When President Bush took his final walk to the rostrum of the House chamber, his speech and manner conveyed little nostalgia. He views both meditation on the past and speculation about his legacy with equal suspicion, preferring to live in the urgency of the now. So his last State of the Union address had no Reagan-like, misty-eyed wistfulness. It was the most matter-of-fact of his congressional addresses: a clear theme -- trusting the people -- developed at a brisk pace, with modest proposals and an edge of impatience at congressional loitering. He seemed to be saying: "With a year to go, sentiment be damned."
But there is nothing to prevent me from waxing nostalgic. Watching the speech, I recalled meeting Gov. Bush of Texas in the spring of 1999, before he was a declared candidate. He talked with rushed intensity about being a "different kind of Republican," dedicated to racial healing and helping the poor and determined to provide moral leadership as a contrast and corrective to the Clinton years. Because I believed him, I left journalism and joined his campaign.
It is conventional wisdom that Bush's idealism is either a fraud or has been pushed aside completely by the priorities of war. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg argues that Bush's claim to be a compassionate conservative is "largely fictional." A liberal organization called Americans United for Change recently promised to spend $8.5 million on political attack ads against noncandidate Bush, out of fear that Bush hatred in America might mellow during his final year as president.
But historical legacies are not determined by the same advertising techniques that sell toothpaste. And history's unhurried judgments are sometimes surprising -- few would have elevated Harry Truman to the first rank of presidents on the day Dwight Eisenhower took office.
My goal is a humbler assessment: Did President Bush, in the course of seven years, cast aside compassion and become the "same kind of Republican"?
The answer is no. Proposals such as No Child Left Behind, the AIDS and malaria initiatives, and the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare would simply not have come from a traditional conservative politician. They became the agenda of a Republican administration precisely because of Bush's persistent, passionate advocacy. To put it bluntly, these would not have been the priorities of a Cheney administration.