Over the last week or so there’s been an effort on the part of a couple of Beltway kids to restore the legacy of George W. Bush. No, really.
First there was Ron Fournier with this wistful recollection:
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer walked into the media cabin of Air Force One on May 24, 2002, and dropped identical envelopes in the laps of two reporters, myself and Steve Holland of Reuters. Inside each was a manila card – marked by a small presidential seal and, in a simple font, “THE PRESIDENT.”
Handwritten in the tight script of President George W. Bush, both notes said essentially the same thing: “Thank you for the respect you showed for the office of the President, and, therefore, the respect you showed for our country.”
What had we done? Not much, really. An hour earlier, at a rare outdoor news conference in Germany, Steve and I decided to abide by the U.S. media tradition of rising from our seats when the president entered our presence. The snickering German press corps remained seated. “What a contrast!” Bush wrote. “What class.”
Bush’s note, a simple gesture, spoke volumes about his respect for the office of the presidency. He did not thank us for respecting him. He knew it wasn’t about George W. Bush. He was touched instead by the small measure of respect we showed “for our country.”
The same sense of dignity compelled Bush to forbid his staff to wear blue jeans in the White House. Male aides were required to wear jackets and ties in the Oval Office.
Then there was this love note from Matt Bai:
The truth is that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was. Read “Days of Fire,” the excellent and exhaustive book on Bush’s presidency by Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times. Bush comes off there as compassionate and well-intentioned — a man who came into office underprepared and overly reliant on his wily vice president and who found his footing only after making some tragically bad decisions. Baker’s Bush is a flawed character you find yourself rooting for, even as you wince at his judgment.
But as is the way in modern Washington, it was never enough for Bush’s political opponents that he was miscast or misguided. He had to be something worse than that — or, more precisely, a lot of things worse. He had to be the most catastrophic president ever, in the history of ever. He had to be a messianic war criminal. Or a corporate plant looking to trade blood for oil. Or a doofus barely able to construct a sentence.
That was the way Will Ferrell portrayed Bush in a one-man Broadway show that, for a while after Bush’s departure, thrilled the enlightened set. For a lot of urban Americans, the ones who bought little books of Bush’s mangled syntax at the Barnes & Noble checkout line, Ferrell’s comic version of Bush became more real than the man himself. You know something’s wrong when the most nuanced portrayal of a political figure comes from Oliver Stone.
So George W. Bush may have lied us into a war that killed 5,000 American soldiers and destabilized an entire region of the world, he may have initiated warrantless wiretapping on civilians and poisoned the Justice Department with political hacks, outed a CIA operative for political revenge, let a major U.S. city drown, blown a huge whole in the budget, and let Wall Street rob the nation blind, but he wrote thank-you notes and enforced a gentleman’s dress code in the White House. So it’s all good.
Aside from the irrelevancy of whether or not the West Wing was a showplace for the Jos. A. Bank catalogue or the president was always punctual, these paeans to the legacy of the man who was arguably the worst president since Warren G. Harding make the point that other than what a nice guy Mr. Bush was as president, there is nothing else nice that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, can say about the history of his administration. Handed a budget surplus, he demolished it and threw us into debt. Warned about terrorists lurking even in our own country, he ignored them until it was too late, then exploited the nation’s fears and loathing to pass draconian laws that violate civil rights. He used a devastating act of terror to go after a peripheral enemy who, aside from being a dictator, had nothing to do with the attack. It was as if FDR, in retaliation for Pearl Harbor in 1941, invaded Italy.
Both of these articles smell of the sardonically laughable attempt to put a good face on a really bad legacy and try to humanize Mr. Bush in the same way some historians remind us that for all their faults certain figures in history had their lighter and genuine moments. That’s done to give them dimension and perspective in contrast to the horrors and flaws they all too clearly demonstrated in office: Richard Nixon was paranoid and a crook but he got us the EPA and liked Elvis; LBJ lost Vietnam and 50,000 lives but gave us the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and raised beagles; Ronald Reagan… well, there’s already a full-blown industry dedicated to turning him into a saint to the point that even he wouldn’t recognize himself, so putting a man on Mars and turning the Soviet Union into a model of Jeffersonian democracy will just have to stand on their own.
But held to the same measure, what did George W. Bush actually accomplish to counter all of his flaws, errors, and calculated political attacks on the people who didn’t vote for him? Name one thing, one bill, one act that left the country better off, more cohesive, and more capable of leading the world by the example of America’s aspirations for peace and freedom that his administration gave us that rises above the pall of incompetence and revenge politics that forged a barely-disguised hatred on the part of the white Christian patriarchy that gave us the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. Go ahead, we can wait.
About the only good thing that came out of eight years of George W. Bush in the White House was such a revulsion on the part of the American electorate for his politics of personal destruction that they voted twice to elect the first black man as president. Mr. Bush can also lay claim to the demolition of whatever was left of the moderate and thoughtful wing of the Republican Party, finishing off the work started by Ronald Reagan. Mission accomplished.