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As President Bush’s Term Closes, His Legacy Takes Shape

September 2, 2008 at 8:25 PM EDT
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Before President George W. Bush speaks at the Republican Convention, Christine Todd Whitman and Michael Gerson, former members of his administration, provide insight on the legacy President Bush will leave behind.

GWEN IFILL: Christine Todd Whitman was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Michael Gerson was the president’s chief speechwriter.

Welcome to you both.

We just saw cheers go up, applauding the legacy of George H.W. Bush, in the hall. So when we look at the president tonight, as he gives his final speech to a Republican National Convention as president, how would you, Christine Todd Whitman, begin to define his legacy? He famously doesn’t like to talk about legacy.

FORMER GOV. CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN (R), New Jersey: Well, he’s going to have to tonight. I think it’s going to be very important for him to say and lay out very clearly what he wants the public to remember, because we tend to get caught up in the passion of the moment and the political rhetoric.

And the other side would have you believe it’s all bad. And it’s not. Did I disagree at times? Sure. But there were so many things that he has done that were right, where he’s in the right position, immigration, which you heard mentioned earlier this evening by one of the speakers, where John McCain agrees with the president and took on the party over that.

Support for Iraq War

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I think he's going to lay out those things. And, of course, he believes very deeply -- and people will disagree, but he believes that the war in Iraq is the best way to keep America safe. And he's going to be passionate about that. I would imagine he's not going to back off from that at all.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, we got a peak at some of the advance text of the president's remarks tonight, and one of the things he praises John McCain for specifically was his support for him on Iraq.

MICHAEL GERSON, Former Bush Speechwriter: No, I agree. You know, John McCain in a lot of ways was critical of George Bush on the Iraq -- initial Iraq plan and invasion, was an advocate of the surge well before the president adopted it.

So I think that John McCain, in some ways, this is an issue where he can take credit in some ways for leaning on the president, and the president can praise him for a policy that he adopted in many ways and has been more successful than some hoped.

The president is going to have a story to tell on legacy, whether it's Medicare prescription drugs, whether it's AIDS in Africa, where millions of people are getting AIDS drugs, whether it's No Child Left Behind education reform.

But the fact of the matter is that most of the Bush people I think recognize that that case will come a little bit later, that John McCain's moment is now, and the important thing for the president is to appear in ways that benefit him.

I think that's the really commitment that you'll probably see tonight.

Carving out the legacy

GWEN IFILL: There almost seems to be an interesting mirror image going on. There is -- the president has record-low approval ratings, outside of this hall. Inside of this hall...

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Not as bad as Congress, though.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that's true. But tonight let's talk about the presidency. Nine out of 10 inside this hall think he's doing -- he's fabulous, doing a fabulous job. How did you begin to carve out the legacy you want with that kind of dichotomy?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, again, this is going to be a question of time. I agree that tonight he will talk about the legacy parts that he can relate to John McCain, because this is about John McCain in this convention.

And his legacy will come over time. And he recognizes that, you know, that history is not always kind to a person in their own lifetime and that it may come later.

And from the President Bush that I have seen, he has always believed that he wants to do what he believes to be the right thing and history will judge over time. And he will have an opportunity over the next couple of months to remind people of the things that he is -- of which he is most proud, and he will do that.

GWEN IFILL: The Democrats, of course, are loving to link John McCain with George W. Bush because of his perceived unpopularity. Even here in Minnesota, there's a Senate race going on where the Senate -- the person running for the Democratic race -- we've probably all seen the ad -- is running against the incumbent senator, Norm Coleman, by linking him to George W. Bush.

Bush, McCain similarities

GWEN IFILL: How does he get around that? How alike are John McCain and George W. Bush, really, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, seeing it from the Bush administration's side, John McCain was, frankly, often a pain in the neck for the administration. Now, of course, he wants credit for that, and maybe he deserves it.

But on issue after issue, when you're talking about torture, or campaign finance reform, or environmental issues like global warming, John McCain took quite a different path. He and the president were very closely associated on the Iraq issue. There's no question.

And I don't think that John McCain would necessarily back off of that. He's a supporter of the surge and thinks it's successful.

But I do think that there are a number of other domestic issues where he can highlight genuine disagreements without criticizing the president and needs to do that.

This is a year where I think Barack Obama can run as a Democrat and win. I think John McCain can't run as a typical Republican and win. He's going to have to have a reform agenda when he comes to his own speech on Thursday night. And, you know, I think he's going to, you know, begin to make that case.

A redefined Republican Party

GWEN IFILL: As you look back on these eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, how has -- and speaking especially as a moderate Republican -- how has he changed or redefined the Republican Party?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, I don't think it's so much the president himself. It's been an image that's come out of Congress, Washington in general, of being more narrowly focused, litmus-test hard-edged, and that's not the president that I worked with.

Maybe other members, they're sort of -- you know, it's a divergent administration. And certainly on the Hill you saw a lot of it. And so the public has this taste that is a little bitter in their mouths.

And they need to look at both sides of the aisle, because I will tell you, when I would go up to the Hill, there was very little inclination on the part of the Democrats to try to reach across the aisle and to work with the president to give him any credit for anything. And that's really what needs to change.

And I see John McCain as someone who can be a leader there, can be the one to break down, to say, "Look, there's a time for partisan politics, and there's a time for public policy. And we need to understand where those two things come together and where they diverge," and be willing to stand up, and reach across the aisle, work with other members of the party, your own party, with whom you may not agree, in order to get something done for the public.

GWEN IFILL: Quickly, do you agree with that, that approach, or is there another approach here?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I think that John McCain is going to have to appeal to the center in this convention in a way that Barack Obama, by the way, did not.

He gave a very polarizing speech that alienated anyone with a conservative instinct by sounding like every Democrat from the last 20 years. And it may not be a bad strategy. But John McCain can't do it that way. He's going to have to promise, present the promise of working in a different way than we've seen.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Gerson, former speechwriter, Christie Todd Whitman, former member of the cabinet, governor of New Jersey, thank you both very much for joining us.