In honor of the recent opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, Keith Hennessey tells us something about Former US President George W. Bush I never would have read in The New York Times.* He teaches an MBA class at Stanford U and one of the aspiring, bright leading-lights in America’s next colossal mortgage meltdown asked him if George W. Bush was smart. Dumb question. Particularly if the student was a snide liberal hoping Mr. Hennessey would him, haw and duck. Hennessey, to his credit, answered below.
President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He’s highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer. It was occasionally a little embarrassing when he would jump ahead of one of his Cabinet secretaries in a policy discussion and the advisor would struggle to catch up. He would sometimes force us to accelerate through policy presentations because he so quickly grasped what we were presenting. I use words like briefing and presentation to describe our policy meetings with him, but those are inaccurate. Every meeting was a dialogue, and you had to be ready at all times to be grilled by him and to defend both your analysis and your recommendation. That was scary.
So George W. Bush, like most sentient, literate human beings, is smarter than the “smart-set” that ridiculed him in the blogs and the newspapers. Does that mean he was good? Does that mean I miss him yet? I’d say he got a bum rap. Like any intelligent person called stupid by Maureen Dowd or Joe Biden, he was pilloried unfairly unless you believe the old saw that it takes one to know one. But no, I can’t say I quite miss George W. Bush. I explain below.
To properly and justly evaluate President Bush, you have to get past what was said about him in the heated political rhetoric of 2006 and 2008. It’s more complex than that. It’s far more complex than Conservative vs. Liberal. At the time, Conservatives felt like they had to defend him or else they’d get Speaker Pelosi and President Clinton.** At the time, Liberals believed that making every problem occurring in the world !ALL BUSH’S FAULT! Was a ticket to electoral nirvana. When even Jim Webb can win a senate seat using this strategy, it’s hard to argue with the Liberals. Bush-bashing served a purpose as it obscured the truth.
However, just because President Bush was unfairly maligned for disingenuous and political ends, this doesn’t make the man Pericles. Mao Zedong was a fairly intelligent guy who liked to sexually molest underage girls and kill people. Intelligent does not equal moral. Jimmy Carter was both intelligent and detail-oriented. It helped him memorize the tract of his own colon as he walked through life’s rich pageant with his head ensconced in his butt. Intelligent does not imply effective.
George W. Bush was neither as iniquitous as Mao, nor in any way qualified to play World of Dorkcraft as well as James Earl Carter. Still, his performance in office simply didn’t live up to the potential of his underrated intelligence. George W. Bush failed in three main areas. He failed in foreign policy, he failed in economics and he failed in politics. The result of these failures left both America and the Republican Party weaker than he found it upon assuming the Presidency. Therefore, I can respect the man for his efforts without missing him as a president.
George W. Bush succeeded in foreign policy to the extent that a lot of evil people, who threatened the safety of the US are no longer in charge of anything important. They are also no longer a threat to American’s or to any of our allies. He failed in foreign policy because he allowed the 9-11 Terror Attacks strengthen the power of the Federal Government to take away individual liberties. Reason Magazine chronicles how individual rights have been taken away during the period since 9-11.
…, the Bush-inspired Patriot Act permits federal agents to write their own search warrants, and the Bush-inspired new FISA statutes permit search warrants of some Americans' phone calls without a showing of probable cause as the Constitution requires, and the Bush-era intimidation of telephone service providers permitted our overseas spies to snoop on our domestic phone calls. None of this has enhanced safety, and all of it has diminished liberty.
The final sentence can be fairly debated among commentators of rational mind. The anecdotal evidence suggests that none of these things worked in Boston, because the Federal Government didn’t bother using these powers in a coordinated, intelligent fashion. More troubling still has been the expansion of these policies by Barack H. Obama.
…we have an attorney general who has told federal agents that the extremely limited public safety exception to the Miranda rule can exist for up to 48 hours…The public safety exception to Miranda goes to the safety of the officers and others present at the moment of arrest. It permits the police to express an excited utterance ("Where's the gun?") in an effort to protect themselves before securing the defendant and before advising him of his rights.
On economics, George W. Bush was smart enough to understand that crony-capitalism was a problem. His signing of The Sarbanes-Oxley Act showed that he didn’t grasp the true source or extent to which the integrity of America’s marketplaces had been co-opted by cynical alliances between political cronies and large corporations. He knew that housing was potentially a problem.
And yet, to the detriment of George W. Bush’s legacy and to the economy of the United States, there was a lag between comprehension and decisive action. This, of course, would not have been politically easy. Dr. Paul Krugman, of the New York Times, wrote a column entitled “Dubya’s Double-Dip” that called for a less regulated and more stimulated housing market. He opined the following:
The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn't a typical postwar slump, brought on when an inflation-fighting Fed raises interest rates and easily ended by a snapback in housing and consumer spending when the Fed brings rates back down again. This was a prewar-style recession, a morning after brought on by irrational exuberance. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.
So again we saw the limits of intellect. Dr. Krugman got his housing bubble. How did America like it? Do I blame Paul Krugman explicitly just because I cite him as a cheerleader for Team Fannie Mae? No, that would be unfair. He wasn’t President. George W. Bush was. George W. Bush should have known better than to trust an expert.
And finally, there is the explicit and obvious damage that George W. Bush did to the GOP brand. As a leader, and a standard-bearer for a major political party, you cannot be above the fray. You have to fire back. It’s all fine and dandy to have Donna Brazile admit years after the GOP went down double-digits in the US Senate and out of The White House, that “W” did a better job than reported after Hurricane Katrina. What isn’t fine and dandy is that he allowed hostile media people to trash the Republican Party non-stop from 2005-2009. What isn’t fine and dandy is that he never let the world know that while Kanye West was getting banner 32-Font headlines for screaming “George W. Bush Hates Black People” George and Laura Bush did the following…
George W. Bush was good as his word. He visited the Gulf states 17 times; went 13 times to New Orleans. Laura Bush made 24 trips. Bush saw that $126 billion in aid was sent to the Gulf's residents, as some members of his own party in Congress balked. Bush put a special emphasis on rebuilding schools and universities. He didn't forget African-Americans: Bush provided $400 million to the historically black colleges, now integrated, that remain a pride, and magnet for African-American students. Laura Bush, a librarian, saw to it that thousands of books ruined by the floods were replaced. To this day, there are many local libraries with tributes devoted to her efforts.
So George W. Bush did not deserve the animosity and hatred with which the left treated him during his last four years in office. He is not stupid, unread, uncaring, and jingoistic beyond reason. Nor was he a suck-up crony to anywhere near the level that either Barney Frank or Christopher Dodd was when they wrote the SIFI bailout requirement into the Dodd-Frank Act. However, despite the gala roll-out of his Presidential Library, I just can’t bring myself to missing the guy. He was an unjustly maligned president, but not a genuinely transcendent one.
*-In fairness to the NYT, Dr. Stanley Fish in his “Think Again” Column did try and warn the rest of the Left about their ridiculous fetishism with “W” hatred.
**-It’s a shame we didn’t quite fare that well.