Monday, January 19, 2009

Thank you, George W. Bush

On Feb. 7 I'm going with a friend to see Will Ferrell's one man Broadway show, You're Welcome America, where he plays our 43rd president.

George W. Bush was inaugurated on January 20, 2001. I was 18 years old, and politically aware and interested but not ideologically developed. The vote I cast for Al Gore remains my proudest. Before Bush took the oath of office, I had a conversation with my high school girlfriend's father. He'd voted for Bush, and I told him that after Bush was through the country would be worse off economically and socially. He disagreed.

On this, the last night of the Bush presidency, I want to take a look back at his time in office.


Just in case the above anecdote makes me seem like a know it all, indulge me one more. After 9/11, my friend and I were sitting in his dorm room watching ex- presidents and dignitaries file into the National Cathedral for a mass marking the tragic event. Gore was on screen and I remarked, "Man, I voted for him, but I'm really glad that he's not president right now. We need Bush in there." He agreed.

Bush's bravado and cowboy style comforted a nation that had its sense of invincibility rocked. He was a man who would punish those responsible and restore order to our world. Check out this SNL clip, where Ferrell plays the president just after 9/11. The cheers and hoots are remarkable and almost startling.

We craved this kind of call- out, we wanted revenge. Seven years later, this clip is more sad than funny. If you'd told the members of SNL's studio audience that night that bin Laden would be on the run and releasing tapes in 2009 I don't think they'd have believed you. I certainly wouldn't have.

But Bush was his best in those early days, even if he didn't actually accomplish anything. I'd argue the two best moments of his presidency came in late 2001:

Here, Bush is confident and well spoken, even eloquent. He's not giving prepared remarks, but reacting to the emotion of the moment and words of workers at Ground Zero.

I don't like George W. Bush, and I hate the New York Yankees. But this was pretty cool--

The Aftermath

Bush executed the War on Terror in a reckless way that was often politically motivated. The Senate's vote for use of force against Iraq was held right before the '02 midterms, which turned it into a political issue.

Dick Cheney executed his "unitary executive" theory, which gave the president new power at the expense of civil liberties and international law. Neo- Cons executed their Iraq- as- Petri dish experiment for American hegemony in the 21st century unfettered, at the expense of American servicemen and women, uncounted civilians and America's alliances.

And the president wasn't curious enough or interested enough or competent enough to stop them.


The Iraq War was, as John Kerry famously put it, the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. But with improved security in the country it has become Bush's best chance at lasting achievement, and the only thing that could rescue his name from historians' bottom tier of presidents, where he now seems destined to be remembered. A stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and the dismantling of an abhorrent dictator is a potential game changer for our world.

But it was sold under false pretenses and done on the cheap. And when it wasn't working, Bush didn't react. The failures in Iraq can fill books. And so it can never be a source of pride for Bush. But it does have potential.

The Economy

For much of Bush's eight years in office, before the economy collapsed in on itself, the country seemed to be doing quite well economically. Unemployment was stable near historic lows, the stock market routinely broke records, and home ownership was at its highest level ever. However, polls routinely showed that Americans didn't feel good about the economy. People didn't feel good about it because it wasn't working for them. Inequality skyrocketed during the Bush years, to levels that surpassed even the "Roarin' 20s."

Through tax cuts and loop holes corporate earnings and income for the wealthiest individuals were unprecedented. Yet the benefits failed to trickle down to the rest of us. And when inflated housing numbers popped they brought the DOW down too, and Bush's signature economic accomplishments were undone while he still lived in the White House.

The Administration

In Paul Krugman's 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal the economist distinguishes the Republican party of Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush 41 from that of George W. Bush. Bush 43 emanated from what Krugman calls"movement conservatism," and one of its main tenets is patronage based on loyalty rather than expertise.

That became evident as figures drifted from the administration to companies they were supposed to be regulating and back. It was clear after the utter incompetence of horse breeder turned FEMA director, Michael Brown who still enjoyed George Bush's loyalty even as people suffered through the federal government's incompetence.


Bush's presidency might be best understood through the lens of what's known as the Peter Principle. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain.

George Bush rose to a level for which he was simply incompetent.

However, his presidency is not so much a personal failure, I think, as it is a failure of ideology and a corrupt politics. George Bush's disposition and personal character and story made him somewhat of a blank canvas on which movement conservatives could project their vision of government. For eight years we endured that vision.

Now, thanks to that experience, eroding racism and a shift in demographics movement conservatives have turned the Republican party into a mostly regional force. When the party returns to national prominence, we can expect it to look very different.

So perhaps Bush's legacy is that he made today possible. He helped elect the most progressive government since the 1930s. And I firmly believe our country will be better off for it. What's more, he put the country in a place where it was finally ready move past, not so much its racial divisions, but the cultural roils that defined the baby boom generation. Now that our first post- Boomer is in the White House we can close the book on George W. Bush's presidency and that tumultuous age.

So, thank you, George W. Bush.

1 comment:

AshD said...

Here Here! And still, we will never know all changes from this progressive government because by the time they take place, we will all be dead! Even more insight by out beloved 43rd president.