The United States has done wicked things in the past to other countries but never on such a scale and never in such an existentialist way. It’s as though we are evil. We strike first. We’ll destroy you. This is an eternal war against terrorism. It’s like a war against dandruff…..These are slogans. These are lies. It’s advertising, which is the only art form we ever invented and developed….[O]ur media has collapsed. They’ve questioned no one….One of the reasons (George) Bush and (Dick) Cheney are so daring is that they know there’s nobody to stop them. Nobody is going to write a story that says this is not a war, only Congress can declare war. And you can only have a war with another country. You can’t have a war with bad temper or a war against paranoids. Nothing makes any sense, and the people are getting very confused. The people are not stupid, but they are totally misinformed.
Gore Vidal, Interview with David Barsamian, August, 2006
Brief: For a variety of reasons the elevation of George W Bush to the U.S. presidency in 2001 by any measure constituted something of a radical experiment in executive leadership for America, as much for who the man was as for those whom he appointed to key positions in his folly-filled administration, to say little of what he let them get away with. Whether or not the majority of Americans themselves really understood what they were letting themselves in for is a question that future historians will be asking frequently. With that in mind, we leave them herein some things to contemplate, in the faint hope it might make answering that question a little easier.
— The New American Centurions —
Partly in keeping with a loosely adopted Godardian conceit that every story has a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order, it seems apposite to begin George W (Dubya) Bush’s narrative at the fag-end of his fractious tenure in 2008.
In Baghdad for one last victory lap/encore before riding off into the presidential sunset, the Iraqi saviour was giving a press conference when suddenly a member of the assembled media contingent took off his feet furniture and one after the other and without as much as a ‘by your leave’, hurled both of them at the commander in chief. This scene went on to become possibly one of the most viewed and downloaded—not to mention entertaining—offerings on YouTube, for which we must be forever grateful. [See Below].
Now at the time it’s possible Bush had hoped that this was some arcane Iraqi gesture of appreciation or customary sign of reverence for all of his efforts in liberating the country from the despotic clutches of the former US client/dictator Saddam Hussein and turning Iraq into a Mecca for Made in the US of A Liberty™, Democracy™, Justice™, Freedom™, Peace™, Love™ and Understanding™ in the Greater Middle East.
Or maybe it was the fact that the reporter had simply been trying to get on the presidential radar in the dog-eat-dog media throng, or might have secreted a question or two in the footwear for Dubya’s minders to consider for the purposes of soliciting from the president an exclusive interview.
This was not to be however, as the reporter—an Iraqi national surprisingly as it turned out—was clearly making something of a political or patriotic fashion statement on behalf of the rest of his countrymen for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the all too tragic consequences, and voted with his shoes as it were rather than his feet.
As might be expected, it immediately began raining security men on top of the shoe ‘vendor’, who instantly became a global celebrity and something of a post-modern Arabic folk hero. To be fair, for his part ‘Junior’ demonstrated impressive reflexes by ducking not so much the slings and arrows as the footwear of outrageous (mis)fortune, some might argue a recurring and versatile metaphor for his tenure, legacy and record as the Leader of the Free World.
Nonetheless, despite W’s admittedly admirable efforts especially given his popularity ratings by that time to maintain an air of presidential gravitas, personal dignity, wise-guy machismo, self-deprecating humour and grace under fire in equal measure, it seemed a fitting ‘pantomimic’ coda to the Bush reign, a comically sad and—in the old school sense of the word—pathetic underscoring of both the man and his legacy. Whatever might have been left of his ‘mojo’ and ‘moxie’, the look on his face said it all. Again, ‘YouTube’ it and you’ll get my point. That it had all come to this!? The Texas swagger had turned to a lame limp.
The contrast then from the earlier public iterations of the Bush persona and demeanour could not have been starker. The Dixie Chicks musta been high fiving each other’s ass at the sight, and could have been forgiven for calling their next CD Vindication, or even better still, We Told You So.
Shit, they should have even been given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, although one suspects that Bush himself would have been the POTUS least likely to bestow such an honour on the gals, who were amongst that rare, courageous breed of high profile personalities who dared criticise from the off the Bush administration’s Iraq War agenda, and do so at considerable expense to their careers.
Which is to say this was a far cry from the guy who stood in the rubble of the Twin Towers with his hand on the presidential bullhorn (as it were), his arm around a veteran New York firemen and who surely knew from that moment on—even with his limited knowledge of the reality of history much less the nuance—his bid for a second term was already in the bag three years before the next election, an almost unprecedented situation for any president this side of FDR after Pearl Harbor.
Of course the Pearl Harbor reference here is not made loosely. The neo cons of the New American Century and their ilk had already alluded to a “new Pearl Harbor” as the necessary catalyst for the realisation of their grand ambitions in pursuit of global economic and military hegemony.
With this in mind then it was hard to escape the impression that Bush himself saw the September 11 attacks as a godsend (or if one prefers, an allahsend); he knew from then on he was not going to go down in a screaming heap like his old man did at the end of his first term. For obvious reasons few one-term presidents end up on the presidential Top Ten. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
For those folk who doubt the above observation, again ‘Youtube’ said ‘moment’ and see for yourself. The presidential body language and facial expressions on that fateful day in The Big Apple say it all.
And as we all know, Bush declared in that indelible moment with unambiguous chutzpah and characteristic Texas swagger, [that] those responsible for the attacks would be hearing from him soon. Bush was going to round up the posse, which unbeknownst to most folks was already waiting in the wings with the saddlebags and bedrolls packed and raring to go.
Indeed this had been the state of play for some time. And the posse included people like the vice-president Dick Cheney (a former White House Chief-of-Staff under Gerald Ford), the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (a former White House Chief-of-Staff and later Secretary of Defence under Ford), and Rumsfeld’s Deputy SoD Paul Wolfowitz. These were the New American Centurions! When those planes slammed into the WTC and the Pentagon, these guys would make sure the world was never the same again. And it ain’t.
Their moment in the sun had arrived.
— The Shock(ing) and Awe(some Bush) Doctrine —
The election of George W Bush in 2000 was by any measure a watershed moment in the Grand American Narrative. Like Reagan before him—who was arguably more his political hero and role model than even his old man George H W Bush, Reagan’s vice president and presidential one-termer—Dubya’s impact was to prove profound in ways even he doubtless never dreamt of, and almost certainly did not anticipate.
That the majority of Americans themselves—to say nothing of the rest of the world—got more than they bargained for also is probably a given. Also like Reagan, Bush evoked the mythology of the Old West, and co-opted these myths into his political persona, although Reagan’s efforts at doing so rang with more authenticity.
Either way, there appears to be little doubt that others—whether American allies or not—were that prepared for the Bush Jr ‘experiment’ (although again it’s probably fair to say the same about the Gipper). Like with many of the more enthralling tales of the various personalities in the American narrative, it’s hard to know where to begin with ‘Junior’, as his old man apparently dubbed him.
Frequently described as a drunken, whoring, wise-guy frat-boy with no particular ambition other than to live off his old man’s name, contacts, influence and money, Dubya was the quintessential idle rich and vacant ne’er do well. He was like in some respects the political equivalent of Paris Hilton, the only difference being that insofar as we know, the Hilton Hotel chain never considered appointing Paris—bless her skanky cotton socks—to the position of CEO.
There’s a priceless scene in Oliver Stone’s biopic W with the film’s eponymous character’s father admonishing him for his debauched, bacchanalian, skirt-chasing ways and for H Dubya having to use his money and influence to get him out a jam with a young barmaid who carelessly and inconveniently became impregnated with the Bush seed, an exasperated H Dubya prods Junior: ‘Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?’
As in many others from the film, the look on Dubya’s dial in this scene in response to his old man bitch-slapping him for his wayward ways gave absolutely no hint at all that this was a guy who would grow up (sort of) to become president of the goddamned United States of America fer Chissakes. Or that he would even entertain the prospect he might be half-way qualified or could ever be in with half a chance. Which for my part I took to be one of Ollie’s main points (punchlines?) in his gleefully sly, underrated, ‘guilty pleasure’ of a biopic.
It was not to be the first time the old man had to send in the cavalry to rescue the hapless Junior, whose transmogrification from being his own worst enemy to almost everyone else’s ‘worst enemy’ is nothing short of inspirational, and possibly unique in the annals of the Great American Narrative.
Yet, although not unique in the annals of presidential popularity, Dubya did indeed occupy a ‘special’ place in the hearts and minds of people from go to woe, both inside America and outside. And although Bush occasionally evoked the myth of the Old West with varying degrees of authenticity (remember his “Wanted: Dead or Alive” anyone?), it should have been the lead in his saddlebags that might have given us the strongest indication.
Few presidents have achieved such high levels of popularity for not doing much at all to deserve such adulation followed by such poor ratings. To begin with W was elected by a wafer thin margin—so thin in fact that it almost made JFK’s scrape-in win in 1960 against Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon look like a landslide, with the US Supreme Court having to actually make a call on who won—and a result that doubtless prompted Bush’s luckless opponent Al Gore to remark dryly years later that he ‘used to be the next president of the United States’.
In fact to say Junior was “elected” is misleading. Gore actually won the popular vote by about half a million, but narrowly lost the Electoral College vote. This under the Constitution was not enough to swing it either way, so it still took over a month and two recounts, whilst a third was interrupted by the Supreme Court who had decided to give the keys of the White House to W, his kinfolk, and his posse.
In American presidential electoral history, nothing like it had happened before.
George W Bush was in the minds of many the man who most struggled even at the best of times to both look and sound like a US president. This was particularly evident in the early months in 2001 after his inauguration up until September 11.
Even there the apparent (and necessary) presidential gravitas he was attempting to muster seemed to defy the forces of gravity itself, and it appeared sometimes Junior was himself waiting for the real Oval One to make an appearance so he could just get out of the way and ler him get on with it. To paraphrase one of his equally less illustrious predecessors, the luckless and hapless president Warren Harding, Bush did not ‘seem to grasp’ that he was in fact president. Unlike Number 29, with Bush there would be no admitting it of course. On September 11, Bush’s embracing of the moment for what it represented seemed a bit forced, a tad faux, like he’d been coached by image consultants and spin doctors on how to milk it for what it was worth.
As we have already noted, this may or may not be related to the fact that at several key points throughout his life (with W one hesitates to say ‘career’) very few people expected he would ever amount to anything much less become the goddamned president of the United States of America, which certainly included as noted his formidably powerful and influential old man George H W Bush, and possibly even Junior himself at least at some point.
Indeed it was arguably his little bro’ Jeb Bush who was the apple of the old man’s eye, something that George the First himself would usually chop Dubya up with after he had pulled him out of some self-inflicted, foul-smelling predicament.
If what they say is true that America is the land of opportunity then we have to concede W as a choice exemplar. I mean here is a country where a mediocre individual with a limited intellect, a vicariously derived, half-baked, shop-soiled, hand-me-down ideology and apparently vague and uncertain ambition who happens to be the son of a very rich and powerful former president with rich and powerful friends can overcome all of these obstacles and against all odds seize said ‘opportunity’ and become the goddamned President of said ‘land’.
A more likely candidate for the White House to be sure was Jeb Bush then—the man currently testing the presidential campaign waters but not making much traction against The Donald—but it seems deep down W wasn’t having a bar of it.
Yet if the boy least likely was to become the boy most likely, he was going to need a lot of help with the makeover just to get him to that point. That he actually made it to the Oval Office eventually some might say is a testament to his dogged determination if nothing else, but on the other hand it might also underscore how much work, money, effort, finessing and influence it took to get him there. Not to mention the legal finagling in the Florida recount.
Few election outcomes though in the past have attracted as much controversy as this one did, and for legitimate reasons it would appear. And few SCOTUS decisions would have the repercussions this one did.
— Grinding the Axes of Evil —
His ascension to the highest office in the land then was no mean feat and is remarkable for any number of reasons, and it probably says as much about America as it does about the Bush campaign. To be sure, after the ‘despised’ Clintons rode off into the political sunset (or so we thought or even hoped), the Grand Old Party (GOP) faithful were determined their divine right to rule would be recognized once again by the American voter. The Republicans were raring to go by the time the 2000 election primaries came round.
Indeed, what surely motivated the GOP of course was the mortifying prospect of another Democratic administration after Slick Willy and Chilly Hillary’s Grand Old Soap-Opry (aka the Clinton Years), which looked highly probable given that their opponent almost certainly would be the Clinton’s vice president Al Gore. Moreover they needed a saviour to usher in the New American Century. They found one in the unlikely personage of W. Hey, he may not have been The Gipper, but he would do until the next one got here.
The neo-conservatives, hard-core hawks and economic (ir)rationalists who had been lying low since Reagan’s day for the most part, were keeping their powder dry. These included people like Cheney, Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Condoleeza Rice, Richard Perle, Dov Zakheim and last but not least, Rumsfeld. The powers behind the throne. Most of these people had a hand in W’s rise to power, and all of them would wield enormous influence after he’d shoe-horned himself into the White House.
This would be especially so after 9/11 (which overnight became America’s most valuable brand entity, recognized logo and most unambiguous geopolitical positioning statement), when these guys would all but hijack the US foreign, defense, intelligence, economic, and national security policy agenda, and proceed to rethink, reinvent, redesign, rebuild and especially privatize the whole of government infrastructure and the apparatus that sustains it all. These guys didn’t just take advantage of an opportunity presented by the attacks then; they’d been lurking behind the curtains for something like 9/11 to happen, something that they—short of organising the attacks themselves—could not possibly have conceived of in their wildest dreams.
Or so we thought. Or were led to believe.
In short, they would change the world and not ask anyone permission to do so. They would outsource the whole goddamned government (including, indeed especially, the military, intelligence and security services if possible) to the private sector! And they would become richer than Croesus for their self-sacrificing public service. And they would use whatever possible means illegal and covert to do so, and stay that way. And they would truck with no criticism. You are either with us or against us! And Bush would be their Judas-goat! And many lambs would be led to the slaughter for the cause. The collateral damage was just that, i.e. ‘collateral’!
With this in mind then, a president’s performance can be judged by any number of measures. Such was the controversial nature of his policies, the consequences of their implementation, along with the conduct of his administration, Bush delivers us more than the usual, although in Junior’s case it may have been more of a case where he under-promised and over-delivered, not so much the other way round, a rare ‘achievement’ for any politician.
With the fag end of his tenure looming though, on the face of it there were fewer and fewer things for the man to crow about. And by the time he walked across the White House lawn for the last time, his face said it all, and he knew it too. No president in recent living memory had left office more on the nose and out of favour with the long-suffering American public and the international community, his New American Century well and truly past its use by date already. Bush was so one/two terms ago as it were! His conspicuous absence from the 2012 election campaign was evidence of this.
As the introduction indicates, at the end of his tenure, Junior ended up looking like a bizarro Lone Deranger as he slowly schlepped his sorry ass outta Washingtown (sic), providing every and all opportunity for the townsfolk to thank him for all his efforts in protecting them from the bad guys, villains and evildoers before he rides off into the sunset, but the villagers demonstrated their ingratitude by ignoring and scorning the former Knight in Shining Armour, who on his departure looked like a defeated favourite on Kentucky Derby Day.
In terms of targeting Junior’s faults, failings and shortcomings then, it is hard to know where to start. Such dilemmas however did not dim the enthusiasm of all those queuing up to point them out to him and the rest of the world, which is to say they have been well documented. This might have as much to do with the fact that there were so many aforementioned shortcomings etc. the choice of what to focus on becomes problematic by dint of quantity and variety. But it is the consequences of these faults that we should be concerned with, and it is this that possibly should determine any order of priority in discussion of the Bush Presidential ‘Brownie Point’ Average now and into the future.
But first it may be useful to revisit some of the considerations of what it takes to make the Presidential Top Ten. This is particularly so given that W is already being touted as one of the worst choices Americans ever made in their selection of White House occupant.
Are for instance the fortunes, reputations of leaders (and their legacy) shaped by the forces of history, or do they shape history by the force of their policies? Bush certainly qualifies as one whose destiny was shaped by the forces of history as much as by bloodline, money, and political connections etc. Yet it was his policies and his identification with the neo-conservative ideology leftover—albeit much enhanced—from the Reagan Revolution that shaped the world.
And he made no bones about this by first employing several unreconstructed Reaganite ‘revolutionaries’, many of whom felt thwarted either by Reagan’s perceived each-way bet pragmatism (his national security and ideological bark was in many respects worse than his bite), along with the fact that he had expended most of his political capital on the Iran-Contra Affair and cosied up a tad too close to the Soviets at the fag end of his tenure.
Some additional background here might be in order.
— A State of Emergency in a State of Chaos —
The Bush family goes back aways, and like the Kennedys were political blue-bloods from Massachusetts, later transplanted to Texas by George HW. Although many of his critics did not see him as the sharpest tool in the garden shed, Junior himself ended up with a major in history, and later attended Yale where he received his MBA. In the end it didn’t matter that Bush had a degree in history, anymore than it mattered that Ronald Reagan had a double degree in sociology and economics.
Now neither of these academic qualifications seemed in any substantive way to support or aid Bush in the successful or effective conduct of his foreign, energy, environment, economic, security, education, labor and/or defense policies or the overall management of the administration, just to name a few key areas where such knowledge, training, insight and expertise might have been useful tools for the executive decision making process.
In any event as one commentator was known to wryly observe, W was not someone from whom you could expect any ‘heavy lifting’, but then again he wasn’t really required to do any. That was the job of Cheney, Rumsfeld et. al. Bush had chaps for that! For W, it was almost always about who you knew rather than what you knew.
Like Reagan before him Bush Junior was also a state governor (in Texas). Like Reagan, his gubernatorial tenure provided strong hints as to what was to follow, and also provided the platform and public profile from which he launched his ambitious bid for the top gig.
His record as governor was a pointer to not only how he would campaign for the presidency, but also how he would govern. As governor he was an avid fan of capital punishment, a protector of big business, and an environmental regulation – indeed, any regulation – detractor.
One of Bush’s campaign gurus was a dude called Karl Rove—later dubbed Bush’s Brain—whose complete mastery of the necessary number crunching, arm-twisting, contrivance, favour calling, conniving, chicanery, double standards, manipulation and dark political arts that’s part and parcel of a normal, fair, free, open, transparent and democratic presidential campaign, was responsible for both wins by W.
Indeed all of Bush’s campaigns were characterized by the ‘politics of smear’ to sway voters, including even his first gubernatorial campaign in 1994, which was marked by a rumour that his opponent, incumbent Democrat governor Ann Richards, was a lesbian. Although Rove would later deny he was the instigator of the leaked and salacious gossip, many saw his fingerprints all over the ‘play’, with some even going so far as to identify such tactics as Rove’s regular MO.
There is no small amount of irony—indeed hypocrisy—here in that Rove himself has long been closely associated with the Gay Republican Power elite. Then again, one’s sexual preferences can never be a reliable determinant of one’s ethics or scruples, and in Rove’s case this is especially so, a man who has rarely been inhibited by such conscientious proprieties. In any event, Rove’s boss won the election. The die was cast as it were. It would not be the first of the Rove triumphs by playing the political equivalent of the shell-game to the voting masses on W’s behalf. He was just warming up.
In respect of defining Bush’s faults, failing and shortcomings as commander-in-chief, it is a bit like shootin’ fish in a barrel. His seemingly utter contempt for environmental issues and rejection of climate change regulation, and his refusal to provide funding for research into alternative energy sources were two aspects of his presidency that are hard to justify and easy to criticise.
Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol of 1998—which sought to impose obligatory carbon-reduction targets on all nations in order to combat global warming—was symbolic of this stance. And if the symbolism wasn’t enough, many administration power-players did everything in their power to downplay and even deny the increasingly convincing evidence of climate change as the defining political, economic and geo-strategic issue of its time. So here it would appear we have sins of both omission and commission, themselves the two key determinants of achievement or otherwise in any presidential beauty contest.
The fact that there are still naysayers in the climate change debate has a lot to do with Bush’s club-footing on the issue, as he more than any other world leader was in a position to define the debate both internationally and domestically, and set the agenda for many years to come. The Bush administration instead effectively set back the agenda by 10-15 years, when the real and actual, short- and long-term, economic, social, personal, environmental and political costs of dealing with the issue will become exponentially more costly for the Americans and everyone else.
That is if it is not already too late.
In 2008, Bush—by now a lame duck, on-the-nose president—began to make some belated noises about addressing climate change, but for most of us it was too little, too late. The GFC put paid to that. In any event, it was hard to escape the conclusion that W latched onto the opposite end of the climate debate with which he’d hitherto been at odds, and did so at the fag-end of his tenure in a seemingly desperate, last-ditch attempt to add something positive to his legacy, that even by this time was looking decidedly short on successes and triumphs.
As for successful, popular, effective, fuhgeddaboudit? W didn’t cut the mustard. Most would say that the ‘missions’ were dubious enough to begin with is a less than satisfactory legacy, but that they were decidedly ‘unaccomplished’ in their motivation, execution, management, conduct and moral and legal justification is another heavy cross to bear.
Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina—widely considered to be utterly ineffectual and inadequate—was another blot on the presidential report card. It was not to be sure a good recommendation for his Ivy League MBA, a qualification that on face value most would expect might have served him well in managing such a crisis. This he’ll find difficult to live down, and arguably where he stands most naked, certainly on any domestic political issue. One of the country’s greatest natural disasters—and one that might have even been avoided, or whose impact could have been mitigated—the destructive forces of the Hurricane were compounded by inaction, arrogance, confusion, lack of communication, logistical failures, hubris, corruption, and utter incompetence.
In short, good old American can-do know-how! Or not as they say.
Although Bush called a State of Emergency, there was little that was ‘urgent’ in anything they did after this declaration. His mind was clearly on other things: In any event, ‘we have chaps for that, don’t we?’ The city of New Orleans never fully recovered from the disaster, and is unlikely to.
The rest is history—sort of.
The tragedy is even moreso given the Big Easy’s place in the historical, cultural, economic, social—and all important mythical—firmament of the American narrative. And it’s almost impossible to escape the fact the White House was obviously too preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on the Rest of the World that Doesn’t Agree with Us.
Bush seems then to be as much a president who has been shaped by history (the official and unofficial one), but few would argue his policies (or more accurately, those of his hand-picked inner circle) were instrumental in creating many of the circumstances that shaped and moulded future foreign and domestic policy responses or adjustments. A classic example here is the aforementioned GFC (the Global Financial Crisis, aka the Great F**king Con).
Many attribute this epochal event to a lack of financial, corporate and institutional regulation, something that was anathema to Bush and his cronies. It has been since the days of Reagan and his economically ideological soul mate Milton Friedman. (See earlier posts, here, here, and here.) In their view regulation is bad economic and political policy, and if one likes, not good for business, “business” in this case being defined by the means and opportunity to pillage, plunder and predate the peons with impunity. It should be emphasised that it was precisely this mindset that not only brought the Great Crash of 1929 on in the first instance, but also precipitated and prolonged the Great Depression that followed.
But Bush’s own response to the GFC in the twilight months of his tenure broke every rule in the Friedman economic text-book. Government wasn’t just getting back into the private sector, they were taking it over, and it was a Republican administration that was left with no choice but to do what it did, which was something that for generations was completely at odds with its whole economic philosophy as a political party. So much for the Cheney, Rumsfeld et. al.’s plot to privatize the Federal government! So much for the New American Century then. This was not in the brochure!
Until the GFC, even up until about a month before it hit, it would have been unthinkable for anyone in the administration and the party as a whole (or Congress for that matter) to even imagine such an economic and financial collapse, much less consider policy responses and implement them in time to do deal with the crisis.
Or at least that’s what we were led to believe……
And lest people forget, the present quagmire in the Greater Middle East is very much a product of the Bush/Cheney era, an observation we can still safely make without absolving the incumbent from his share of the responsibility for said “quagmire” in its ongoing form and seemingly endless trajectory.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, admittedly something the Grand American Narrative provides endless temptations for those of us seeking to make some sense of it all. Ultimately though, making sense of the Bush era in particular may prove to be one of modern history’s most compelling, yet nonetheless, most Sisyphean of challenges.
© GJ Maybury 2009-2015