Now that the Presidency of George W. Bush has finally ended we can actually start to evaluate his claim that history will be much kinder to him than current opinion. Mr. Bush is very fond of the notion that this anthropomorphic entity will somehow someday fly in and say “heck of a job Bush!” But history is not and never has been such a clear cut entity.
It would be helpful to have some sort of running definition of history. Is history “more or less bunk” as Henry Ford proclaimed or is it “the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity” as Cicero would have it. At base history asks the facile question of how we arrived here.
From this one question spouts many different answers, quite often the past is not a simple as it may seem. In history as in much of life the answers one gets depend on the question being asked. Huge patches of the past were not even investigated until scholars started to ask the right questions. Also new tools and new disciplines also affect our view of the past. The science of demography plus the advent of computer science combined to give a whole new type of history, not of kings and queens but of ordinary people.
Still History does reside in the sourcing; it welded to the archive and to the written word. Simply put: no documentation—no history. History depends on the sourcing, it depends on the data.
Ironically history also depends on time. While Americans may gleefully declare the Bush Administration “History” it really is not; it is merely current events. Serious history really does not occur until at least a generation has transpired. Only people who have not actually lived through the Bush years or have no living memory of it can give it a more honest appraisal. When present day kindergarteners are writing their Doctoral theses then we will have the first real histories of Bush and Cheney. This is the real first draft of History. To talk of the rough draft of History being written as of January 20th 2009 is foolish in the extreme; we not even at the stage of drunken scribbles on the back of cocktail napkins. Actually we were at that stage, to a fashion, with the Bush Legacy project run by that political troll extraordinaire Carl Rove. The Bush Legacy Project though was more like the scribbles made in crayons by the members of an insane asylum after a few hits of very bad LSD.
So what will the scholars writing in 2030 or there about be looking at? Will they echo our current crop of historians who rate Bush Jr. as one of the worst presidents ever or will W. some how rise up from the ashes like Harry Truman? Let’s try to leave bias behind and take a Joe Friday approach. Good ol’ Joe wanted “just the facts.” Let us attempt to do the same.
We begin with Bush’s actually capturing the office in 2000. His claiming of the office was to put it mildly—different. Bush was the candidate with the second best vote total. Vice President Albert Gore found out the inconvenient truth about how the president is actually elected via the Electoral College. Not since the election of 1876 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1876) had candidate with the popular vote majority managed to loose the election. That election also turned on the vote in Florida (as well as Louisiana and South Carolina) and also on ballot issues. The big twist in 2000 was the intervention of the Supreme Court in the election process. On a clear party-line vote the Supreme Court went with the Republican. The only vote that really counted in the end was not 105,405,100 cast by U.S. Citizens but the 9 votes of the Supreme Court.
Upon his elevation to the office Bush was neither shy nor cautious as he began almost immediately to forward a conservative agenda. First up was a massive tax cut. Bush had inherited a surplus from Clinton; instead of applying that surplus to federal deficit he returned the surplus and more via the cut. Bush was especially generous to the top tier of tax payers slashing their bill to Uncle Sam enormously. Over the eight years of Bush 43 the national debt nearly doubled in dollar terms from 5.8 trillion dollars to 10.7 trillion dollars and increased from 57.4% of GDP to 74.5% of GDP. What that money purchased will be discussed later under the heading of Iraq.
But before we turn our eyes abroad let us look at domestic policy, specifically energy policy. Early in the Bush Administration his Vice President was entrusted with creating the U.S. energy policy. As the V.P. was the former CEO of a major energy corporation this was a very dicey proposal. The V.P. then increased the concerns of the watchdogs by enveloping the discussion in a dark cloud of secrecy. When the former head of Halliburton only invites other members of the petroleum elite to brainstorm on energy policy and then refused to disclose what those discussions were about it raises all sorts of troublesome questions. As both Cheney and Bush were denizens of the oil patch it is no real surprise that the Administration tilted to a very petro-friendly axis. Cheney’s obsession with undercover machinations would eventually deeply harm the Administrations’ ethical standings with the general public and lead to all sorts of wild speculations about what really went on behind the closed doors of the White House.
It was however the intersection of domestic and foreign policy where Bush’s first term is defined. Specifically it was National Security and the ideological biases that informed policy in this area that became a recurring issue with team W. Much ink has been spilled by numerous political players on the subject. Most of these books tend to be self-serving tomes who sole purpose resides in shifting the blame on other parties. Still a pattern can be observed.
The Bush Administration at first was clearly focused on SDI to the exclusion of all other National Security Issues. The development of more and better nuclear weapons was a secondary and reinforcing aspect to this theme. Foreign policy revolved around developing and deploying a missile defense shield and little else. Bush foreign policy and National Security heavyweights talked of little else. Russia was not happy with these developments. They did not put much store in the explanation about defending the U.S.A. against “rouge nations” like Iran or North Korea. From the Russian perspective SDI looked exactly like a US first strike weapon aimed right down their collective throats. Despite Russian objections Bush scrapped the ABM treaty and other longstanding bi-lateral treaties to pursue his defensive shield. The European Union was not exactly thrilled by the Bush proposals either. Eventually Bush would have to deploy the missiles in the “New Democracy” of Poland vice the old democracies that had been part of the U.S. national security structure since the Marshal Plan.
While Bush, Cheney and Rice focused on Ronald Regan’s dream other areas fell by the wayside. One of those was terrorism. Specifically the ideological blinders of the Bush administration caused them to not see the threat posed by non-state actors. This was not accidental, it was policy. The Administration was wrapped up in what it saw a great power politics and geo-strategy. Al Qudea was not on intellectual radar. Bush’s contemptuous dismissal of his PDB briefer just before 9/11 was a clear indication of where his mind was at.
Thus when four planes guided by jihadi operatives of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Queda network slammed into their targets or into the earth (flight 93) the Bush Administration was blind-sided. While they where thinking grand thoughts about missile defense, while they mused about highly complex weapons systems, 19 men armed with box cutters pulled off the worst loss of American lives since Pearl Harbor.
After the initial confusion the Bush Political team righted itself. Bush climbed the rubble of the former WTC and vowed to make things right again. The nation was behind him; more than that the whole world was behind him. No President had an opportunity for greatness thrust upon him like Bush right after 9/11. World opinion was behind Bush to a degree never seen before. We are still too close to that moment and the inevitable disappointments such events will cause; still it is hard to see future historians being anything but harsh on Bush. It is hard to see how 9/11 can be seen as anything other than a missed opportunity. Bush was off kilter from the very start. When the nation was begging to reengage in a noble cause all Bush could offer was to go shopping.
Bush did use 9/11 to enact a series of laws that had been on the Conservative back burner since the Nixon glory days. The enactment of the PATRIOT ACT and other bills like it gave vast powers to an already swollen police state. But despite this growth or perhaps because of the act the Bush Administration in the form of Vice President Cheney decided to go even further. Thanks to the V.P.’s obsession with secrecy we still have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes. We do know that is was so bad that an arch-conservative in good standing, John Ashcroft, threatened to resign over the abuses of power.
After 9/11 the Bush Administration had a new lease on life. Bush’s popularity zoomed from the mid 50’s to a 90% approval rating. Only hard-core lefties and the perennially undecided that show up on every poll demurred. With this backing Bush embarked on his first military adventure, that of Afghanistan.
To be Continued