FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
The Best and Worst of George W. Bush
UPDATE: My good friend and colleague Pejman Yousefzadeh’s response, straightforward and thoughtful as always, can be seen here.
If you want to see Bush Derangement Syndrome on full display, toss a room full of lefty “strategists,” academics, and party apparatchiks a question like “What’s the best, and the worst, that can be said about the presidency of George W. Bush?” All you have to do after that is step back and watch the show — and, in the case of Arena moderator and Politico senior editor Fred Barbash, let the article write itself.
Conservatives and liberals alike certainly gave Barbash plenty to work with in their responses today; as he wrote this afternoon:
The presidency of George W. Bush is receiving bleak assessments across the political spectrum in its closing weeks, with praise from many Republican commentators tempered by their own deep disappointment.
On the positive side, Republicans and some Democrats, in comments posted in Politico’s Arena forum,
primarily cite Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the absence of additional attacks on U.S. soil, Bush’s appointments to the Supreme Court and Federal assistance to combat the scourge of HIV-AIDS.
But the overall analyses of contributors to Arena described an administration undermined by systemic weaknesses—of communication, fiscal management, and general competence—that ultimately produced repeated failures, compounded by an inability to change in the face of them.
For my part, I tried to be both fair and honest in my response. You can see (and evaluate) it yourself below the fold.
While there is a great deal about the Bush presidency that is disappointing to conservatives (whose displeasure with the outgoing commander in chief is generally rooted in policy reality, rather than fantastical projections of megalomania onto a man who rarely deserved the treatment and comparisons he has received at the hands of a Leftist minority for the last eight years), the legacy of George W. Bush has several highlights that we ignore at our own risk.
President Bush has worked tirelessly to expand free trade in the Americas and around the globe, a disappointingly controversial undertaking which has increased opportunity, productivity, and wealth for millions in the U.S. and around the world. He has done more for the African continent than any president in U.S. history, investing in the nations there and providing an incredible amount of financial assistance for AIDS research and prevention.
He has governed as a true moderate — too liberally for the right and too conservatively for the left — and has as stellar an environmental record as any president in recent history (though to say either of these truths violates the false reality constructed around him by his supposedly “Reality-Based” detractors).
Further, Bush has been a champion of democracy in parts of the world that are only now putting pasts sharply colored by tyranny behind them, working hand in hand with the leaders and the people of nations like the Ukraine, which is not only popularly represented as a result of the Bush-supported Orange Revolution, but which is rapidly becoming one of the best nations for business in the entire world (as opposed to Old Europe, for example, which has systematically pushed free enterprise to the margins in favor of nationalization, massive government subsidies, and unrealistic “benefits” for workers who don’t wish to put in the same amount of time and effort on the job as those in newly prosperous parts of the world).
Perhaps the most important positive aspect of the Bush legacy is one which nobody could have predicted would be true seven years and four months ago: that the United States has not been struck by terrorists since 9/11/01. Though some who are determined to deny Bush this feather in his cap claim that the lack of a terror attack in the American homeland since that infamous morning over seven years ago is proof that the terrorist threat to the U.S. was never as great as claimed by the administration, the fact is to a large degree the Bush national security policies, combined with his approach of taking the fight to terrorists overseas rather than at home, bear the greatest responsibility for keeping the nation safe at a time when the real threat level, and the public’s awareness of that threat, was higher than it has been in recent memory.
There is a great deal negative about the outgoing president’s eight years in office, from his stubborn insistence on following past presidents’ failed strategies vis-a-vis North Korea and, at least in 2007, Israel/Palestine. After a high point of unseating one of the most barbaric tyrants on the face of the earth at the time, three years of floundering in Iraq (2004-6) while leadfootedly maintaining an unsuccessful strategy made up one of the low points of Bush’s highest-profile international undertaking, but, like the successful security policies which has effectively taken terrorism off the table as an issue and put it out of the minds of most Americans, Bush made a dramatic turnaround in Iraq with the appointment of General David Petraeus and the radical shift in strategy that culminated in such a successful result that Iraq became a nonissue in the 2008 general election (an ironic fact, considering both parties’ presidential nominees earned that status in large part because of their contrasting positions on Iraq).
The skyrocketing federal budget, successive bailouts of failing (and failed) institutions and industries, and the claim that he was “abandoning the free market system in order to save it” mark some of the lowest points of Bush’s eight-year run as head of the U.S. government, though perhaps the most ignominious mark of the two-term administration has been its absolute inability to conduct even the simplest of public relations campaigns (remember, for example, the official apology for the infamous “sixteen words” in the 2002 State of the Union address, despite the fact those specific words were true then and remain true today?) — something that contributed to his overall lack of effectiveness as a leader. His personnel decisions were often hit-or-miss, as well, with folks like John Roberts (hit), Harriet Miers (miss), John Bolton (hit) and Alberto Gonzales (miss) making up a checkerboard of solid and questionable court nominees and administration appointees.
In the end, though he was a mediocre president (nowhere near the best, but far from the worst, despite the shrill cries of BDS sufferers around the nation), President Bush takes with him from the White House one overarching quality that he entered it with and managed to safeguard during the entirety of his terms: that of a good man. Though his actions were not always publicized — an idea as foreign to his predecessor and successor as the idea of American exceptionalism — he lived a standard of human decency which it will be difficult for the next president to even begin to live up to.