WASHINGTON — Former President George W. Bush is on the comeback trail.
Whether it leads to Mount Rushmore or simply out of history's doghouse is unknown. The verdict on an American president can take years to develop, and Bush insists he's content to leave his legacy to the historians, hoping it will be kinder to him after he's gone.
Meanwhile, the 43rd president is touring the country promoting his new book, eagerly talking about some of the flashpoints of his presidency, such as Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and getting ready to break ground for his presidential library and museum.
"I just want people to understand what it was like," Bush said in an appearance on Rush Limbaugh's radio program Tuesday.
Yet Bush may find the return to the spotlight as glaring as it is warm. Even as Limbaugh greeted him happily and the audience at Oprah Winfrey's show applauded him on Tuesday, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin warned against sentimentality toward the man she says helped spawn the tea party movement. Anti-war protesters are expected next week at the groundbreaking for his library and museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"I'm very comfortable being submerged, as I say, and I'm emerging because I want people to read this book," Bush told Limbaugh.
"Once this book is finished, I'm going back to as normal a life as possible, promoting freedom and marketplace and accountability in the schools and playing golf with people like you."
Appearing with Oprah, he talked about the war, about the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction he thought Iraq had, and about how he still felt it worthwhile to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"When we didn't find weapons I felt terrible about it, sick about it, and still do, because a lot of the case in removing Saddam Hussein was based upon weapons of mass destruction," he said.
Still, he said, "The world is better with him gone."
On Katrina, he said he was stung by accusations that a slow federal response meant he didn't care about black people.
"That really hurt," he said. "You can disagree with my politics, but don't ever accuse me of being a racist. . . . I can see how the perception would be 'Bush didn't care,' but to accuse me of being a racist is disgusting."
He exhibited his self-deprecating humor: "A lot of people don't think I can read, much less write."
He also refused to criticize President Barack Obama.
"I didn't like it when people criticized me," Bush said. "And so you're not going to see me out there chirping away (at Obama). And I want our president to succeed. I love our country."
Bush postponed release of the book until after the Nov. 2 elections, but he wasn't much of a factor in the voting.
Republicans rarely invoked his name, but none called for reversing the major keystones of his presidency — wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that continue to this day, the soon-to-expire tax cuts they want to make permanent, and the biggest expansion of entitlement spending since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s.
Tea party conservatives complained that Republicans "lost their way" by increasing domestic spending during the Bush years. They didn't, however, promise to repeal his expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs.
Malkin noted the irony in his embrace of the tea party in interviews this week.
"The problem, of course, is that Bush nostalgia is indelibly marred by his disastrous domestic policy legacy of big government, big spending, and betrayal of core fiscal principles," she wrote, "the very impetus for the Tea Party movement upon which he now heaps glowing praise."
If Republicans tried to forget Bush, Democrats tried to make him an issue, hoping he would hurt Republican candidates in 2010 as he did in 2006 and 2008.
Obama worked to remind voters that he "inherited" the economic collapse from Bush. Polls showed he made his case successfully — a McClatchy-Marist poll last month found that registered voters by a 2-1 margin thought he inherited rather than caused today's economic woes.
It didn't matter, though. With Bush not on the ballot and no longer in office as he was in 2006 and 2008, voters moved on.
Bush remains a divisive figure two years after leaving office — though he's not as deeply unpopular.
A Gallup Poll this summer found 45 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him while 51 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Two years earlier, 39 percent had a favorable opinion and 61 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.
He still bears the burden of waging an unpopular war on the false premise that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and of presiding over the collapse of the economy in 2008.
He's come back form his lowest point, however, thanks in part to the Obama administration's claim that the Iraq war has turned out to be a success.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington