Judging Bush II


In his farewell press conference, a combative and yet humorous George W. Bush concluded that history will judge him. Of course history will, and as a presidential historian I recognize the decent need for open archives and weighing evidence. Some presidents have risen in the judgment of informed posterity–like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Some like John F. Kennedy, who is so revered by my generation, is experiencing a decline. All of these judgments are in order. Already some liberal historians have pronounced George W. Bush the worst president, or after James Buchanan, the second worst president. Perhaps, we need to step back a bit.

George Bush has been a war time president for as long as Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt put together. The toll can be seen on his face. His greatest achievement is that, despite the predictions to the contrary, the USA was not successfully attacked by terrorists after 9-11. Undoubtedly, the president deserves some credit for that. But, critics argue that the nation paid a huge price in its international credibility. For its safety, America has used some techniques that are clearly torture and has suspended the constitutional rights of even US citizens. Surely Lincoln and FDR violated civil liberties, but Bush has so expanded the definition of commander in chief that the Constitution seems, at times, just tissue paper. The use of massive eavesdropping by the National Security Agency has tapped into millions of innocent conversations.

The gravest negative judgment will come with the increasing evidence of malfeasance in the Iraqi war. Saddam, a truly evil man in a truly evil family, did not have the beginnings of nuclear weapons as the Administration charged. And as unbelievable as it may seem, the Administration did not have a true strategy for the country after the war. The war has turned us away from the conflict in Afghanistan because of the diversion of enormous resources to Iraq. It would be as if Lincoln sent troops into Mexico after Gettysburg.

Bush allowed his own Secretary of Defense to fray the NATO alliance, and has shown little interest in the first seven years in the Middle East conflict. One must admit that Bush has been much more effective in focusing on getting money for AIDS in Africa. His approval rating in Africa is 80%, a rather remarkable development. The Africans can see that Bush was better for them on that issue that either Reagan or Clinton.

On domestic issues, it seems at times as if the regulatory agencies of all jurisdictions have become tools of the industries’. And the long record of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the SEC is a mixed record of falsehoods, incompetence and greed continuing from the Clinton years through the end of Bush II. We don’t even know yet the causes of the huge housing-financial system meltdown. No one can figure out if Bush appointments have saved the nation or simply opened up the treasury with gullible Democratic help.

Symbolic of the Bush neglect is of course Katrina which, along with the war has come to mark the massive public discontent with Bush. The Administration that wished to destroy Social Security, then expanded the system to embrace a very expensive prescription drug plan that appealed to both the pharmaceutical companies as well as seniors. Bush out dealt the Great Society on this issue. He found a genuine social need and filled it in the most expensive way the Republican party in Congress could.

But it was Katrina that ended any myth of an MBA Administration. They were tragically incompetent, troublingly so, and almost anti American.

It is one thing to hate government, like Ronald Reagan did, but it is another thing to cripple its domestic functions. And in all this, George Bush just could not imagine he made any mistakes in office. Perhaps a little softer tone was in order, he concluded, for the Historians who will examine these eight long years. They will keep us busy for generations. But in the end, I for one think that historians will be not be kind, for Bush has just not been good for America.

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