Term in Office: 43rd president, 2001-2009
Home State: Texas
Something very strange happened to me shortly after Nelson Mandela died. Naturally, world leaders flocked to the funeral, and Air Force One was stocked to the gills with U.S. dignitaries. Former president George W. Bush was among them, and was eager to show off some of his paintings, a hobby which has taken up much of his time in retirement, to the great interest of internet bloggers, late-night comedians, and amateur psychoanalysts. Prominent administration leaders- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, all looked at the cell-phone pics of his paintings with a great deal of interest and polite appreciation. Perhaps it was Mandela’s sense of forgiveness posthumously rubbing off on me. It could also be simply the passing of sufficient time. Whichever way, I found that, for the first time since I was seventeen, I did not feel any hatred toward George W. Bush.
This was not always the case. In a sense more immediately relevant to this post, this lifting of the veil made me feel as though I could finally evaluate George W. Bush’s presidency in a reasonable and objective (though by no means uncritical) manner. Like Clinton and Obama, the Bush presidency weaves through my life, and it is difficult to disentangle the big picture with my own microhistory. It was not easy to forget the confusion and anger surrounding the 2000 election, or watching Bush announce the declaration for war against Iraq at my college’s snack bar, Big Al’s, and wondering whether I was living in a dark mirror universe where this sort of thing was possible. Having gone to an evangelical Wesleyan school, I was in one of the few overwhelmingly pro-Bush enclaves in academia, and bristling against the president and his apologists among my classmates and professors was the defining political experience of my young adulthood.
So you can imagine that when I saw that photo and gauged my tempered reaction, I felt a great weight lifted off my shoulders. My sense of fairness restored, I write my succinct conclusion with cold logic, rather than hot contempt: George W. Bush’s presidency was very unsuccessful, and probably crosses through the plasma membrane that separates “below average” from “failure.” More than any other president, he earns poor marks in the widest array of categories, with poor economic management; foolish appointments; an impulsive, shoot-first-ask-questions later management style; he spearheaded an unjust war and ran it badly; incompetent disaster management; and running America’s global reputation into the ground. Nobody, not even Andrew Johnson or James Buchanan, screwed up quite so broadly, even if those two screwed up far more deeply in one or two critical areas.
But to claim that he belongs at the very bottom of the presidential ranking seems silly and ahistorical to me. I am embarrassed on behalf of my profession that 61% of historians polled in 2008 by History News Network claimed that he was the worst president ever. As you may have deduced by this point, the bottom five presidents in my ranking are, in chronological order, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Each of these five betrayed the American promise in some deep way, through genocidal wrath, or inactivity in the face of treason, or governing through secrecy, illegality, and revenge. Bush does not approach these lowest rungs of presidential ignominy. In fact, George W. Bush took more than a few actions that were genuinely praiseworthy during his presidency. Allow me to list some of them. He drastically increased the amount of humanitarian aid to Africa to combat HIV/AIDS, a noble act that still bears good fruit today. He went out of his way to emphasize that terrorism, not Islam, was the enemy. He took the time to learn Spanish, and worked for a humane resolution to America’s immigration crisis; in no respect did he see the “browning” of America as a threat to its identity. I was expecting a scandalous, Clintonesque litany of sketchy pardons at the end of his presidency; they did not materialize.
For all these positive aspects, Bush’s presidency was probably doomed from the start by deficits of experience and character, for he was unsuited by background for the presidency. His business credentials offered little evidence of genius, or even competence. He served six years as governor of Texas, but what often gets lost in the shuffle is how very little power the governor of Texas has; although it is our second-largest state, it is also the governorship that most excessively curbs executive power. When he sought the Republican nomination in 2000, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that he would not be a serious contender if not for his last name and the fundraising powers that came with it. He continued the lamentable post-Nixon trend of the American public seeking “outsiders” promising to “reform Washington” and again, we paid the price for valuing an ingenue over experience. Like Ted Kennedy in 1980, another scion of a prominent family, he struggled to articulate why he wanted to be president, and came across as expecting it as a birthright. But unlike Kennedy in 1980, he didn’t have 20 years in the Senate to accrue some manner of skill in running the ship of state.
Once president, many of his key appointments were dangerously ideological; intelligent men whose knowledge should have been harnessed, but should not have had any real responsibilities or portfolio of any kind. Many of these people had served in earlier Republican administrations, and were, at worst, manageable back then. Bush Senior was able to say “no” to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney when he urged him “on to Baghdad” during the Persian Gulf War, partly because Bush Sr. had the experience in governing and in military service to distinguish good advice from bad. Bush the younger lacked that capacity, and as both a political neophyte and a slow student in the art of governing, he was over reliant on the judgments of these faulty individuals. But there is another factor at work here. As James Mann notes in his book, Rise of the Vulcans, many of the key officials in the Bush administration spent their Clintonian exile from power in the 1990s stewing in hawkish neo-conservative think tanks, slowly saturating the ideological toxins from the Heritage Foundation, or the Project for the New American Century. Think tanks tend to be where smart men and women go to put a death to objective research, and put forth scholarship to support a predetermined outcome. Wolfowitz, Rice, and the whole crew brought their institution’s views- particularly the willingness to extend and expand American power to spread democracy abroad- with them to Bush’s White House. It was the worldview inculcated in these years that transformed Dick Cheney from being a merely antisocial Anakin Skywalker from Episode II during Persian Gulf into Darth Vader from Episode III during Operation: Iraqi Freedom.
Accordingly, the Bush team was out in the world for blood and looking for enemies. Their time in the think tanks made them unwilling to consider messy realities on the ground in the Middle East, and unable to envision how Iraq might still be unstable after the “blessings of democracy” had been bestowed unto it. The list of talented but ruthlessly ideological appointees goes on: anti-UN John Bolton was given a recess appointment as U.N. Ambassador; Rumsfeld’s mismanagement of the Iraq War; Rove’s politicizing nearly every branch of government; torture advocate David Addington, and so on. Even some very good appointments were used poorly. The selection of Colin Powell as Secretary of State gave the administration someone of international stature who commanded respect in every quarter. Instead of using Powell’s wisdom and prudence as a resource and a check on the hawks, Bush used his credibility to peddle faulty intelligence before the U.N., in a botched attempt to get international support for the Iraq War.
But the appointments Bush made with the most intractable consequences are, of course, his two picks for the Supreme Court. Nominating John Roberts did not substantively alter its balance, with the late Rehnquist being replaced by a younger, less erratic, sharper, and more genial chief justice, although Roberts was more closely aligned to the legal conservative movement than Rehnquist ever was. No, the problem was replacing the right-leaning but ultimately reasonable and learned Sandra Day O’Connor with another Ivy-League, Federalist Society circuit court judge, this model going by the name of Samuel Alito. Since then, the American people have been subject to a number of constitutionally sketchy, precedent-shattering Supreme Court cases, decided by 5-4 votes. Citizens United began to equate the ability to spend money on campaigns with free speech, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act last fall, the recent McCutheson case that did away with limits to overall political giving, the recent case involving the town of Greece, New York, allowing for some religions (e.g. Christianity) to be favored over others at town halls. These decisions were very bad. Money controls political discourse to a greater degree than ever before, and its impact will become worse in time, and it is more difficult than at any point in living memory for marginalized groups to challenge established power. My guess (and it is merely an educated guess) is that none of these sketchy cases would have gone the way they had if a judge of O’Connor’s sense had been in Alito’s seat.
Similarly, Bush’s promise of a compassionate conservatism proved to be an empty campaign talking point. He vetoed SCHIP, a program offering expanded health coverage to children, especially poor children, on the grounds that it was too expensive. (It cost a tiny fraction of the Iraq War.) Taking cues from misguided Christian ethicists like Gilbert Meilaender, he refused to allow federally funded research to harness the potential stem cells, seeing life in the most abstract of terms. (And it was personally painful to see this at a time when my grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, knowing that possible breakthroughs that might help someone in her condition were being blackballed because of pietist concerns over a single cell’s welfare.) Young people of a religious nature were not fooled. The millennial generation of evangelicals has soured on Moral Majority-style activism and the politicization of their faith that Bush emblematized. (Witness, for example, how Rove, from his White House perch, directed many states to put prohibitions on same sex marriage on their ballots in 2004, designed to drive conservative voters to the polls. Millenials with gay friends, including millennial evangelicals, won’t forget this.) Anecdotally, I know dozens of young evangelicals who felt obligated to vote for Bush and felt betrayed and hard done by. They will never again accede to party-line religious conservatism as their Baby Boomer parents had once done.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Sept. 11th. Bush earned high marks in the immediate weeks following that dreadful day, including the highest approval rating for a president ever registered by Gallup. His decisiveness and unwillingness to mince words appealed to many Americans. Unfortunately, in the months and years ahead, Bush squandered global goodwill after the attack. Under the artfully vague aegis of a “war on terror,” the country moved from finding those responsible for the attack, to rooting out Middle Eastern regimes that the White House did not like, an act of misdirection that made America less safe. What should have been a sharp, focused strike became an interminable conflict, and America’s longest war.
Under the justification of the Bush Doctrine, the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Historian Sean Wilentz defines the Bush Doctrine as “unprovoked, preventive warfare, based on speculative threats and embracing principles previously abjured by every previous generation of U.S. foreign policy-makers, even at the height of the Cold War.” Ostensibly, we were looking for weapons of mass destruction, and only found out years later that this search was based on faulty intelligence. The war’s failures of strategy, execution, and geopolitics are well known and too manifold to catalog here. But as a result, four and a half thousand of my countrymen are dead, casualties of the war. As I acknowledge this tragedy, I wish to goodness Americans cared just a little bit more about the number of the Iraqis who died because of the sequence of events that started with the invasion. National Geographic quantifies that ultimately unknowable number in the neighborhood of half a million. Iraq Body Count, restricting its scope to formally documented deaths, puts the number, including combatants, at 188,000. The war cost sixteen times the administration’s initial estimates, and even then it seemed to be run on the cheap. Troops were often sent into dangerous situations without the proper protective gear, and in some cases parents felt compelled to buy their son’s body armor. Despite these life-endangering shortcuts, the cost of the war and the cost of sacrifice was misappropriated; as I’ll discuss shortly, the public didn’t even have to bear extra taxes, and the brunt of the fighting was done by soldiers from lower-class families facing interminable deployments. When asked what Americans could sacrifice for the war on terror, Bush mumbled a response not living in fear, about going to Disney World, keeping the economy going. The war was tragic on multiple fronts, and I cannot but wish the money was better spent on shoring up social security or Medicare, expanding health coverage, offering college education, improving our infrastructure, and so on.
Speaking of a maldistribution of sacrifice and resources, this would be a good time to turn to his treatment of the economy. His handling of fiscal policy was heinous and even kleptocratic. Bush campaigned pleading to cut taxes, and in fairness, Al Gore did as well, although his cuts were more equally distributed. A bill signed into law in 2001 cut revenue by $1.3 trillion, with most of the gains going to the four highest tax brackets, and a bill in 2003 drastically cut capital gains taxes. Again, the lost opportunity of this screams out: if we had kept the tax rate at the level of the Clinton-Gingrich agreements of the 1990s, and avoided an expensive military excursion to Iraq, we would have been on track to have the national debt paid off by 2016. Instead, the deficit and debt both ballooned (and nobody who complains about Obama’s handling of the national debt today seems to have raised their voice back then.) As a result, our revenue went down, even as spending increased drastically to pay for our adventurism in the Near East. He borrowed more money in four years than all previous presidents put together, in the vain and disproven hope that tax cuts would trigger economic growth and actually increase revenue in the long run (the infamously unreliable Laffer Curve). Again, the failure to learn from history is palpable— supply-side economics didn’t work in the Reagan years; I can’t imagine what made the Bush administration think they would work in the 21st century. Moreover, keeping a series of tax cuts in the middle of a war is foolish in the extreme. Wars cost a great deal of money, and the American people, supportive as they were of our Middle Eastern wars at the beginning, would probably have countenanced a series of tax raises to pay for them in a responsible way as a gesture of “doing their part” for the war effort. Once more, the absence of any shared sacrifice or commonweal in all of this cries out.
The economic inequality highlighted and emboldened by the tax code was one of my many contributing factors to the final, disastrous coda of the Bush presidency, the Great Recession that unfolded in its concluding months. Both Clinton and Bush bear parts of the blame, as I discussed in my write up on Bill. For Bush’s part, there was a chronic unwillingness to regulate the mortgage and securities sector, and an orgy of free trade agreements that made it easier to ship jobs out the U.S. Like Coolidge, there were plenty of voices warning that a deregulated economy would end in calamity. Like Coolidge, he chose to ignore them.
The frightening thing is that I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface in trying to understand what went wrong. Keep in mind, I haven’t even had the room to discuss major flaws including (but not limited to) Hurricane Katrina, Rove’s dirty tactics against John Kerry in 2004, Valerie Plame, the lucrative no-bid contracts for the Iraq War, the lack of focus in finding Osama bin Laden, Terri Schiavo, the partisan firing of U.S. attorneys, the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, the ill-advised attempt to privatize social security, torture (including waterboarding) at Guantanamo, the refusal to actually charge Guantanamo prisoners with some kind of crime, warrantless wiretapping, the silly color-coded terrorist threat alerts from Homeland Security, and so on.
Perhaps the truest marker of Bush’s unsuccessful presidency is his lack of self-identifying heirs today. Nobody characterizes themselves as a “George W. Bush Republican” today, while virtually every white Democrat in the South attempts to mimic Clinton to some degree. Nowadays, conservative pundits speak derisively of Bush, as lax on the deficit, a RINO on immigration, and never a true conservative. (And almost without exception, these are individuals who came to his defense consistently throughout the 2000s, and challenged the patriotism of his critics). The greater Republican voting body deludes themselves into thinking they had never accepted Bush as an authentic conservative, that he was always the lesser of two evils, all the while absent-mindedly scraping the W ’04 bumper sticker off their Silverado. Such is willful historical amnesia; to wit, it is chilling how moderate and pragmatic many of his policies look compared to the G.O.P. today. Even if his younger brother Jeb wins the nomination in 2016, it will be through framing himself as a more genuine conservative alternative to his brother. So much for a legacy.
Eight years of unforced errors and governing through neo-conservative ideological blinders and evangelical masculinity took their toll. Impulsive, uncurious, unwilling to challenge advisors, consider alternatives or acknowledge folly, the Bush administration kept digging ever deeper in each fresh hole they dug. As a result, he left his country less respected, more unequal, and in every respect- financially, socially, even spiritually- poorer, and we still bear the consequences of his choices with each passing day. By every fair measure at the historians’ disposal, save the benefit of a generation’s hindsight, George W. Bush was a failed president. It’s possible a future generation of historians will view him more kindly, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting or anything. And having, against every expectation, finished a write-up on the Bush presidency with as few cheap shots and childish insults as I could manage, I rest my case.