As the recent mid-term elections proved rather emphatically, the US electorate has a memory rather like that of a goldfish. And just as the 43rd president emerges from his undisclosed location to punt his book, Decision Points, it is increasingly important to keep reminding people all over the world of what a disastrous legacy he left behind. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Imagine what it would have been like if George W Bush had actually won that disputed presidential election back in 2000. We all know the US Supreme Court ultimately tossed out those flawed Florida vote counts, insisting the voters trump everything and Florida have a second election – this time with federal voting monitors (including a whole gaggle of international observers) on hand to ensure the totals were accurate and the counting carefully controlled. Of course, this meant the final vote confirmed that then-vice president Al Gore had won Florida with a 100,000-vote margin, once all those retired folks in the beach counties had their votes counted properly this time around and more than 30,000 African-Americans were put back on voters’ lists. And then as Florida went, so went the overall election and Al Gore was the winner.
But just consider for a moment, if George Bush had actually won, what would he really have done? Would he have contrived to invade Iraq without a reason that could have truthfully passed congressional muster, let alone won over world opinion? Would he have cut taxes for the rich and then gone on to inflate the national debt so dramatically with the cost of two wars and an expensive prescription drug supplement programme only an insurance company could love? And then, in the midst of all of this, would he have allowed the days that followed Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans to very nearly destroy the social fabric of that special city? And, then, finally, would he have sat by while the collapse of the housing mortgage market triggered the country’s worst economic shock since the Great Depression?
Of course, Islamic fundamentalists might very well have tried to attack an American city. They had, after all threatened that very thing, but surely that hypothetical Bush administration – so supportive of the military – would have taken heed of the warnings from his own bureaucracy about imminent terror attacks and applied new, but necessary, airport security measures in time to prevent any kind of catastrophe.
Certainly an American presidential administration like that one must be the raw material for counter-factual science fiction. That is the literary sub-genre that starts with a “what if” question: What if the Japanese fleet had totally destroyed the American one at Pearl Harbour after spotter planes found the American carriers in their sea drills; or the sudden collapse of Christian Spain when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were captured by the Emir of Granada’s cavalry; or the most famous, what if the American South had won at Gettysburg and the Civil War when a final charge split the Northern forces on Cemetery Ridge.
But, George W Bush really was America’s president for eight long years. And there really is a baleful legacy. But for the past two years Bush has been out of public view, a contemporary Achilles sulking in his Texas tent while working on his memoir, Decision Points, now released. From the way it has been reviewed, the judgement is that Bush wasn’t paying especially close attention in his university “Introduction to Philosophy” class when they discussed Socrates’ famous epigram, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
Like so many political memoirs, Decision Points tries to make the best possible case for his administration’s path, from the “deer in the headlights” in the immediate wake of 9/11, to that gormless invasion and then occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003 and its embarrassingly pre-emptive “Mission Accomplished” claim, then on once again to “deer in the headlights” looks during New Orleans and the economic collapse that followed.
Photo: “A deer in headlights” moment, first of many: U.S. President George W. Bush listens as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informs him of a second plane hitting the World Trade Center while Bush was conducting a reading seminar at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, in this September 11, 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Win McNamee
But to think of Bush’s administration is also to remember the astounding moment when Americans could no longer say that their country, their government, their military did not engage in officially justified torture – following the revelations of Abu Graib and the bland lawyerly memos that justified waterboarding. Until that moment we might have assumed waterboarding was a variant of surfing. But while some might point to things yet worse, for this writer at least, the nadir could well have been the Bush administration’s shrug of “stuff happens”, when thousands of unique artefacts celebrating the Fertile Crescent’s civilisations were looted from Iraqi museum galleries while occupation forces stood by and watched.
But, of course, before the ravages of those archaeological collections, there was the entire lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Despite the increasingly distant possibility of finding those weapons of mass destruction, the growing difficulties in nailing down any trade in nuclear raw materials or processing technology, the Bush administration insisted on arguing a case for an invasion, almost in spite of the evidence they could muster. When Colin Powell made his UN Security Council speech in support of such action, it should have been clear the crucial evidence was just artists’ renderings. But in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a great rush to oppose fundamentalist terrorism. The Bush administration chose to use this moment to launch a second invasion of Iraq – finishing what was left undone a decade earlier under Bush Snr – even in the absence of a link between an admittedly barbaric Saddam Hussein regime and the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan.
Watch: Bush’s seven minutes of silence as the US was attacked on 9/11.
By the time the Bush administration’s time had come to an end, it was estimated more than a trillion dollars had been expended on those two wars. A wasted decade and countless lost opportunities. What could a trillion dollars have done to improve education, help the country leapfrog into the 21st century’s leading-edge technologies, support new efforts to green the economy, or underpin a transformation of health care in the biotech, information-rich era? What would a tiny chunk of this misspent legacy have meant in dealing with so many problems outside the country as well? Instead, this money has been an investment in ensuring much of the Islamic world – and well beyond – sees America as fundamentally antithetical to that part of the globe.
Instead of focusing critically on such questions, Bush now says his worst moment came when, in the wake of New Orleans and Katrina, musician Kanye West charged his administration’s inept performance left him no choice, but to believe the president was heedless of the needs of its African-American citizens.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the Bush era, for Americans at least, even more than Iraq and Afghanistan, was his inattention to the weakening American economy in the days leading up to the 2008 crash. The sub-prime mortgage housing bubble led to an increasingly artificial inflation of housing values and a sense of wealth totally dependent on a belief that housing values would only grow.
When it happened the denouement was swift and terrible. It cut value from stock markets around the world, led to a global contraction of credit and trade, a dialling down of economic growth, the collapse of venerable investment banks and major corporations and the consequent major rise in unemployment. Even more than the two wars, the near-collapse of the American and global economy may well remain as George W Bush’s major legacy for generations to come.
In coming to terms with this question, New York Times writer Peter Baker wrote the other day: “Most Americans still do not view him favourably and a good portion still revile him for invading Iraq, waterboarding terror suspects and presiding over the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He is still a punchline, to many a failed president, the source of today’s economic and foreign policy troubles. And yet, with Obama increasingly unpopular and “Miss Me Yet?” T-shirts for sale at Washington’s Union Station a short walk from the Capitol, some polls suggest a slight softening of views. Obama’s blame-Bush strategy did not stop voters last week from returning Republicans to power in the House and handing them more seats in the Senate.”
Watch: George Bush and the ‘walking shoe incident’.
A friend learned this writer was considering a short article on Bush, and was just as vehement about his failures as was I. But he also felt obligated to point to one major success – a project that probably gets too little attention in America. And that, of course, is Pepfar – the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief. Dreamed up in the White House, it aimed to achieve simultaneous political tasks in reaching out to America’s Christian fundamentalist community (stalwart Republican voters, but often concerned about Africa), deal with HIV/Aids (and finding a new way for Bush to address this growing issue) and addressing Africa via a strategic approach.
The White House determined that a new global approach to deal with treatment, research and palliative care would hit all these buttons, and would bring together American idealism, research pre-eminence and a new initiative towards Africa in one crisp package. Despite suspicions that it was designed to help the big drug companies or was a plot to use Africans as test specimens or worse, in the long run, for the world, Pepfar may ultimately prove to be one of the relatively unheralded, yet best parts of Bush’s legacy.
In 1866, then former US president James Buchanan launched the presidential memoir as literature. Buchanan had been president from 1857-1861, just as Southern opposition to Abraham Lincoln becoming president turned into the Civil War that became the country’s existential crisis. Buchanan’s detractors charged he had done nothing when disunion was only a possibility, allowing much worse to happen as he left office. But Buchanan wrote his memoir as the war finally came to an end to make his case that the whole thing wasn’t his fault; that preventing national dissolution wasn’t part of his job description. No one reads Buchanan’s book anymore.
By contrast, Ulysses Grant, the Northern general who had won that war and then gone on to become president during “The Gilded Age”, amid an orgy of corruption and insider-dealing that may be easy for us to identify with these days, wrote his own memoir that remains acclaimed as one of the greatest such memoirs. Rather than special pleading or making excuses, Grant simply leads his readers through his life and explains what he did – and why. No regrets. No excuses. Grant was absolutely clear-eyed about his war: he was given a job, he used the tools he had, and he did what was needed to bring an end to the killing and preserve the country.
His publisher and editor, Mark Twain, would say later that “this is the simple soldier, who, all untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an art surpassing the art of the schools and put into them a something which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching hosts.” Sadly, Grant had less to say about his tenure as president and why it unravelled as it did.
By contrast, George W Bush’s personal circumstances are a glimpse at a life that has gone from one easy chance to another – born into a politically potent family, admission to two of the country’s most prestigious universities, an easy slide past the Vietnam War through a stint in the Air Force reserve, a series of no-stress political jobs and a lucky moment with a modest investment in a professional sports team (with the backing of family friends) that he parlayed into the name recognition to win election as the governor of Texas. And then on to the presidency. The only detour being a foray into alcohol abuse and a crisis of conscience because of it.
Unlike Hamlet, whom Shakespeare could have exclaim, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams,” George W Bush has managed to pass along most of the bad dreams to the rest of us. DM
Read The New York Times, the Daily Beast, the Hauenstein Center of the Great Valley State University and Jonathan Raban in the Wall Street Journal.
Main photo: U.S. President George W. Bush reacts to a question after a man threw a shoe at him during a joint statement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, Iraq December 14, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque