Another insightful view of the damage done by George W Bush’s administration was published in the INTERCEPT, comparing Bush’s use of the press during the run up to the Iraq war against Trump’s incompetent battle with the press, 14 years after the Iraq invasion.
Below, is a copy of some reminiscences of a series of writers and reports on G.W. Bush:
Tuesday December 13, 2005
How was it for you?
Five years ago today Al Gore phoned George Bush to formally concede the presidency. Since then the United States has suffered it’s worst ever terrorist attack, become embroiled in a disastrous foreign war and bungled the response to a natural catastrophe. So what is the Bush legacy after half a decade? Is he a ruthless Machiavellian or a bumbling puppet? A devout idealist or a cynical opportunist? A disaster or a mild disappointment? Here, six top American commentators – from the left and the right – deliver their verdicts.
George Bush seems less likely to be remembered as a disastrous American president than as an ultimately insignificant one. Despite his ambition to reshape American politics and society in the order of a Reagan or a Thatcher, Bush has presided over a period of national and economic drift that more closely resembles the forgettable reign of his father.
The main goal of the Bush presidency was to transform the American electorate by creating a durable Republican majority. Karl Rove, the architect of Bush’s political career in Texas and Washington, has drawn an implicit analogy between his own role and that of the legendary fin-de-siècle political boss Mark Hanna, who served President William McKinley in the 1890s.
Hanna was McKinley’s political brain in the way Rove is Bush’s. McKinley was an affable, not-too-bright former congressman when Hanna helped to elect him governor of Ohio. In 1896, Hanna raised an unprecedented amount of money, and ran a ruthless and sophisticated campaign that got McKinley to the White House. One could go on with this analogy. McKinley governed negligently in the interests of big business and went to war on flimsy evidence that Spain had blown up the USS Maine.
The key to McKinley’s success was the alliance Hanna forged between wealthy industrialists like himself, who provided cash, and workers, who provided votes. In the Bush version, the rich again provide the cash and religious conservatives provide the votes. The wealthy have been rewarded with tax cuts, the evangelicals with hard-line conservative policies on abortion, gay rights and a school prayer. Bush’s re-election victory last year seemed to vindicate his and Rove’s strategy of attempting to turn the country to the right. Though it was hardly a landslide, Bush did, unlike in 2000, win a genuine, popular endorsement of his policies.
But a year later, that re-election victory looks like an aberration, explained more by factors such as a weak Democratic opponent rather than any sea-change in American politics. Less than a year into Bush’s second term, his approval rating has fallen to less than 40%, which approaches the nadir for any modern president at any moment in his tenure. This has happened at a time when the US economy, usually a reliable predicter of presidential popularity, has continued to grow robustly, oblivious to Bush’s irresponsible fiscal policies and neglect of global competitiveness issues surrounding America’s education and health care systems.
Many things have gone wrong for Bush, most notably everything that has happened in Iraq since he declared “Mission Accomplished” in the spring of 2003, but the underlying problem is his relationship to the right wing constituency that elected him. Bush’s debt to his big donors and to religious conservatives has boxed him in and pitted him against the national consensus on a range of issues. It has proven impossible for Bush to satisfy both the militant conservative base and the eternally moderate US electorate.
The president has never understood the brilliance of Ronald Reagan’s way of dealing with this conflict. Reagan managed to appease the religious right with rhetoric, without actually forcing retrograde changes on divisive social issues. Reagan also placated conservatives by challenging the growth of the public sector. This is a theme Bush has soft-pedalled, preferring to allow federal spending and deficits to rise.
Whether because he is less adroit or because he truly believes what he says, Bush seems able to appease his conservative evangelical base only by surrendering to its wish-list. He has caved in to conservatives on issues including stem-cell research, pension privatisation and the teaching of “intelligent design” in schools. With his most recent Supreme Court nomination, Bush has given in further, creating at least the appearance that he is trying to get enough votes to remove the constitutional protection for abortion rights.
Through such choices, Bush propels his increasingly beleaguered administration further towards the right-hand margin – a place where his party cannot win future national elections. Possessed of the notion that he had won a mandate for radical change and enshrined a new governing majority, Bush lost sight of the eternal moderation of the American electorate. Now even rock-ribbed conservatives who face re-election next year are running away from any association with Bush because of his unpopularity.
When it comes to America’s relations with the rest of the world, the damage Bush caused may take longer to repair, but his historic influence is unlikely to be any more durable. He will bequeath to our next president the remnants of a negligently planned entanglement in Iraq, but not any coherent American approach to foreign policy or international economics.
· Jacob Weisberg is the editor of Slate.com and the author of the “Bushisms” series
The marriage between President George Bush and his base is like any other – fraught with tensions and imperfections. So much so that, to appraise his popularity with those who brung ’em to the party, one might need to think in terms of the Ford Theatre’s most infamous drama: “Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you like the play?”
Other than Bush’s “fiddle-de-dee” Scarlett O’Hara approach to deficit spending (“I’ll think about that tomorrow”), an immigration policy that threatens to turn the US into a private piñata for Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, and a fuzzy relationship with the religious right that has even Catholics lurching for the balcony … he’s still got a full orchestra pit.
Those most willing to give him a pass on domestic issues tend to be those who think it is critical that a Republican president restore conservatives to the federal courts, or who believe that the war in Iraq is of paramount importance, or who think both. And there still are plenty who do. These are the folks who, though they may share everyone’s dismay that the war has dragged on at greater cost in blood and money than many expected, tend to see the war in Iraq as part of the second world war: not just a skirmish over oil or an exercise in daddy-revenge, but as a systemic approach to an enduring problem, a theatre in a wider war against a new and virulent fascism.
But his domestic policies have been a mixed bag – so that the conservative party has become divided over the central question of what it means to be a “conservative”. Is it about protecting unborn life or keeping government out of personal decisions? Is it about preserving “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or about freedom from all belief? Is conservatism about controlling government’s appetites or about feeding the beast in the name of national security, even at the expense of civil liberties?
Thus, contradiction and paradox have become bedfellows in the Republican party’s sleepover for the past five years. And much of the confusion stems from Bush’s seminal decision – with the approval of the Congress, we feel compelled to note – to invade Iraq. It is hard to make a case for fiscal conservatism when you are underwriting a war. It is hard to keep government small when the mandate to prevent another 9/11 results in the creation of a mammoth new bureaucracy such as the Department of Homeland Security.
Bush’s spending habits cannot be blamed entirely on the war. To true conservatives who vote Republican because they prefer limited government and low taxes, the president spends like a day-wager on a three-day drunk. His is the visionary perspective of a man for whom perfectionism is neither flaw nor pathology, but an achievable goal. Combine that philosophical perspective with the money-is-no-obstacle legacy of a born-rich kid, and you see Bush in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, no longer a mere compassionate conservative but His Majesty Comus astride his Mardi Gras float, tossing gold coins to the homeless and hungry.
Bush enjoys the further distinction of increasing spending more than his Democratic predecessor via passage of the pharmaceutical drug bill in 2003 – the largest entitlement since Medicare in 1965. And then there is his “No Child Left Behind” package that enhanced the federal government’s role in education more than any measure since the 1960s.
Which is to say, a large portion of Bush’s Republican base feels betrayed – even if some of their pain has been eased by recent reports of a healthy economy, new jobs, and a 20-year low in unemployment (5% as of this week). The tax cuts didn’t hurt, either.
Bush’s greatest failing may be his continued wooing of illegal immigrants at a time when his biggest supporters want secure borders and for whom Bush’s proposed guest-worker programme is a euphemism for amnesty. His argument that “guests” will do the work that Americans are unwilling to do is viewed as an insult to the many citizens already waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms, and suggests the same disconnect with working folk that plagued his father, who failed to recognise the scanner in a grocery store.
Not surprisingly, the most steadfast of his supporters are social conservatives who applaud Bush’s court appointments – surely his most lasting legacy. By the end of his second term, Bush will have appointed more than half of the Appellate and US district judges. He is also more than likely to fill three seats on the US Supreme Court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, Judge Samuel A Alito Jr and at least one more, possibly the multiple-niche-filling Viet Dinh, a Harvard-educated Vietnamese-American law professor and former assistant attorney general.
Only Baghdad Bob would insist that Bush is doing swimmingly at his five-year marker, but only a pessimist would deny that the night is still young. The next three years may be enough time for Bush to reach an acceptable level of success in Iraq, which has to do more with leaving Iraqis in charge than in defeating every last insurgent/ terrorist. In the meantime, the president has accomplished much of what he promised, from arranging conservative courts to imposing trickle-down economic policies. Those distressed by his performance must have been dozing when the curtain rose on The Bush Show, Part II.
· Kathleen Parker is a political commentator whose weekly column in the Orlando Sentinel is syndicated to more than 300 US newspapers
At this point, the policy legacy of George Bush seems defined by three disparate disasters: Iraq in foreign affairs, Katrina in social welfare, and corporate influence over tax, budget and regulatory decisions. As a short-term political consequence, we may avoid another dim-witted Bush in the White House. But what the Bush dynasty has done to presidential campaign science – the protocols by which Americans elect presidents in the modern era – amounts to a political legacy that could haunt the republic for years to come.
We are now enduring the third generation of Bushes who have taken the playbook of the “ruthless” Kennedys and amplified it into a consistent code of amorality. In their campaigns, the Kennedys used money, image-manipulation, old-boy networks and, when necessary, personal attacks on worthy adversaries such as Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey. But there was also a solid foundation of knowledge and purpose undergirding John Kennedy’s sophisticated internationalism, his Medicare initiative, his late-blooming devotion to racial justice, and Robert Kennedy’s opposition to corporate and union gangsterism. Like Truman, Roosevelt and even Lincoln, two generations of Kennedys believed that a certain amount of political chicanery was tolerable in the service of altruism.
Behind George W, there are four generations of Bushes and Walkers devoted first to using political networks to pile up and protect personal fortunes and, latterly, to using absolutely any means to gain office, not because they want to do good, but because they are what passes in America for hereditary aristocrats. In sum, Bush stands at the apex of a pyramid of privilege whose history and social significance, given his animosity towards scholarly thought, he almost certainly does not understand.
Here is the big picture, as drawn by the Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty. Starting in 1850, the Bushes, through alliance with the smarter Walker clan, built up a fortune based on classic robber-baron foundations: railroads, steel, oil, investment banking, armaments and materiel in the world wars. They had ties to the richest families of the industrial age – Rockefeller, Harriman, Brookings. Yet they never adopted the charitable, public-service ethic that developed in those families.
Starting with Senator Prescott Bush’s alliance with Eisenhower and continuing through the dogged loyalty of his son, George HW Bush, to two more gifted politicians, Presidents Nixon and Reagan, the family has developed a prime rule of advancement. In a campaign, any accommodation, no matter how unprincipled, any attack on an opponent, no matter how false, was to be embraced if it worked.
The paradigm in its purest form was seen when the first President Bush, in 1980, renounced a lifelong belief in abortion rights to run as Reagan’s vice-president. His son surpassed the father’s dabbling with pork rinds and country music. He adopted the full agenda of redneck America – on abortion, gun control, Jesus – as a matter of convenience and, most frighteningly, as a matter of belief. Before the Bushes, American political slogans of the left and right embodied at least a grain of truth about how a presidential candidate would govern. The elder Bush’s promise of a “kinder, gentler” America and the younger’s “compassionate conservatism” brought us the political slogan as pure disinformation. They were asserting a claim of noblesse oblige totally foreign to their family history.
But whether Bush the father was pandering or Bush the son was praying, the underlying political trade-off was the same. The Bushes believe in letting the hoi polloi control the social and religious restrictions flowing from Washington, so long as Wall Street gets to say what happens to the nation’s money. The Republican party as a national institution has endorsed this trade-off. What we do not know yet is whether a Republican party without a Bush at the top is seedy enough to keep it going. Americans have had an ambivalent attitude toward their aristocrats. They have also believed that dirty politics originated with populist machiavells such as Louisiana governor Huey Long and Chicago mayor Richard Daley. The Bushes, with such minders as Rove, Cheney and Delay, have turned that historic expectation upside down. Now our political deviance trickles down relentlessly from the top. The next presidential election will be a national test of whether the taint of Bushian tactics outlasts what is probably the last Bush to occupy the Executive Mansion.
In 1988, the first President Bush secured office by falsely depicting his opponent as a coddler of rapists and murderers. In 2000, the current President Bush nailed down the nomination by accusing John McCain of opposing breast-cancer research. He won in 2004 with a barrage of lies about John Kerry’s war record.
With the right leadership, the US can stop the blood-letting in Iraq, regain its world standing, avert the crises in health care and social security, and even bring disaster relief to the Gulf Coast. But that’s not simply a matter of keeping Bushes and Bushites, with their impaired civic consciences, out of the White House. The next presidential campaign will show us whether these miscreant patricians have poisoned the well of the presidential campaign system. If so, there is no telling what we kind of president we might get.
· Howell Raines is the former editor of the New York Times and author of a forthcoming memoir, The One That Got Away
George Bush became “born again” when the bottom dropped out of the oil boom in Midland, Texas. In the spring of 1984, the town’s bank failed, fortunes crashed and overnight millionaires tumbled into life-wrecking debt. In a desperate effort to rescue lives and restore morale, the church elders invited the evangelist Arthur Blessitt to stage a revival. Blessitt was known as the man who had wheeled a 96lb cross of Jesus into 60 countries on six continents. Midland residents lined the streets during the day and watched Blessitt roll his 12ft-high cross through the boomtown gone bust.
Bush felt uncomfortable about attending the revival, but he listened to the broadcast. On the second day, he asked a friend to arrange a meeting with the evangelist at a coffee shop. Bush told Blessitt: “I want to talk to you about how to know Jesus Christ and how to follow him.”
The evangelist quoted Mark and John and Luke to George, who held hands with the two men, repented his sins, and proclaimed Jesus Christ as his saviour. “It was an awesome and glorious moment,” said Blessitt. He later wrote in his diary on April 3 1984: “A good and powerful day – Led Vice-President Bush’s son to Jesus – George Bush Jr.!! This is great. Glory to God …”
That conversion eventually led Bush to give up tobacco, alcohol and drugs at the age of 40, illustrating the wisdom of philosopher and psychologist William James (elder brother of the writer Henry), who said “the only radical remedy I know for dipsomania is religiomania”.
Ever since Bush came to Jesus, his religion has ruled his life and, as president, his policies reflect his fierce religiosity. Within 48 hours of his first inaugural, he issued an executive order banning US government aid to international family planning groups that perform abortions or provide abortion counselling. He also signed a bill that required that a foetus that showed signs of life following an abortion procedure be considered a person under federal law. He later signed a law prohibiting partial-birth abortion. The measure, which had been vetoed twice by President Clinton, was the most significant restriction on abortion rights in years. Federal judges in Nebraska, San Francisco and New York ruled that the law was unconstitutional, but Bush did not care. He had placated his evangelical base for his re-election.
By defining a foetus as a person, Bush had forced himself into taking a hard line against providing federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research – a decision that will hamper scientific research for decades. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, whose husband was dying of Alzheimer’s, urged Bush to back stem-cell studies. Instead, he restricted federal funding to only 60 stem-cell lines, already in existence. He felt his compromise was the perfect political, if not moral, solution. He satisfied the religious right while giving something to moderates in his party who wanted the federal government to advance rather than hinder research into debilitating diseases.
Bush proposed several constitutional amendments to appeal to the 30 million evangelicals in the US, including a ban on same-sex marriage. By executive fiat he allowed contractors to use religious favouritism in their hiring practices. He also asked Congress to make it easier for federally funded groups to base their hiring decisions on a job candidate’s religion and sexual orientation. The Rev Barry W Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the president had instituted “taxpayer-subsidised job discrimination” by allowing tax-payer-funded groups to hire and fire based on religious belief.
As president, Bush had crossed the constitutional line separating church and state. Within days of taking office, he made federal funds available to faith-based groups that provided social services. More than $1.1bn was disbursed by his administration to Christian groups. No Jews or Muslims received funds. Over time, W’s “faith-based initiative” came to look like a political pay-off to church groups to keep them voting Republican. And it worked. In 2004, Bush was re-elected by 3.4 million religious conservatives, who, like him, oppose teaching evolution in schools, and insist on substituting a God-based version of “intelligent design”.
From Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, all presidents have invoked providence and appealed to a higher power, but Bush actually sees himself as a divine messenger. “I trust God speaks through me,” he told an Amish community in Pennsylvania. “Without that I could not do my job.” After 9/11, he told Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, “I believe God wants me to be president.” After the World Trade Centre attacks, Time magazine reported that the president spoke of “being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment”.
With messianic zeal, Bush took the country to war in Iraq against “evil doers” and, despite the lives lost and maimed, he, unlike a growing majority of Americans, has never questioned his policy. “Absolutely not,” he said during the presidential debates. “It was the right decision.”
· Kitty Kelley is author of Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
R Emmett Tyrrell Jr
With his detumescent polls, his unpopular war and his faltering domestic policy, George Bush is very much in the sorry state that an earlier president, Harry S Truman, found himself when he left office in 1953. Truman’s approval rating then was 23%, worse than Bush’s present 38%. Truman was in a war he saw as an extension of the war against tyranny that his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, had fought and that Truman had successfully concluded. Then, too, he was engaged in consolidating FDR’s New Deal, a consolidation that earned him the profound resentment of the Old Order that he and FDR had replaced, the Republicans.
Alhough Truman was viewed a failure, he is now esteemed as one of the “near-great” presidents. He was inspired in the 1940s by high-minded ideals, as was FDR, who perceived Hitler’s threat to our civilisation perhaps even before Winston Churchill. Truman, too, was an enemy of tyranny; in March 1947, he told a joint session of Congress: “I believe that it must be the policy of the US to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
This was called the Truman Doctrine. Today, with minor emendations, it might be called the Bush Doctrine. Like Truman, Bush will be adjudged a failure or a success on the outcome of his “support of free peoples”. His foreign policy is his greatest gambit.
It is not his foreign policy, however, that explains his weakness in the polls. At roughly 38%, it is down from his natural approval rating of 45-48%. The erosion has been from his conservative base. He was elected by the growing conservative disposition within America to consolidate the policies of the first epochal president since FDR – namely, Ronald Reagan. As FDR in 1933 began the age of big government in America, Reagan in 1981 began the era of alternatives to government. Bush came to the White House believing he would continue the Reagan regime. He has won significant victories – for instance, tax cuts that have led to 10 straight quarters of near 4% growth in GDP, with low unemployment and usually low inflation. He continued the Reagan policy of free trade with his Central American Free Trade Agreement, though he has occasionally parted with free trade for political expedience. With the successful nomination of John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and with at least one conservative justice on the way, he has continued the conservative drift in the judiciary.
Yet his conservative base feels he has failed to keep down spending. He has failed to champion various hot-button matters that ephemerally inflame each constituent group in the conservative amalgam: piety for the people of faith, deregulation for the economic conservatives, attention to immigration for the national security-conscious. But these are distractions. The main point is that Bush has to leave the presidency with a healthy economy, which he probably will, and stability and something like democratic government in Iraq, which I believe he is closer to achieving than his critics contend.
One thing is certain. He will leave the White House with many Americans furious with him, much as Truman did. Most of those who seethed at Truman were Republicans from the Old Order, with a few conservative Democrats along for the wrathful ride. Those who seethe at Bush are from America’s present Old Order – to wit, Democrats, who have been steadily losing power nationwide and who now hold power mainly in the media and the universities.
They loathe this president. They are proud of their anger. The intensity of this anger is peculiar. After all, Bush’s domestic policy is not that much different from Reagan’s and his foreign policy is pretty much in line with the doctrine that Truman lent his name to and which FDR would indubitably have approved. How does one account for this dispendious wrath? More than principle or personal interest, politics is the domain of psychological need. In the case of Bush, the need of a passing Old Order to have enemies.
· R Emmett Tyrrell, Jr is the founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator
Dee Dee Myers
George Bush is talking again, and I don’t have a clue what he’s saying. It’s not that he’s mangling his syntax. That’s par for the course. And while it’s as amusing as it is disconcerting, I usually think I know what he’s trying to say (though I do confess to being stumped by “more and more of our imports are coming from overseas”).
Bush is talking about Iraq, which is always confusing for those of us who like our words and facts to match. He’s saying he’ll “settle for nothing less than total victory”. And I’m wondering: what in the world is total victory? Does it mean large numbers of American troops will stay until Iraq is a fully functioning democracy with a vibrant economy and the political will to help spread freedom across the Middle East? That could take, like, 100 years. Or does it mean that we’ll stay until we stand up enough Iraqi police officers and soldiers to claim with a straight face that they can handle their own security? That could mean substantial troop reductions in time to prevent total defeat in next year’s mid-term elections. I just don’t know.
But this is a familiar feeling for me. I think I know what something means – until I hear George Bush say it.
My trouble with Bush’s words started early. When he was running for president in 2000, Bush said he was a “compassionate conservative”. I thought I understood compassion and conservatism separately, but put them together and it might as well be cold fusion, a concept that, I confess, totally eludes me. Five years later, I’m still trying to get my head around it. I guess cutting income, estate and capital gains taxes is the compassionate part, since the cuts really help the rich, who did have it awfully tough during the Clinton years. Or perhaps that’s the conservative part, because I’m pretty sure that adding $2.4trn to the national debt isn’t.
Neither is vastly expanding the size of government. Bush says he’s for “fiscal restraint”. But during his first term, federal spending increased by $616.4bn – not that anyone’s counting, in the wake of 9/11. Obviously, I’m not looking at this right. But even when I don’t count the vast sums spent on defence and homeland security, Bush is still the most profligate president in 30 years; domestic spending alone is up 36%. OK, so maybe the Congress is to blame. Even though Republicans control the place, they don’t seem to have got the message about “fiscal restraint”; they passed $91bn more in programmes than Bush requested during his first term. Surely Bush fought hard to slow them down, refusing to go along with their mountain of cockamamie spending measures? Or not, since he’s the first president since John Quincy Adams (1825-29) to serve an entire term without vetoing a bill.
“Uniter” is another word that gives me trouble. Bush says he is one. Granted, he ran a campaign aimed at dividing the country, but who can blame a guy for wanting to win? He decided early on that he would forget about building a broad consensus for his second term. That kind of talk is for sissies, like John Kerry. Bush wanted a narrow victory, 50% plus one – and that’s what he got. But after the election, he said he wanted to be president of all the people, even the dummies who didn’t vote for him. And he welcomed us to just change our views so we could all agree together. That was pretty big of him.
My list of confusing words and concepts gets longer all the time. “Competence” is on the list. George Bush promised us he was the first MBA president and would run the White House with cold-eyed efficiency. And it’s very reassuring to hear him say that from Iraq to New Orleans, the government is doing a “heck of a job”. Ditto torture. The president says the United States doesn’t torture. Boy, is that a relief. Now if only I had a new word for what I saw at Abu Ghraib. Let’s not forget “energy policy”. I’m sure there’s a good reason why Bush’s friends in the oil business ran up record profits while American consumers were choking on record prices.
I wish I had Bush’s ability to tell all those voices in my head to shut up. Maybe I need to learn his squinty-eyed stare; it certainly seems to have had the desired effect on the press corps. I, too, want to believe that the world is black and white, that all problems have simple solutions, and that doubts are for the weak and faint-hearted. I, too, want to ignore complexity and laugh in the face of contradictory facts. I, too, want to be 14 again
· Dee Dee Myers is a political analyst and commentator, and a former White House press secretary in the Clinton administration