WASHINGTON -- As with the late A. Lincoln, so with the present G.W. Bush -- once the right general was found and the right strategy adopted, victory was in hand and a beleaguered president's fortunes were restored. Doubtless President Bush is aware of the parallel, and, perchance, he will avoid Ford's Theatre.
A curious inhibition shared by both Bush '41 and Bush '43 is to downplay their interest in reading. Actually both are hearty readers, certainly as compared with the general public. Earlier this year I attended a luncheon that the President hosted at the White House for the distinguished British historian Andrew Roberts, whose 736-page volume, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the President had polished off months before, even before the book was released in America. He had been talking the book up with his staff, and when I heard that my friend, Roberts, was going to be in town, I passed that intelligence on. Bush invited Roberts in, not only for luncheon but also to lecture the White House staff. This president knows his history and its significance.
Through the last three years of gloomy news he has been called "bull-headed," but the evidence from Iraq, the economy, and various other precincts, for instance, advances in stem-cell research, suggests a different adjective, to wit, "resolute." Moreover, in Iraq we see not only a resolute president but also a flexible president. Last spring, he changed his tactics in Iraq and the change has been successful.
Historians studying Lincoln's war have concluded that the gravest challenge facing him was to find an effective general. In fact, one of the most authoritative early series written about the war was titled Lincoln Finds a General, by Kenneth P. Williams. From the successful way things are going in the Iraq War today, it is clear that Bush has found his general, David H. Petraeus, and that this general has implemented a strategy effective across an array of problems that had heretofore made a hash of our post-invasion presence in Iraq. General Petraeus's "surge" has pacified once violent neighborhoods and effected, in the provinces, alliances with otherwise warlike sheiks who have turned on al Qaeda's brutes and apparently beaten them. The surge has even suppressed incoming weapons from Iran. Now the Hon. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who in July called the surge a "failed policy" and the President "delusional," has returned from the battlefield and admitted that the "surge is working."
The economy is strong with steady growth, low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, and only one sector in doubt, housing, which in an economy as enormous as ours can be endured for a while. The President's reluctance to fund federal research on embryonic stem cells has been vindicated with the announcement that scientists have discovered how to use normal skin cells to serve their research purposes. And now comes a National Intelligence Estimate, concluding that Iran decided to abandon a 15-year program to develop nuclear weapons just months after our invasion of Iraq. At the time, Libya too gave up its nuclear arms program. What desert potentate wants to suffer the fate President Bush arranged for Saddam Hussein?
The nature of modern broadcast media and the present rancorous condition of partisan politics encourage a colossal din after a president undertakes daring endeavors. Today we forget the widespread contempt that surrounded President Harry Truman's last years in office as he contended with the Korean War and the early stages of the Cold War. Who remembers the sorry repute of Ronald Reagan a year before he vacated the premises? Former White House speechwriter Clark S. Judge, in one of the first newspaper columns to notice the Bush revival, wrote last week, "In 1987, President Reagan's fortunes were down." Judge noted the President's loss of the Senate, the setback of the Bork nomination, and, of course, Iran-Contra. "But then," Judge recalls, "the Soviets started to give way on arms and other agreements, the economy continued to grow despite the October stock market crash and Reagan began the long climb in the polls that helped put the current president's father in the Oval Office."
Well, maybe the present president's "long climb" has begun. From a lowly 29% approval rating in September, when General Petraeus was testifying before Congress on the surge, Mr. Bush's approval has climbed to 36%. The Democratic Congress's approval is but 22% and its leadership has undertaken no daring endeavors. When President Bush finally retires to his ranch to continue his readings of history, quite possibly the books about contemporary Washington will make pleasant reading. Perhaps even a boulevard will be named after him in Baghdad.
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