Eight Years of Living Dangerously

No one is more dangerous than one who imagines himself pure in heart.
— James Baldwin

No Sift next Monday. I’ll be on my way back from my sister-in-law’s wedding, which I hope goes better than this one did. Next Sift: February 2.

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Truman Comparison. Could history really vindicate Bush?
  • The Torture Debate Won’t Die. The euphemisms are falling away, and we’re left with the core issue: The President authorized people to commit crimes. Will he get away with it?
  • End-of-the-Era Bush Collections. A list of lists.
  • Short Notes. One Republican sees the light. Campbell Brown won’t let Bush lie about New Orleans. The Inauguration kicks off two days early. And now that California has protected its children from same-sex marriage, what about divorce?

The Truman Comparison

Conservative pundits keep repeating this talking point: Bush is like Truman. People vilify him now, but history will vindicate him.

My first reaction is to dismiss this idea like Lloyd Bentsen smacking down Dan Quayle. (“You’re no Jack Kennedy.“) Bush is no Harry Truman. Bentsen didn’t need to elaborate and neither do I.

But that’s ungenerous, so let’s consider the point in more depth. What happens when historians re-evaluate a president? Picture the events of a presidency as weights on a two-pan scale: a success pan and a failure pan. Even with the advantage of hindsight, an event seldom jumps from one pan to the other. Bad things stay bad; good things stay good. All that changes is our estimate of how much the events weigh.

Take Truman for example. On his watch, China went Communist and Russia got the atomic bomb. Those events looked bad at the time and they still do; history just weighs them against Truman less heavily than his contemporaries did. Why? Well, after we spent much of the 60s trying to catch up to the Russian space program, the idea that Truman could have kept them from getting the bomb started to seem pretty naive. And given what we know now, the option of Truman intervening against Mao’s insurgency looks like the Vietnam War multiplied by twenty.

On the other hand, we now see a lot of Truman’s accomplishments — NATO, the UN, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and so on — as part of his larger strategy of containment. Pursued by nine presidents over four decades, that strategy ultimately brought down the Soviet empire without a nuclear war. So their weight has gone up as much as the weight of Truman’s failures has gone down.

Vilified presidents like Nixon or LBJ can also benefit (to a lesser extent) from re-assessment; there’s a yes-but argument for each of them. Yes, Nixon had Watergate, but he also opened relations with China. Yes, Johnson bungled Vietnam, but he also passed all the major legislation of the Civil Rights movement. History will never forget his Texas drawl telling a joint session of Congress, “We shall overcome.

Now picture future historians re-assessing W. The weights may grow or shrink, but they’re not going to jump from one pan to the other. Nobody’s going to conclude that, in retrospect, Bush handled Hurricane Katrina well, or that he really did capture Bin Laden. Ignoring terrorism until 9/11 and turning a $200-billion surplus into a $1.2 trillion deficit are never going to seem like deft moves. The lies he told to start the Iraq War will not to stand to his credit, no matter what awaits in Baghdad’s unforeseeable future. (An analogy: We’re glad to have our Western states now, but the Mexican War of 1846-48 still looks slimy. In the 1880s, President Grant’s memoirs recalled it as “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”) Torture and illegal wiretaps are always going to stain Bush’s record, just as the Japanese internment stains FDR’s and the Palmer raids stain Wilson’s.

That’s the failure pan. So what NATOs, Marshall Plans, Berlin Airlifts, China breakthroughs, or Voting Rights Acts sit in Bush’s success pan? What accomplishments can future historians re-weigh to shift the balance in his favor?

I don’t see any likely candidates. That’s why I expect Bush to wind up more like Herbert Hoover than Harry Truman. Hoover’s problem isn’t just the Depression, it’s that nobody remembers anything else about him. (Well, he also unleashed the Army on the unemployed veterans who marched on Washington. But that doesn’t help.) So it shall be for George W. Bush. I’m feeling generous here at the end of his term, so maybe historians will conclude that some of his failures weren’t as bad as we think. But not even historians will be able to manufacture successes for him.

Look at his fans’ attempts to manufacture successes now. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes took a stab at it, and to me the result looks even more damning than most left-wing diatribes. Barnes authored one of those fawning Bush biographies just before his popularity collapsed in 2006, and has been one of Fox News’ most reliably pro-Bush voices. In his recent article Bush’s Achievements he constructs this top-ten list, which I have condensed and rephrased a little:

  1. He kept us from doing anything about global warming. And we should be grateful because “the supposed consensus of scientists on global warming has now collapsed.”
  2. “Enhanced interrogation of terrorists”, secret prisons, and “wireless” eavesdropping. Torture of suspects, secret prisons, and illegal spying on Americans without warrants — removing Barnes’ euphemisms — are never going to be points of pride. These are accomplishments because they “saved American lives” — maybe thousands of them, Barnes says. We know this because Bush and Cheney say so. But try to imagine somebody claiming the Japanese internment as one of Roosevelt’s top ten accomplishments, because of all the sabotage the detainees didn’t do. This is going to be a sad chapter in American history no matter how you spin it.
  3. “Rebuilding presidential authority” by doing the stuff mentioned in 2 completely on his own, plus defending Dick Cheney’s right not to tell Congress who he consulted when forming his energy policy. Because the people’s right not to know is the centerpiece of democracy.
  4. “Unswerving support of Israel” — which has worked out so well. The optimism of the late Clinton years is a distant memory now. “Peace is no longer in sight,” Israeli columnist Tom Segev wrote.
  5. No Child Left Behind. “The teachers’ unions, school boards, the education establishment, conservatives adamant about local control of schools–they all loathed the measure and still do.” Conservatives, for some perverse reason, believe that offending people is an achievement in itself. If NCLB accomplished something beyond pissing off anybody who cares about education, Barnes doesn’t say.
  6. Democracy promotion. “Bush declared in his second inaugural address in 2005 that American foreign policy (at least his) would henceforth focus on promoting democracy around the world.” And that’s working out well too. When democracy becomes a euphemism for American invasion, real democracy suffers. As Thomas Carothers wrote in Foreign Affairs: “Some autocratic governments have won substantial public sympathy by arguing that opposition to Western democracy promotion is resistance not to democracy itself, but to American interventionism.”
  7. The Medicare prescription drug benefit. Conservatives “have deep reservations” about it, but “if he hadn’t acted, Democrats would have.” And then we’d have a program designed to benefit patients rather than drug companies.
  8. Appointing John Roberts and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court. This may be part of some future “accomplishment” like repealing Roe v. Wade, but in itself it’s nothing. I can’t remember any justice Truman appointed without looking it up.
  9. Strengthening relations with east Asian democracies without causing a rift with China. I may have to give Barnes this one.
  10. The Surge. Listing this is “a no-brainer” according to Barnes. Hmmm … Here’s the lesson for President Obama: Make a huge mess that achieves nothing at all, clean up part of it at enormous expense, and then list the partial clean-up as one of your great accomplishments. To historians, the Surge is going to be a phase in the Iraq War. If that war — with its ultimate multi-trillion dollar cost and all the other problems it has spawned across the Middle East — isn’t a success, the Surge isn’t a success.

That, according to one of his biggest fans, is what’s sitting in W’s success pan. He hasn’t left historians much to work with. And that’s a roundabout way of saying this: Bush is no Truman.

It’s arguable that Bush leaves office even more unpopular than Truman was. Truman’s approval ratings did dip as low as Bush’s, but he ended his term at 32% compared to Bush’s 22% according to CBS/NYT. Bush’s approval is somewhat higher in a few other polls — Gallup, the true apples-to-apples comparison to Truman’s 32% — has him at 34%. But the average of all polls pegs Bush’s approval at 28% and still headed down. And Bush’s America is more polarized than Truman’s. No president has ever come close to W’s disapproval numbers: He ends his term with 73% disapproving in the CBS/NYT poll.

The other common defense of Bush is: “He kept us safe.” Except for that one time, anyway. Unlike Bush and Cheney, historians are likely to remember that W took office in January of 2001, not on 9/12. And even if we let Bush call a mulligan for 9/11, Fahreed Zakaria puts the claim in perspective:

post-Sept. 11, Bush has kept us safe. Just as Jacques Chirac kept France safe and Gerhard Schroeder kept Germany safe. Tony Blair, alas, failed this test. He did not keep Britain safe despite tough policies, an impressive set of counterterrorism agencies and much hard work. My point is that it may not tell us much that a leader presided over a period with no terrorist attacks.

Jane Hamsher finds this nugget in a recent White House press briefing. A silly reporter notes a RAND study saying that global terrorism is up and asks: “But shouldn’t the anti-terrorism efforts reduce terrorism rather than increase it?” Orcinus chimes in with a litany of all the pre-9/11 warnings Bush ignored.

The Bushies have declared victory in Iraq so many times that I’ve lost count. They’re doing it again now, probably so that they can blame any future calamities on Obama. It’s just a matter of time before we hear: Bush had the war won, but then Obama came in and threw it all away. Sunday, William Kristol announced that “Bush’s most impressive achievement … was winning the war in Iraq.” And Friday Charles Krauthammer wrote: “the war is all but over.” In his farewell address, Bush himself described Afghanistan as “a young democracy fighting terror” and Iraq as “an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.”

It’s Mission Accomplished all over again.

In reality, Afghanistan is a mess. Casualties are increasing. The central government is corrupt and controls only a small region around the capital. The countryside is owned either by local warlords or by a resurgent Taliban. In Iraq casualties are down, but no resolution of the basic conflict is on the horizon. Millions of Iraqis are still refugees, either internally or in Syria or Jordan. We’ve bribed Sunni leaders to stop shooting at us, but they’re still armed (we’re arming them) and still hostile to the central government. The Kurds still want both independence and the Kirkuk oil fields. This is a lull in the fighting — similar to what occasionally breaks out between Israel and the Palestinians — not anything describable as victory or peace.

The Torture Debate Won’t Die

Twice this week, a responsible public figure dropped euphemisms like enhanced interrogation and used the word torture in a simple declarative sentence.

  • In his confirmation hearing, Obama’s attorney general nominee Eric Holder said: “Waterboarding is torture.” (For comparison, the only simple declarative sentence ever attributed to former Bush AG Alberto Gonzales was “I don’t remember.”)
  • Retired judge Susan Crawford, who is the convening authority for the Bush administration’s military commissions, explained to the Washington Post why she dismissed war crimes charges against 9-11 conspirator Mohammed al-Qahtani last May: “We tortured Qahtani.

Crawford is not some crusading leftist. She was the Pentagon’s general counsel under Ronald Reagan and its inspector general when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense. And she’s not just opining or speculating; she had an important decision to make, and she made it based on her official judgment that we tortured somebody. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture,” she said. No euphemisms. No long subordinate clauses full of excuses.

More and more, torture is becoming a fact of public discourse. It’s getting harder and harder to pretend that the point is debatable.

That’s significant because it starts a chain of dominoes falling. Bush officials have tried to pretend that the torture debate is a “policy disagreement”, the kind of thing naturally changes from one administration to the next. You wouldn’t send an official to jail because he preferred to stimulate the economy with tax cuts rather than spending increases, for example, or because she favored highways over mass transit systems. The Bush appointees who deny global warming may be wrong, and some of them may even have been dishonest about it, but they’re not criminals.

Torture, on the other hand, is a crime. And it’s against international law, so our torturers can be prosecuted by other countries if we drop the ball. So it’s not just mistakes-were-made or bad-stuff-happened anymore. Crimes were committed. It’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t dig up old scandals, but it’s much harder to claim that we shouldn’t investigate known crimes. “For the Obama administration,” write Slate’s Dahlia LIthwick and Phillipe Sands, “the door to the do-nothing option is now closed.”

And for once Bush and Cheney (especially Cheney) are making it hard to scapegoat a few bad apples. In a pro-Cheney editorial, the Wall Street Journal notes:

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have made it clear that the good people who carry out these sensitive programs have done so with the go-ahead from the White House.

If the do-nothing option really is closed off now, Obama hasn’t acknowledged it yet. He told George Stephanopoulos:

I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.

which brought this response from Paul Krugman:

I’m sorry, but if we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.

Almost daily, Glenn Greenwald keeps up the pressure on Obama and Holder to uphold the law and prosecute Bush officials who broke it. My favorite of these columns compares the Nuremberg Principles with what Washington insiders are saying now.

the only way to argue that Bush officials shouldn’t be held accountable for the crimes they ordered and authorized is to make clear that one does not actually subscribe to these core principles of Western justice. There’s value in having our political establishment be forced to declare that so openly.
And that’s what’s starting to happen. The euphemisms are melting away, and we’re being confronted with the core issue: Either the president is above the law or he isn’t.

I have to confess, I get a creepy feeling whenever I picture George W. Bush in the witness stand, or in prison. And when I take a step back from that feeling, I realize that’s precisely why we need to investigate, and ultimately to put him on trial: Even I have started to think of the president as being above the law.

End-of-the-Bush-Era Collections

David Letterman’s final “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches” montage. And SlateV collects all the great video Bushisms. “It’ll take time to restore chaos.”

ThinkProgress lists the 43 worst Bush appointees, because he couldn’t possibly have done this much damage by himself.

Keith Olbermann boils eight years down to eight minutes. Video. Transcript.

The Washington Post reposts eight years of Bush-related opinion pieces.

Paul Krugman presents a telling graph of employment during the Bush years.

WaPo looks at OSHA under Bush. The first director started by telling the staff that they were working for America’s employers now, not its workers. Everything after that was predictable.

MSNBC does a statistical comparison between the beginning of the Bush administration and the end. Most telling — consumer confidence. Then: 115.7. Now: 38.0.

The Center for Public Integrity lists “125 systematic failures across the breadth of the federal government.”

The Campaign for America’s Future lists “ten reasons historians will hang” the Bush administration.

Short Notes

Just in time for the new administration, Republican House Whip Eric Cantor has discovered that deficits are bad, and that bipartisanship and government transparency are good. I figure he’s been walking on the road to Damascus or sitting under an apple tree. Or maybe it came to him in the bath, and he ran naked down the corridors of the Capitol shouting, “Eureka!” It had to be something like that.

About 400,000 people were on the Capitol Mall for the beginning of the Inauguration festivities Sunday. It was one of the best days of Joan Walsh’s life, and the Washington Post says that’s just a fraction of the number that will be there by the time Obama is sworn in Tuesday. I like Obama and voted for him, but I hope he understands that the munchkins’ joy had more to do with the Wicked Witch than with Dorothy.

The Economist’s retrospective says: “Mr Bush was the most partisan president in living memory. He was content to be president of half the country—a leader who fused his roles of head of state and leader of his party.”

Conservative blogger John Cole recalls how “thrilled” and “excited” he was eight years ago. “Now, today, I am so disgusted with the Republican party that I don’t think I will be able to vote for a national Republican for twenty years.”

CNN’s Campbell Brown had the best response to Bush’s incredible defense (in his final press conference) of his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. She displayed less outrage than some, but she was very firm: “It is impossible to challenge what so many of us witnessed first hand, what the entire country witnessed through the images on our television screens day and night. New Orleans was a city that for a time was abandoned by the government.”

Now that California has protected its children from same-sex marriage, what about divorce? A satirical video recycles the Prop 8 rhetoric.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • John L  On January 24, 2009 at 9:55 am

    I can’t believe you’ve already forgotten Fred Vinson.


  • By Immune to Evidence | The Weekly Sift on April 29, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    […] On the idea that historians will eventually give President Bush more credit (as they have Truman and to a lesser extent LBJ and Nixon), I stand by what I wrote as Bush was leaving office: […]

  • […] if you won’t repent, so Republicans’ only option is to keep pushing out of mind the mess left behind the last time a president implemented these […]

  • By One Purpose | The Weekly Sift on May 23, 2016 at 10:18 am

    […] more about that in January. But it seemed like a good time to review my end-of-term assessment of George W. Bush in 2009. I’m standing by all of it: In hindsight, I don’t see any reason to look more […]

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