TIME Person of the Year 2004: George W. Bush

TIME Person of the Year 2004: George W. Bush

Photo: For sharpening the debate until the choices bled, for reframing reality to match his design, for gambling his fortunesâ€
Eagles rather than doves nestle in the Oval Office Christmas tree, pinecones the size of footballs are piled around the fireplace, and the President of the United States is pretty close to lounging in Armchair One. He’s wearing a blue pinstripe suit, and his shoes are shined bright enough to shave in. He is loose, lively, framing a point with his hands or extending his arm with his fingers up as though he’s throwing a big idea gently across the room.

“I’ve had a lot going on, so I haven’t been in a very reflective mood,” says the man who has just replaced half his Cabinet, dispatched 12,000 more troops into battle, arm wrestled lawmakers over an intelligence bill, held his third economic summit and begun to lay the second-term paving stones on which he will walk off into history. Asked about his re-election, he replies, “I think over the Christmas holidays it’ll all sink in.”

As he says this, George W. Bush is about to set a political record. The first TIME poll since the election has his approval rating at 49%. Gallup has it at 53%, which doesn’t sound bad unless you consider that it’s the lowest December rating for a re-elected President in Gallup’s history. That is not a great concern, however, since he has run his last race, and it is not a surprise to a President who tends to measure his progress by the enemies he makes. “Sometimes you’re defined by your critics,” he says. “My presidency is one that has drawn some fire, whether it be at home or around the world. Unfortunately, if you’re doing big things, most of the time you’re never going to be around to see them [to fruition], whether it be cultural change or spreading democracy in parts of the world where people just don’t believe it can happen. I understand that. I don’t expect many short-term historians to write nice things about me.”

Yet even halfway through his presidency, Bush says, he already sees his historic gamble paying off. He watched in satisfaction the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “I’m not suggesting you’re looking at the final chapter in Afghanistan, but the elections were amazing. And if you go back and look at the prognosis about Afghanistan—whether it be the decision [for the U.S. to invade] in the first place, the ‘quagmire,’ whether or not the people can even vote—it’s a remarkable experience.” Bush views his decision to press for the transformation of Afghanistan and then Iraq—as opposed to “managing calm in the hopes that there won’t be another September 11th, that the Salafist [radical Islamist] movement will somehow wither on the vine, that somehow these killers won’t get a weapon of mass destruction”—as the heart of not just his foreign policy but his victory. “The election was about the use of American influence,” he says. “I can remember people trying to shift the debate. I wanted the debate to be on a lot of issues, but I also wanted everybody to clearly understand exactly what my thinking was. The debates and all the noise and all the rhetoric were aimed at making very clear the stakes in this election when it comes to foreign policy.”

Cover of TIME Magazine December 27, 2004 with President George W. Bush as Person of the Year for 2004 In that respect and throughout the 2004 campaign, Bush was guided by his own definition of a winning formula. “People think during elections, ‘What’s in it for me?'” says communications director Dan Bartlett, and expanding democracy in Iraq, a place voters were watching smolder on the nightly news, was not high on their list. Yet “every time we’d have a speech and attempt to scale back the liberty section, he would get mad at us,” Bartlett says. Sometimes the President would simply take his black Sharpie and write the word freedom between two paragraphs to prompt himself to go into his extended argument for America’s efforts to plant the seeds of liberty in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

An ordinary politician tells swing voters what they want to hear; Bush invited them to vote for him because he refused to. Ordinary politicians need to be liked; Bush finds the hostility of his critics reassuring. Challengers run as outsiders, promising change; it’s an extraordinary politician who tries this while holding the title Leader of the Free World. Ordinary Presidents have made mistakes and then sought to redeem themselves by admitting them; when Bush was told by some fellow Republicans that his fate depended on confessing his errors, he blew them off.

The obvious choice, although it’s highly unusual for a U.S. president to get the honor a second time.

Update: Drudge has this interesting photo:

Photo: President Bush with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt via Drudge George W. Bush is TIME's 2004 Person of the Year.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mark J says:

    Actually, 62% of U.S. Presidents have gotten the nod twice (obviously only counting since the award started). FDR is still the only one to get it thrice. Any thoughts on Dubya’s chances for lucky 3?

  2. ken says:

    What is interesting is that Bush is sitting in Stalin’s chair.

  3. dw says:

    Actually, Ken, he’s not. This image is from a meeting between FDR and Churchill. No Stalin here. Check the cover of Franklin and Winston and compare:

    http://tinyurl.com/3m9m6

    If it were the classic Yalta shot, anyway, the negative would have to be reversed to put things that way around.

  4. kappiy says:

    Did Time replace its editorial board with that of the Onion? There is no other explanation for naming Bush “Man of the Year”–it has got to be a joke!

  5. anjin-san says:

    The streets or Iraq run red with blood & opium production in Afganistan continues to skyrocket.

    This is Bush’s “triumph”?

  6. Bachbone says:

    A meaningless “honor.” If memory serves me correctly, Hitler made it one year.

  7. Meezer says:

    I’m guessing anjin-san is secretly a redneck chauvinist from my hometown. ‘Cause only one of them could fail to be affected by Afghan women standing in line for hours to VOTE.

    Signed: a woman who’s sick to death of the Left not really giving a damn about them.

  8. bryan says:

    No one has slapped sense into Time. With over half of the voting population going for Bush, and the enormous amount of “Red” on the map of the U.S., it’s obvious that Bush was an economic decision, much like the way Jesus makes the cover twice a year, and his story hasn’t been “news” in 2,000 years.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Meezer:

    The Afgan vote was a fine feel-good exercise. The fact remains that the country is still ruled by warlords, the Taliban is still around and opium production is soaring. The elected president (amazingly enough, the guy Bush put in) has almost no influence outside of the capital and takes his life in his hand when he leaves the presidential compound.

    I really hope Afganistan becomes a thriving democracy. But it is a bit early to be popping champaign corks. If it makes you feel good to say that I “don’t give a damn” about women, by all means, knock yourself out.

  10. Myopist says:

    “Bush finds the hostility of his critics reassuring.”

    Given his critics, hell, so would I.

  11. The Sanity Inspector says:

    Come to think of it, Stalin won it, too.

    Nice of TIME to acknowledge Bush this way, though. Maybe he’ll get Man Of The Decade, like Gorbachev did in ’89–though we all know Reagan really deserved the credit Strobe Talbott heaped on Gorby.

  12. cj says:

    “The Afgan vote was a fine feel-good exercise. The fact remains that the country is still ruled by warlords, the Taliban is still around and opium production is soaring. The elected president (amazingly enough, the guy Bush put in) has almost no influence outside of the capital and takes his life in his hand when he leaves the presidential compound.

    I’m sure it felt good to the people who voted.

    I think this comment epitomizes the difference between “left” and “right” thinking.

    OF COURSE, warlords still rule, opium is still produced and entrenched ruling parties (Taliban) are still viable. You can’t change things overnight. It doesn’t mean you can’t, piece meal, introduce productive reforms. It doesn’t mean you won’t have set backs. That is still no logical reason not to try, or evidence that improvements won’t gain ground.

    Seriously, arguments like this make me wonder if the Left has a single thinking brain to share amongst its members.

  13. anjin-san says:

    CJ,

    So have you signed up for combat duty in Bush’s campaign to spread freedom at gunpoint?

    Probably not.

  14. LJD says:

    What Asinine-San is trying to say is…

    “I have no intellectual statements to make. I regurgitate leftover propaganda from the election, and when that runs out, I ask if YOU have signed up to go to war.”

    If you point out that you have, then you’re a lock-stepping fascist. Whatever.

  15. McGehee says:

    So have you signed up for combat duty in Bush’s campaign to spread freedom at gunpoint?

    Reverting to type, I see, Anjin.