’s policy on the Global War on Terror, the ones who have not deserted him, are also the ones that are loudest on secure the border first. One California Congressman told me Friday night, “He (the president) has a tin ear on this issue (immigration).  He won’t listen.”  Most people see it as a National Security issue.  You secure the perimeter — the border — first; then defend the country from threats “foreign and domestic” from that position.

The legacy issue plagues the two term president.  If you read Haynes Johnson’s books on Reagan and Clinton, he paints a picture of the problems inherent in a two term president.  You just can’t keep the energy level up.  So when a president realizes that he’s spent half of his first term running for reelection and half of his last term will be spent being concerned about legacy — he’s only got 4 years to really get something done. 

Reagan did it right, he got most of what he was trying to accomplish done in the first term, and those accomplishments set the stage for the successes of the second term and over time, it’s those successes that overshadow the disappointments.  Clearly, Iran-Contra was a distraction in the second Reagan term, but the accomplishments overshadowed the setback in the Reagan Presidency. We saw the outpouring of love from all sides for President Reagan at his funeral. Even though it was a relatively short time between his leaving office and his death, people knew leadership and responded to it.  Reagan becomes a larger figure as a president and as a man the more we learn about him.  One need only to look at the success of the current “Reagan Diaries” published this year to see that.

So as I get the hushed phone calls from the powerful about the “legacy” issue of President Bush, what will it be?  It’s hard to say.  I hope that I live long enough to see what it is and I hope it will be as President Bush said on many campaign stops in 2004, “Fifty years ago, no one thought that the President of the United States would sit down with the duly elected head of Japan to negotiate issues in Asia and I hope that 50 years from now, an American president will be sitting down with the duly elected Prime Minister of Iraq to discuss the region.”

However, if I were a betting woman, I would say that it will be missed opportunities. There were missed opportunities on making the tax cuts permanent, on improving public education, on immigration policy and on energy policy on the domestic side.  On the foreign policy side, the jury is still out.  We were right to fight back after 9/11, everywhere and anywhere there were terrorists.  I still believe we are right to be in Iraq, but if we don’t give the military rules of engagement that work and get the lawyers out of the way, we will lose and we can’t lose this fight.  President Bush squandered unprecedented good will of the American people in the fight on terrorism and this is something that he or the next president must win back because we can’t lose this fight or we will lose America.

In the long run, does a president’s legacy matter to anyone but him?  I am not sure about that but I spent this weekend being a tourist in Washington, DC.  I went to the war memorials and to the museums.  I went to see things that I have never seen before and back to the old favorites.  One of my favorite stops has always been The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  It is a monument to what a united purpose, discipline and a government that doesn’t spend over half its revenues on social programs can do.  Our nation went from Kitty Hawk and the first flight to landing on the Moon in one lifetime.  We can do anything if we put our minds to it but we need leadership to do it. 

So I would say to this president and all those that follow.  It’s not about you.  Since the television age, the media has made you think that you are more important than the service to the American people.  Great presidents don’t worry about legacy; they do the people’s work.