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Mr. Walsh Taught a Lesson in Politics

November 12, 2008

Many years from now historians will begin to assess the presidency of George W. Bush Jr., and chances are their findings will be far different from what the common view of his two terms is today.

We live in a world where our own view of things always seems to be right - yet we do not have the value of knowing how a presidential decision made today will impact things in the future. That is why historians must wait for years to begin accurately assessing a Presidency and its consequences.

Presidents are often not popular when they are in office - but years later the country looks on them quite favorably - especially with the benefit of knowing what happened in the ensuing years once they left office.

I learned this political lesson very early from my favorite high school teacher – Mr. James Walsh – who taught Problems of the Twentieth Century at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland.

Mr. Walsh always had us looking at things out of the box. He was a one-time Foreign Service officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. He spoke five languages and traveled the world for most of his life - often to eastern block countries at a time when the Iron Curtain made travel to these areas difficult and dangerous. He turned to teaching only when the CIA wanted to promote him to a desk job at Langley.

Mr. Walsh assigned Newsweek and Time as mandatory reading material and discussed the contents of these magazines in the classroom. During one lecture the topic of former President Harry Truman came up. Mr. Walsh reminded us that when President Truman left office in 1952 the American people would not give him the time of day - he was terribly unpopular with the American people. "Today he’s a model President," Mr. Walsh said. 

The same might be said one day about President Bush, as historians take a close look at his presidency and are able to assess his time in office in a context by measuring what evolved in the years that followed his two terms in office.

For many President Bush has been a polarizing figure - much of which is traced to the close 2000 presidential election. Truth is many just didn’t like the way he was elected. Some facts, however, are compelling, and history may be more kind to him.

Few remember that President Bush inherited a country already in a recession which was brought on by the bubble – leaving hundreds of thousands out of work when the high tech industry came crashing down in March of 2000. This was quickly followed by the 9-11 terrorist attacks which virtually shut the country down for weeks and months as companies and local, state, and the federal governments lost billions in tax revenue.

The two wars that followed - in Afghanistan and Iraq - will long be debated - but history will be the ultimate judge on whether these two invasions helped or hurt America. President Bush says the purpose of the wars has been to proactively take the fight to the enemy and make sure that America itself is not attacked again on home soil.

This is a strong argument - as we have not been attacked again - and few would have thought that to be possible after the bombings on the World Trade Center in New York, The Pentagon, and in the fields of Pennsylvania.

We are now entering an economic recession - after seven years of sustained economic growth - and the blame for these hard times will also be directed squarely at President Bush. For most everyone it is hard to imagine history treating the Bush Presidency with anything but disdain.

Yet I will long remember the surprise and fascination of Mr. Walsh in class when he said Harry Truman is now a model President.

George Bush just might be too.