December 3, 2008 – The inevitable campaign to revise the history of the George W. Bush presidency has apparently begun. In an interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson broadcast on Monday, the soon-but-not-soon-enough-to-be ex-president made several eye-roll-inducing statements that feel like the first salvo in a war to completely recast the Bush years.
I’m all for Barack Obama’s mantra of looking forward. I was even fine with his decision to let Joe Lieberman back into the fold. But sometimes it’s okay to look backwards, and we have to make sure our history is accurate so that we decrease the chances of repeating our mistakes. And the eight years of Bush’s presidency were chock full of sins, mortal and otherwise. That’s why I think it’s essential that, as a country, we are vigilant about not letting Bush or his team of enablers prevent us from remembering what actually happened when he was president.
For example, in discussing the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush claimed: “I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.” He makes it sound as if he was a passive receiver of the reports on the subject, and that the existence of WMDs was the real reason he started the war in Iraq. We know now that neither of those claims are true; that the president cherry-picked intelligence information to make his case for war in Iraq, and that the weapons of mass destruction were merely a pretense for that war. As former CIA director George Tenet told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes last April, as early as the day after the 9/11 attacks, the White House had started using the tragedy to justify action in Iraq, with Pentagon advisor Richard Perle telling Tenet, “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility,” even though Tenet knew that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks.
The Iraq war must be remembered as being a result of Bush’s foreign policy objectives, not as an unfortunate byproduct of Bush getting bad intelligence on WMDs.
What really bugged me about the Gibson interview was Bush’s effort to portray himself as a compassionate advocate for the American people. He said at one point: “One of the things about the presidency is you deal with a lot of tragedy — whether it be hurricanes, or tornadoes, or fires or death — and you spend time being the comforter-in-chief.” But it was Bush’s disdain for government and the people it serves, as evidenced by his policy of appointing unqualified political cronies to run agencies like FEMA, that helped intensify the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the biggest natural disaster his administration faced. People died while Bush and his administration did nothing. That should be the take-away point from the Bush administration’s handling of crises, not that he was some kind of “comforter-in-chief.”
Similarly, Bush made wholly ludicrous claims to Gibson about trying to change how partisan Washington was. He said he “knew that the president has the responsibility to try to elevate the tone, and, frankly, it just didn’t work, much as I’d like to have it work.” He would have liked to have it work? This is the president whose Justice Department asked nonpolitical appointees about their political allegiances (and researched their political activities). This is the president who treated the Justice Department like his personal law firm, ensuring that it protected his administration’s officials rather than the rights of the American people. This is the president whose administration outed the identity of an undercover CIA agent as retribution for her husband writing (accurately) that a claim made in Bush’s State of the Union address was false. And this is the president who commuted the sentence of an official in his administration who had been convicted for lying and obstructing justice in the investigation of the identification of the CIA agent.
In short, this was the most political, divisive president in recent history, who took the approach that “working together” meant doing exactly what he wanted. For him to now claim that he wanted to “elevate the tone” of political discourse is absolutely laughable. Bush said, “9/11 unified the country, and that was a moment where Washington decided to work together. I think one of the big disappointments of the presidency has been the fact that the tone in Washington got worse, not better.” But nobody was more responsible for the deterioration in the tone in Washington than the president himself.
I was also struck by Bush’s effort in the Gibson interview to absolve himself of blame for the subprime mortgage crisis and near collapse of the financial system. He said:
“You know, I’m the president during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived … And when people review the history of this administration, people will say that this administration tried hard to get a regulator.”
Look, by no means was Bush the only one responsible for what happened. The Clinton administration also moved to free the financial industry from regulation. But it is certainly false that Bush “tried hard to get a regulator,” with recent reports (like this one from, of all places, Fox News) revealing that the administration ignored warnings about the imminent dangers posed by the rampant practice of extending of unwise mortgages. To me, the big point here is that no president (maybe even no political figure) has stood as more of a towering symbol of the leave-corporations-alone, the-free-market-cures-all approach to governing than Bush. And the recent economic collapse has been a total repudiation of this position. For Bush to portray himself now as someone who sought to limit the abuses on Wall Street is nothing short of absurd.
Bush also made silly statements in the interview on topics like immigration and how he “kept (Americans) safe for eight years” (conveniently forgetting that he was the president during the 9/11 attacks and how his administration ignored warnings that some kind of terrorist action was imminent, including a memo entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” ), but you get the general drift.
We need to push back on efforts like this interview to recast the Bush presidency. It’s important that we remember that Bush is not the “comforter-in-chief,” but the guy who oversaw and/or was directly responsible for illegal wiretapping, the demise of habeas corpus, the adoption of torture, denying and then ignoring global warming, failing to address America’s dependence of foreign oil and failing to develop any kind of energy policy that didn’t involve putting more money into the pockets of oil companies, blocking advances in stem-cell research, eschewing competence in government in favor of ideology and religion, the subprime mortgage scandal, numerous government failures in areas ranging from FEMA to mining to product safety, the politicization of the Justice Department, the shoddy treatment of veterans, deteriorating relationships with the rest of the world, and, most of all, the unnecessary, financially draining, national-reputation-staining, poorly managed war and occupation in Iraq, which will stand as one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in American history and resulted in the loss of thousands of soldiers, the disruptions of the lives of tens of thousands of military personnel and their families, the placement of U.S. military preparedness at a dangerously low level, and the expenditure of approaching a trillion dollars (including the disappearance of billions of dollars for which there is no accounting).
The colossal failures of the Bush administration should be what is remembered about Bush’s eight years in office, not some feeble attempt to show what a principled guy he was.
When asked by Gibson what advice Bush had for Obama, Bush said: “One of my parting words to him will be: ‘If I can help you, let me know.'” For the sake of the country, I hope Obama never calls on Bush to help with anything. After eight years of failure leading to the dire circumstances in which the country finds itself, I’m not sure we can stand any more of Bush’s help.