IN A FEW short days, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Some people, a sizable part of the electorate, can't wait. In fact, they've pretty much considered him the commander in chief since he first announced his candidacy on a cold day two years ago in Springfield, Ill.
But during those two years, momentous in many ways, there was already an occupant of the Oval Office, one who's been reviled and underestimated more than any other president in recent memory. With a clear eye and a sense of fairness, let's look at key parts of the Bush legacy.
First and foremost, there haven't been any targeted attacks on U.S. soil since 19 madmen filled the skies with terror seven years ago.
Those who think the U.S. is a militaristic ogre bent on imposing its will on the rest of the world don't care about domestic tranquility. They have no real response to the reality that Americans feel secure when we fly, walk our streets, enter our buildings. So, instead, they wrap themselves in the Constitution and a jumble of international treaties to prove that, safe and sound in our own homes, we're really outlaws. We torture. We spy on our own people. We disdain the rest of the world.
And about that torture claim. Here is the definition provided by the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the U.S. is a signatory: "Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person."
This is a description so vague that it might not even pass constitutional muster in this country were it part of our laws. The Bush administration deemed that sleep deprivation, prolonged detention in cold cells, slapping, and water boarding were not torture. You could argue with that, but the convention leaves room to make it.
President Obama, given his determination to turn the lights out at the Guantanamo Hilton, would probably opt for gentler methods of interrogation. But there's an awful lot of wiggle space between what Saddam Hussein regularly did to his detainees, like chopping off body parts, and making sure every detainee's pillow has a dinner mint.
As an immigration lawyer who has handled asylum cases, I've seen real torture. And it's an awful lot closer to what Saddam did to his enemies than what the U.S. government did to suspected terrorists. The "Abu Ghraib was a gulag" mentality (as put by Obama's Illinois colleague Dick Durbin) ignores the fact that international conventions, like all our domestic laws, are subject to rigorous debate on their meaning - not to be read as the Revealed Word.
(And as we've just read, scores of those fellows who already checked out of Guantanamo are back fomenting terror on foreign shores. Food for thought.)
And as to the reviled "secret wiretaps," they were designed to ferret out info to prevent another 9/11. First the critics asked "Why didn't you know it was coming?" - then can't live with the answer to their question. What appears horrific in a time of peace often becomes a necessity when you're dealing with the prospect of 3,000 deaths. Lincoln knew it. So did FDR. Time provides perspective.
And maybe the rest of the world is a bit peeved with us at the moment, though they seem ready to forgive now that Obama is headed to the White House. While it's always nice to be on good terms with your global neighbors, they don't have a veto over our national security.
Beyond domestic security, Bush tried to resolve the immigration mess by backing proposals that, counter to many in his party, would have recognized that you can't just deport millions of people. He proposed a guest worker program, was realistic about the plight of employers and caught a lot of heat from the right for his willingness to compromise with immigrant activists.
BUSH ALSO tried to improve education with No Child Left Behind, the controversial program that puts the emphasis on accountability. It may not be perfect (and let's not forget that his partner on this reform was liberal icon Ted Kennedy), but it's a clear step in the right direction.
He nominated two brilliant men to the high court - judges, not legislators who thought it was their job to create new rights. And he did more than any other president, Democrat or Republican, to fight AIDS.
Yes, there were mistakes. He admitted it at his recent press conference. But in the shadow of 9/11, we were clearly a safer country. And we should remember that as the torch is passed. *