Today George W. Bush's presidential library was opened, and there has been a predictable attempt by his allies to whitewash his record and forget what a colossal, unmitigated disaster he was as president. I will not sit idly by and let this Orwellian storm of obfuscation and bullshit rage on without putting up a fight. What follows is something I wrote on my old blog shortly after Bush left office, and ought to remind us of all the things that Bush and his minions would like to have us forget.
On Tuesday George W. Bush finally left the White House, going away to Texas on his helicopter after getting a stern rebuke from President Obama in his inauguration speech and a real Bronx cheer from the assembled masses. Almost better than him leaving was the fact that he had to sit there while his successor lambasted the Bush administration's policies in front of adoring millions that ate up his every word.
So what of the Bush administration? The man himself has been fond of saying that "history will judge" his actions. Historically speaking, only the most reckless and lawless leaders ever say such a thing, usually to justify actions acknowledged to be beyond the pale in the present. Now that his administration is in the past, let's start judging now. I think his administration falls into five distinct periods, each with their own outrages associated with them.
Part I: Before 9/11
Bush came into the White House under a cloud of suspicion after getting the presidency awarded to him by the Supreme Court after losing the popular vote. In the 19 months between his inauguration and the terror attacks, he did little to instill confidence in the American people. Instead of acknowledging the meager nature of his mandate, Bush immediately set about pushing a hard-Right agenda. After having inherited a massive budget surplus, he squandered it via tax cuts that went mostly to the wealthy. (That money might have been handy later to pay for his wars and rebuilding New Orleans.) The public wasn't actually clamoring for tax cuts at that time, and by the summer of 2001 his popularity had fallen. Apart form fiscal irresponsibility, his Attorney General, the Puritanical John Ashcroft, expended valuable resources fighting head shops and naked breasts on statues rather than on the terrorists who a memo had told our president were "determined to strike in the US." Although he tried hard to distance himself from the man in every way, on September 10, 2001 Bush looked like he would be just like his pappy in at least one respect: he would be a one-termer.
Part II: 9/11 to November 2002
The terror attacks saved Bush's political life, despite his less than gallant immediate response to them. The public understandably rallied around its leaders in the aftermath of 9/11, and Bush exploited the situation masterfully. The American public was scared shitless, and Bush soon learned how to manipulate a public too high strung and paranoid to dig beneath the facade. It also must be said that Bush's common touch with the workers at Ground Zero actually made him look like a competent leader. (I was never fooled, but I will admit that he exuded genuine empathy and spirit at a tough time.) Underneath the surface, an almost unreported war on civil liberties began, with thousands of foreigners detained without just cause. Then, right before the election, the war drums on Iraq began to beat, allowing Republicans to catch the Dems flatfooted and portray them as dangerously unfit to prosecute what was already being called "The Global War on Terror." That narrative led to the most execrable political ad since Willie Horton, the "Osama" ad targetting Vietnam vet and Democratic Senator Max Cleland. All of this distracted the public from the fact that Bush failed to hunt down bin Laden, despite his overblown rhetoric.
Part III: November 2002 to Katrina
This period was the reign of the "war president," a time of collective national insanity and the most damaging of Bush's term in office. The Congressional elections upheld Bush's mandate, and as the push for war in Iraq got more intense, the mainstream press got even more compliant. Things got so crazy that those who publically dissented, like the Dixie Chicks, got broken on the wheel. (In retrospect, because of their respective opposition and support for the war, this is also the moment where Barack Obama started his rise to the presidency, and where Hilary Clinton lost it. Whoever said virtue never gets rewarded over opportunism?) Every cable news station without exception had an American flag flying in the corner of the screen after the Iraq invasion, and just about every single news outlet failed to ask tough questions on WMD. In fact, the supposedly liberal New York Times' Judith Miller became one of the biggest purveyors of propaganda. In the face of this onslaught his political opposition ran scared, even though it was obvious to yours truly and many others at the time that an invasion of Iraq would create more problems than it would solve, even if Saddam had WMD, which was sketchy in the first place.
While the American military did a splendid job defeating the Iraqi army, it was apparent from the start that the architects of the war had no clue what they were doing in the long term. (Those who did, like Eric Shinseki, got kicked to the curb for daring to challenge Rumsfeld's crew.) The massive looting did incalulable damage, and he response that "freedom is untidy" showed blithe uninterest in the face of a total lack of authority on the streets of Baghdad. That's not "freedom," that's anarchy, which was just as or even more harmful than the tyranny it replaced. In the short term, however, Bush staged the piece de resistance of his administration, the moment that future students of history will snicker at with gusto: his landing on the aircraft carrier in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Ironically, while he was never higher in prestige in real time than at that moment, in the nation's historical memory, he will never be lower.
The reality of the war soon erased his moment of triumph. Iraq devolved into a deadly guerilla war that killed and wounded more and more Americans. The UN, which the US expected to handle the civilian postwar situation, had to leave after a horrific terror bombing. Bombings soon became a depressing daily occurrence, and the WMD did not materialize. Saddam was captured, but his trial soon became messy and a showcase of the new Iraqi government's disfunction. To top things off, in 2004 the photos of Abu Ghraib hit the international scene like a bolt of lightning. In the last election and even today Shrub's dwindling band of dead enders like to point to the Surge and the Anbar Awakening, but these fixes came only after years of pigheaded denial of reality and wrongfooted incompetence that cost thousands of lives and soiled our nation's reputation. Many of our soldiers died because they were not given the proper protection, and yet when questioned why this was the case by one of these very soldiers who was putting his life on the line, Rummy told him "you go to war with the army you have."
Yet, despite the deterioration in Iraq, Bush managed to win re-election. John Kerry's ineffectual performance had something to do with this, as well as the fact that casualties in Iraq really shot up after the Samarrah attacks in early 2005, well after the election. Bush certainly reminded all and sundry that he was a "war president," winning moderate voters afraid of switching leaders at a crucial juncture. While picking off some of these voters, Karl Rove nakedly appealed to the lowest instincts of the religious right by making gay marriage the second-biggest issue of the campaign. Not only had Bush led America into a bloody needless war, his surrogates spread scurrilous lies about John Kerry's military record and shamelessly exploited homophobic bigotry. Bush somehow managed to make himself seem above it all, though he benefitted from the smears and hatred deployed in his name. (Let's also not forget that the GOP did a passable job of making their 2004 convention look diverse despite the party delegates being a practical whitewash, and that the moderation of immigration rhetoric by Bush also gained Latino voters.)
The media again came to the rescue, in the form of Dan Rather's maladroit investigation of Bush's own less sterling military record. We seem to have let this moment go down the memory hole, but Rather had the chance to expose what everyone and their pet goat knows to be true: Bush had been placed in the Texas Air National Guard due to his father's connections, and while in the Guard had not properly fulfilled his duties. The contrast between the chicken-hawk "war president" and his decorated opponent could not have been more stark. However, Rather did his job sloppily, and instead he, not the president, was disgraced. This didn't change the fact that the charges agaisnt Bush were basically correct, but the whole episode made him out to be a victim and protected what should have been an Achilles heel. At that point, his electoral victory was a sad inevitability.
Part IV: Katrina to Rumsfeld's Firing
Bush had already started to slip early in his second term, misinterpreting his close win against an inept challenger as the acquisition of "political capital." Because of this he heedlessly pushed Social Security privatization, something that no American outside of the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute actually wants to see. The whole Terry Schiavo drama (another forgotten moment) also made his heavy ties to the Bible thumping crowd look dangerous. At this point Bush was headed back to his political situation in the summer of 2001: an amiable buffoon whom the public did not revile, yet certainly did not support with any enthusiasm.
Then came Katrina. His ineffectual response while a great American city drowned and thousands of American citizens were left to fend for themselves in horrific circumstances disgusted just about anyone with an ounce of humanity in their hearts. The revelations about "Brownie" made it clear to a great many people how badly the president ran the government. This even may have even begun a wider discrediting of the Reaganite anti-government neo-liberalist philosophy espoused by the Bush administration.
In the face of such a failure, Bush upped the ante by attempting to have Harriet Miers, his personal attorney, made into a Supreme Court justice. The Left and the middle attacked him for his crass cronyism, and the Right recoiled at Miers' lack of credentials on abortion. At this crucial juncture many of his natural allies began to realize that Bush was political kryptonite, and started distancing themselves as fast as they could before the 2006 election. Part of that distancing and lack of party discipline meant a hard tack to the Right on immigration by Congressional Republicans. This, by the way, eliminated one of the few bright spots in Bush's tenure: an honest attempt at a sensible immigration policy. (On top of all of this, the Libby scandal made public a culture of arrogance and law breaking, and the Jack Abramoff trial unearthed oodles of Republican corruption.)
The public didn't take the bait, and the GOP got slammed in the 2006 election, despite uninspiring leadership from Reid, Pelosi, and company. After that election Bush made his first real bow to the public anger at his administration, he forced Donald Rumsfeld to resign.
Part V: The 2006 Election to Obamageddon
From that point onward Bush settled into a long, torturous two-year lame duck era, perhaps the longest in presidential history. The revelations of wrongdoing kept coming fast and furious, too many for me to relate here. (The worst is probably the firing of US attorneys on ideological grounds.) Oh yeah, the vice-president also shot a guy in the face and seemed pretty unapologetic about it. This happened around the time that his chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby, finally got taken down (at least before Bush's pardon), and cemented Cheney's status as the most reviled and distrusted politician in America. The economy went into recession, a fact that Bush tried to deny right up until the financial meltdown caused in part by his lax regulatory policies.
I guess this wasn't such a short history. Sorry for that, but there was just so much malfeasance to cover that it couldn't adequately be done briefly. The final verdict of this historian is that George W. Bush stands as one of, if not the most disastrous presidents in our nation's history. (Only Buchanan, Nixon, and Harding are really close, and they didn't stay in for two full terms.) He has flouted the rule of law, violated human rights, started endless wars, consistently mangled the English language, exploited bigotry for political gain, rewarded ideological zeal over competence in his administration, ignored global warming, waged a jihad on science, fiddled while our economy burned, tilted the tax code in favor of the wealthy, and embarassed and tainted America in the eyes of the world. Good-bye, good riddance, and do us all a favor and just go away.