How Bush should spin his legacy

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Imagine—just for a second—that it's 2020, and George W. Bush has restored his reputation. (I know, it's hard to imagine, but be creative.) Now try to answer this question: what would it take to actually make that happen?

The easy answer is that somehow between now and then, Iraq becomes a flourishing democracy, a source of cheap oil for the U.S., and a staunch ally in fending off the spread of terrorism in the region. Or that—by some sort of miracle—the American economy recovers, and Dow 20,000 becomes a reality. But neither of those scenarios seems particularly likely at the moment. So how would a person go about restoring Bush's legacy without the benefit of those gifts? How do you sway public opinion in a climate where 98 percent of historians view your tenure as a failure—according to a recent poll by the History News Network—and only 13 percent of Americans believe you've helped the country's problems, according to a December Pew survey?

Image experts suggest you acknowledge the negatives (Iraq, the economy) but then remind the public of the positives: education reform, funding to fight AIDS in Africa. You paint the president as a man faced with unprecedented challenges (9/11, a new age of terror)—and no blueprint for how to deal with them. You repeat, and repeat, and repeat again that under trying circumstances, George W. Bush made the American people safer—in an entirely new era of national security. You take Karl Rove and Dick Cheney out of the public eye, and you start planning Bush's second act. Will he become a global humanitarian, as Carter did? An environmentalist, like Gore? Or exit the limelight entirely? Above all, according to former speechwriters, friends and PR execs who spoke with NEWSWEEK, you must take responsibility for the failures to regain the public trust. "Whether it's in politics, business or Hollywood, we are willing to forgive if we fully believe that a person is being repentant—if we believe it goes beyond just words," says Mike Paul, a former Republican aide who now heads his own reputation management firm, MPG & Associates. "This is really a defining moment for him."

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