THE RECENT OPENING of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was a banner day for stand-up comics, late-night talk-show hosts, left-leaning pundits, and political cartoonists—and the “banner” in question was draped on an aircraft carrier and read MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. (Cue: rimshot). Thanks, I’ll be here all week.
If humorists were out in full force that day, so too were conservative commentators, who used the event as an excuse to attempt the Herculean task of re-framing the Bush II presidency as something other than a catastrophe—an epic fail, in the parlance of my son’s generation.
Writing in the Washington Post, Stephen F. Knott, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, took his fellow academics to task for writing off the Bush presidency too soon. “Many academics branded Bush a failure long before his presidency ended — and not just fringe elements of the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Howard Zinn, but also scholars from the nation’s most prestigious universities,” Knott argues, accusing Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, Columbia’s Eric Foner, and Harvard’s Arthur Schlesinger Jr. of liberal bias. “In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information.” It may be that this cabal of historians are all guilty of bias. Or it may be that the consensus opinion is the correct one. Tellingly, Knott fails to provide even a single reason why the presidency of George W. Bush should not rank with the likes of Warren G. Harding and James Buchanan.
This got me to thinking: is it possible to construct an argument that Bush was, as Stephen Colbert would have it, a great president? His failures are as glaring as they are well-documented: whiffing on the many intelligence warnings about 9/11; bankrupting the country by simultaneously cutting taxes and going to war; alienating half the country and most of the rest of the world; instituting torture and indefinite detention as U.S. policy; fucking over a generation of kids with his test-based No Child Left Behind program; allowing Dick Cheney to influence him too much; botching the Hurricane Katrina recovery; presiding over the worst collapse of the economy since the Great Depression. Those are all damning failures. No amount of editorials by U.S. Naval War College professors can argue them away. But the questions remains: can the Bush II presidency be redeemed?
For assistance, we turn to “W’s Legacy,” a helpful feature put together by The National Review, in which a bevy of conservatives offer the best and worst moments of the Bush II presidency. How do W’s supporters justify supporting him?
First and foremost: The Surge. They like that it worked, but more than that, they appreciate that Bush had the stones to do it in the first place. “He found the courage, when the whole world was against him, to order the surge in Iraq,” columnist Mona Charen writes. “Most leaders don’t have the nerve to do things that poll less than 80 percent support. Remember Clinton, who commissioned a poll about where to vacation?” No argument there. The Great Decider was decisive, often to our collective detriment.
David French gives a nod to an achievement that even the Nicholas Kristofs of the world can get behind: “launching the world’s largest and most successful effort to combat the spread of AIDS. While there is much credit to go around, we must still be grateful for the man at the top, the one who made the call to commit the resources to save, ultimately, millions of lives.” Can’t quibble with that one either.
On a smaller scale, expanding Medicare to include prescription drugs for seniors was a win (although some conservatives disagree). I would also argue that if a conservative Chief Justice was going to happen, John Roberts is the best the country could hope for: smart, principled, reasonably open-minded, and not the Scalia lackey we feared he might be (interestingly, not one of the National Review pundits mentioned him).
Otherwise, much of the National Review kudos go to partisan victories. The head of the Heritage Foundation, who clearly has a poor understanding of math, lauds the tax cuts. A correspondent at NRO is pleased that Bush won elections, as if 2000 weren’t contested, as if a requisite number of electoral votes justified Iraq. Charen and others bring up Bush’s opposition to stem-cell research, applauding scientific ignorance. A number of others cite his no-bullshit personality.
But all of this stuff is small potatoes. Ultimately, Bush II’s presidency will be evaluated on how he responded to the nascent threat of global terrorism—and, further, on how viable a threat it actually was/is. On this criterion, we must, as Knott cautions, wait for documents to be declassified before we judge. There are surely things we don’t, we can’t, know that influenced his decisions. Maybe there are a number of heroic missions that must be kept quiet, missions that 30 years from now will be the subject of overrated movies directed by and starring Ben Affleck.
“With Bush’s legacy being reassessed as his presidential library opens in Dallas, it’s important to note that he did not just keep us safe,” writes Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post. “He created the entire anti-terror infrastructure that continues to keep us safe.”
It is tempting, of course, to disagree. Bush only kept us safe after the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. But again, we don’t know enough to pronounce judgment definitively, as Knott says. What we can do is evaluate the policies by what Bush’s successor, who is privy to classified information, chose to do. As Krauthammer astutely points out, Obama “vilified Bush’s anti-terror policies as a candidate, then continued them as president: indefinite detention, rendition, warrantless wiretaps, special forces and drone warfare, and, most notoriously, Guantanamo, which Obama so ostentatiously denounced — until he found it indispensable.”
I have argued on these pages that Obama’s continued use of indefinite detention, torture, and drone strikes comprise a slow descent into totalitarianism. Many on the right also caution that the U.S. is turning into a police state—witness the veritable martial law imposed in Boston after the Marathon bombing.
But what if Obama, a pragmatic guy, has been told that this really is the best response to the very real threat of terrorism, that our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan really were about rooting out evildoers, as Bush claimed, and not to shore up our supply of oil and heroin, respectively, as many cynics purport? Perhaps the reason Bush seems so placid, so serene, so well-rested, is that he knows that history will vindicate him.
It’s not enough. Even if he kept us safe, in ways we can’t know about, the fact that the rehabilitation of his presidency depends on what might be revealed in classified documents is nothing short of pathetic, the historical version of deus ex machina. An A in homeland security combined with his many Fs at best average out to a gentleman’s C—a grade with which George W. Bush is, sadly, all too familiar.