Among the many dispiriting things to come out of Bob Woodward’s quartet of books on George W. Bush is his observation that the president has not changed since he first started talking to Woodward in 2001.
No growth. No evolution. No regrets.
“History,” Bush replied, when asked by Woodward how he would be judged over time. “We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” Broke, as well.
It would have been nice to let Bush’s two terms marinate a while before invoking Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan from the cellar of worst presidents. But then — over the last two weeks — he completed the trilogy of national disasters that will be with us for a generation or more.
George Bush entered the White House as a proponent of a more humble foreign policy and a believer that government should get out of the way at home. He leaves as someone with a trillion-dollar war aimed at making people who’ve hated each other for a thousand years become Rotary Club freedom-lovers, and his own country close to bankruptcy after government did get out of the way.
It’s a Mount Rainier of shame and folly. But before going any further, let’s allow his supporters to have their say.
“He’s going to have an unbelievably great legacy,” said Laura Bush in an ABC interview, citing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Fifty million people liberated from very brutal regimes.”
Fred Barnes argues that Bush is a visionary on a par with Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Bush is a president who leads,” he wrote in a 2006 book. “He controls the national agenda, uses his presidential power to the fullest and then some, prepares far-reaching polices likely to change the way Americans live, reverses other long-standing polices and is the foremost leader in world affairs.”
Finally, from Karl Rove, the Architect. Bush will be viewed “as a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century,” he said.
After wading through books with words like “fiasco,” “hubris” and “denial” in the title, historians will go to first-hand sources, the people who worked with Bush daily. There they will find Paul O’Neill, the president’s former Treasury secretary. In 2002, he sounded an alarm, saying Bush’s rash economic policies could lead to a deficit of $500 billion. This, after Bush had inherited a budget surplus, prompted many to scoff at O’Neill.
He was wrong, but only in one respect – the projected deficit, even without a financial bailout, will almost certainly be higher.
This means a lot, for every bridge not built, every Pell grant not given to a kid who may never go to college without one, every national park road left to crumble, every sick person who cannot afford to see a doctor in a country that wants to be known as the best on earth.
Historians will also go to Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary. Bush may not be a “high functioning moron,” as Paul Begala called him recently. He is “plenty smart enough to be president,” McClellan wrote this year. But McClellan, in his job as the president’s mouthpiece, found him chronically incurious. He also said Bush deliberately misled the country into war, and in that effort, the news media were “complicit enablers.”
Historians will recall that in each of the major disasters on Bush’s watch, there were ample warnings — from the intelligence briefing that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike a month before the lethal blow, to the projections that Hurricane Katrina could drown a major American city, to the expressed fears that letting Wall Street regulate itself could be catastrophic.
Voluntary regulation. That phrase now joins “heckuva job, Brownie” and “mission accomplished” among those that will always be associated with the Bush presidency.
It’s painful now to realize, just as the economy craters and the world looks aghast at the United States, that the other cancer from the Bush presidency – his failure to even start the nation on the road to a new energy economy – gets short-changed during the triage of his final days.
Bush has hinted that his legacy will be about the war. So be it. He never caught bin Laden, the mass murderer who launched the raison d’etre of the Bush presidency.
But he did topple a paper army in Iraq, opening the drainage for our currency, blood and global reputation. It may go down as the longest, even costliest war in our history.
In a survey of scholars done earlier this year, just two of 109 historians said the Bush presidency would be judged a success. A majority said he would be the worst president ever.
But if you don’t trust those elites in academia, consider the president’s own base.
Bush leaves with his party in tatters. In the 28 states that register by affiliation, Democrats have picked up more than 2 million new voters this year while Republicans have lost 344,000. It seems only fitting that it was the last of the Bush dead-enders in Congress earlier this week who jumped ship when presented with the final horrendous hangover from this man who doesn’t drink.
If ever there was an argument for voting against politicians who are confident about their cluelessness, Bush is it. So it was heartening to see that a majority of the country, in some polls, now views Sarah Palin as unqualified to be president.
We may have learned something, even if Bush has not.