Bush's Legacy: What's Left in the Last Year?

So, you're the president of the United States and time is running out. You are down to a year and counting.

How should you spend that last year? Buttress your legacy? Help your party's candidate get elected to succeed you? Or make plans for your Presidential Library, keep a low profile and let the clock run out?

A look at some recent presidents shows how they dealt with waning power.

Bush's Legacy: Reflecting on Presidents Past

Unlike President George W. Bush, several presidents, of course, have not known when they were entering their last year at the White House.

The most tragic recent example was John F. Kennedy, cut down in the prime of life on a political trip to Texas that he hoped would help in his bid for a second term. Fortunately, presidential assassinations are rare. So are presidential resignations.

Richard Nixon desperately hoped he could survive Watergate and serve until the end of his second term. But he couldn't.

There have been other presidents who did not realize they were in their last year. Seriously ill though he was, Franklin D. Roosevelt never seemed to accept that it was highly unlikely he would survive his unprecedented fourth term. In his final months he continued to plan for a post-war world, one which he never lived to see.

Sometimes it is not death, but politics which ends a Chief Executive's time in the White House.

It happened to Gerald Ford who was fully occupied his last year in trying to fight off challenges both from a fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan, and from a Democrat, Jimmy Carter.

And here may be a good place to see how Ford, coped with lame duck status, dealt with his last weeks. This reporter is a tiny part of the story and asks your indulgence.

Bush's Legacy: How About Puerto Rico?

On December 31, 1976, President Ford was at his Vail, Colorado chalet where he had gone for an annual skiing trip and also to lick his wounds after being narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter.

Those of us in the White House press corps had been told there would be no news until after the New Year.

Unexpectedly though, in a written statement the president's press secretary announced Ford's support for Puerto Rican statehood.

I was stunned.

Ford had never shown any interest in statehood for Puerto Rico. In fact, he had never shown much interest in Puerto Rico.

I recalled he had gone there for a conference once where he enjoyed playing on a tropical golf course. But that was about it. And no one from Ford's staff would talk about it.

The press secretary disappeared. All we got was a single piece of paper on the wall of the press office saying Ford would fight for statehood after the New Year.

This made no sense. In three weeks there would be a new president. There was no time for Ford to push statehood legislation. But, since it seemed to be the only news in the world that day, the Ford announcement led the evening newscasts.

That night, the president invited a small group of reporters to his chalet for a New Year's Eve party. Nothing fancy. Ski jackets and sweaters. And alcoholic beverages were served, as you might expect.

At a particularly relaxed part of the evening, I summoned up the nerve to say something like this: "What's this about Puerto Rico? You've never had any interest in the statehood issue."

He laughed with his familiar high pitched cackle.

"You're absolutely right," he said. "But we were sitting around here last night, trying to figure out some way to remind that (blankety-blank) peanut farmer down in Georgia that for the next three weeks I'm still president of the United States, and what I say is still important. And Puerto Rican statehood seemed as good a way as any."

At that point Ford was not fond of Jimmy Carter. The campaign had been bitter and exhausting for Ford.

In later years he and Carter would become good friends. But that was still in the future on that snowy New Year's Eve in Colorado .

Bush's Legacy: Four Years Later

Four years later, it was Carter who would endure election defeat.

He spent most of his last year trying to secure the release of American hostages in Iran while at the same time coping with a serious threat to his re-election, Ronald Reagan. Six months before the election, Carter launched an attempt to rescue the hostages with a highly secret military operation. It failed when helicopters malfunctioned. Eight crewmen died. Had it been successful, it is possible that Carter would have been re-elected.

The time between the election and Inauguration Day was difficult for Carter and for his wife, who seemed to be the most disappointed.

It may have been especially hard for the Carters, according to one of his senior aides, because Carter felt he finally had a handle on how to be president.

The senior aide told me that Carter spent the first three years in the Oval Office learning how to be president. But by the fourth and final year, he said, "Carter really felt on top of the job and he really wanted to govern four more years now that he knew which mistakes to avoid. Losing was devastating."

Devastating, too, for George H.W. Bush who never seriously thought he would lose to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election.

Bush had led the successful United Nations coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein in the 1990-91 Gulf War. His popularity was sky high. That led to overconfidence.

In his last year as president, Bush was slow to realize that the country was no longer focused on foreign policy but on problems at home. Voters wanted him to devote the fourth year of his presidency to lifting the nation out of economic recession.

His conservative economic views would not permit him to take drastic action. Borrowing roughly from the medical profession's Hippocratic Oath, he would repeatedly say "First, do no harm."

That was not what voters wanted to hear. Meanwhile, in the Clinton camp the mantra was "It's the economy, stupid."

As it turned out, on Election Day in 1992 the economy was on the verge of moving out of recession. But too late to help Bush.

In his remaining weeks as president, he returned to foreign policy, where he was most comfortable.

He sent American troops to Ethiopia to lead a U.N. humanitarian mission to prevent widespread starvation. It was a fitting end for a president who once admitted he enjoyed the exhilaration of foreign affairs much more than discussing taxes or the budget.

Bush's Legacy: The Final Year

After Franklin Roosevelt's death, Republicans in Congress proposed and the states ratified the Twenty-Second Amendment which prevents presidents from being elected to more than two terms. So, any president who has been re-elected knows the second term is the last one.

Some presidents seem relieved to know the end is in sight.

Harry Truman appeared genuinely overjoyed at the thought of returning to Independence, Missouri.

Legally, he could have run again because his first term was the unexpired term of FDR. But he had had enough.

At a Democratic fundraiser he shocked the audience by saying, "I do not feel it is my duty to spend another four years in the White House."

Although a self-declared lame duck, he remained an active president to the end.

As commander-in-chief he still made decisions about the war in Korea. He also intervened to end a national steel strike by taking control of steel mills, a controversial and, some said, an unconstitutional move. The Supreme Court ruled he had exceeded his authority and he was humiliated.

But he continued to work for, and got, an end to the strike which Truman said had endangered American troops in Korea who relied on steel production for armaments and equipment.

Truman also tried to have a major hand in picking his successor. He urged Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson to run.

Stevenson eventually did run and did get the nomination. Truman also advised him on whom he should pick for his running mate. But Truman was unpopular with voters, and Stevenson seemed reluctant to have the president campaign for him.

In the biography, "Truman", Historian David McCullough writes, "...in a letter he never sent, Truman told the nominee, 'I have come to the conclusion that you are embarrassed by having the President of the United States in your corner."

Eventually that fall, Truman did campaign for Stevenson, although they never appeared together.

Bush's Legacy: The Successor

Adlai Stevenson's quandary may also be repeated in this year's election.

The GOP presidential candidate, whoever he is, will have to decide whether President Bush should campaign for him.

Mr. Bush, who likes campaigning, would in all probability agree to go on the stump if asked. But if his poll ratings remain low, he may find that his party's candidate will not be asking for much help.

The Republican who defeated Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower, was, like Harry Truman, glad to see his final year come and go.

That year he faced foreign policy reverses with the Soviet Union. He had hoped in his final months to make major progress on disarmament, but the talks collapsed. Progress on arms control would not be part of his legacy. It was a deep disappointment for him.

Almost 70 years old, Eisenhower was tired. This reporter, as a young soldier assigned to the White House, had a chance to see Ike's exhaustion during his final visit as Commander-in-Chief to his alma mater, West Point.

Visibly weary, he told a cadet that he wished there was some way all the accumulated years could be removed from him.

Although his popularity had taken a hit during his final year, he was still an iconic figure. His support could have been crucial to the GOP presidential nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon.

But, partly because of his poor health, he campaigned very little for his Vice President, who was narrowly defeated by John Kennedy.

Ike took Nixon's defeat personally. He felt the country was also voting on his two terms in the White House.

Still, Ike was not finished. In his Farewell Address to the nation, three days before leaving office, he gave a warning that surprised many Americans.

Eisenhower, a career military man who had led the D-Day invasion of Hitler's Europe, warned, "...we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

Historian Stephen Ambrose in his book, "Eisenhower: the President", wrote that his warning "..would be the most quoted and remembered. . . of his entire Presidency."

On the morning of Inauguration Day, just a few hours before leaving the White House, he stopped by the office where I worked to say thanks and goodbye.

I still have a picture of Ike in a jaunty sport coat, very unlike the conservative suits he usually wore. He could not have been more relaxed, and expressed no sadness at leaving.

Another president who left office exhausted was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

He had some physical problems, but mostly he was mentally and emotionally drained by widespread opposition to the Vietnam War. It was because of the war that he chose not to run for re-election.

On March 31, 1968 Johnson, speaking from the Oval Office, announced new moves for peace talks with North Vietnam.

Then came the real shocker: "With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home . . I do not believe I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes . . . Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another terms as your President."

Johnson did try in his remaining time to end the war. But it was not to be.

He also wanted his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, elected to succeed him. But that was not to be, either.

Like Truman and Eisenhower, LBJ felt the election was a vote of disapproval for his presidency.

Ronald Reagan was more fortunate. His Vice-President, George H.W. Bush, was elected. Many pundits said voters were actually giving thumbs-up to a third Reagan term.

Reagan entered his final year still suffering the after-effects of the Iran-Contra scandal which involved sending American weapons and parts from Israel to Iran in return for the hoped-for release of American hostages in Beirut.

The previous year a special investigative panel, the Tower Commission, whose members were chosen by Reagan himself, found that he and his senior advisors had mishandled the whole affair. The report pictured Reagan as confused. Reagan had said he could not remember authorizing the transfer of arms.

Richard Reeves in his biography, "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination", writes that when Reagan entered his final year he "seemed a spent force."

Some thought he was just marking time until the day he could return to his beloved California ranch. But Reagan showed there was still gas left in the tank.

He traveled to the Kremlin to meet with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The trip was a success, and helped pave the way for arms control agreements during the following Bush Administration.

Presidents often focus on foreign affairs as their time in office winds down. As lame ducks, they usually have little clout with Congress. That makes it hard to accomplish anything of consequence on domestic issues.

In his final year Bill Clinton hoped to make history, not with some startling domestic initiative, but by bringing peace to the Middle East.

At Camp David, he worked long hours trying to get the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together. When the talks failed, Clinton privately blamed Yasser Arafat. Clinton had always wanted a major foreign policy achievement to add to his legacy. His aides said failure was a crushing disappointment to him.

Now, George W. Bush is trying to broker a Mideast peace agreement. This is something he steered clear of in the early days of his presidency.

He felt there was little chance of success after Clinton's failed attempt. But with time running out for him, Bush is making a major push, partly at the urging of Secretary of State Rice. With the outcome in Iraq likely to be unknown for years, Bush hopes an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will be a more immediate plus for his legacy.

At the moment though, polls show Americans are most concerned about a faltering economy.

With some economists warning the nation could face a deep recession, Bush's challenge in his final year may be to fashion a stimulus package with a Congress controlled by the opposition party.

Bush's last year could then prove to be an exception: a presidency that ends with a notable domestic accomplishment.