A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend described George W. Bush to me as "a decent man you just happen to disagree with politically."
I would tend to describe just about anyone in our elected government that way - though their "decency" may be a fragile thing at times. But her dismissal of the very real problems that I had (and still have) with the Bush Administration bothered me, and I wanted to find a way to address them without being snarky or simply argumentative. Contrary to the picture some of my friends like to paint of me, I never "hated" George W. Bush. I think it's important to remind people of that, but it's hard to separate my strong disagreement with the things he did from the man himself.
Today, that same friend posted this video, which gave me something direct to address:
Since Mr. Bush laid out the points that he seems to think are most important, and capture the best snapshot of his terms in office, I'd like to address them - Point by point:
Quitting drinking at age 40 - this is, of course, an admirable thing to do. It shows a strength of character, and he clearly relied on his strong relationship with his wife and his faith in Jesus to make this change and make it stick. From where I sit, I can see that he essentially replaced the crutch of alcohol with the crutch of his relgion.
That's fine in and of itself - I'm a big proponent of letting damaged people use the tools they need to use to overcome their shortcomings. I also disagree with those who say that a President should not wear his faith on his sleeve the way Mr. Bush often did; if it is truly a part of you, your faith should not be something you hide or avoid mentioning. My only "disagreement" with Mr. Bush's religion is that it is not right for me, and there are other Points where it affected his Decisions in ways that it should not have done.
Running for President - When Mr. Bush ran for President, I was a tired, shift-working burnout serving in the USAF in England. As a distant ex-pat grappling with how I felt about Libertarianism, and wearied by years of anti-Clinton rhetoric, I wasn't ready to vote for the Republican party's theory of "reducing government", but I figured that it would either be a) successful, and therefore worthy of consideration, or b) a failure which might prod the country in a more Centrist direction.
Later, I read about Karl Rove's underhanded tactics (told from John McCain's POV in David Foster Wallace's "Up, Simba" essay), and the cutthroat dishonesty that Mr. Bush engaged in to get the GOP nomination; it was an illuminating discovery, but by then, of course, the damage was done. None of it was, technically, "illegal", but it was dodgy, and I recognized enough of the same in 2004 to be doubly angry at our so-called "two party" system.
But you can't deny that the American populace finds the idea of an affable "good ol' boy" to be appealing, and W. was thoroughly qualified to play that part.
Selecting senior staff - I allowed myself to be optimistic in 2001 when Gen. Colin Powell was added to the Bush team. Never mind that he was one voice among a dozen others that included already-discredited former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (an essay for another day, I'm afraid). Never mind that Karl Rove was already known as "Bush's Brain" and that Grover Norquist - the man who said "My goal is to cut government...down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub. " - was planning the destruction of the American government from within.
After Gen. Powell's UN speech and Mr. Cheney's dishonest tactics in coralling U.S. Congressional votes, it became clear which "half" of the staff was in charge of these important Decision Points.
Education reform - "No Child Left Behind" is often touted as the Bush Administration's one success. Holding teachers accountable for their students' performance and breaking the Unions' death grip on any reform effort are both admirable goals, in my opinion. But as a single "success" it is hardly compelling.
Over the years, I have asked everyone I find who liked and supported Mr. Bush to tell me what else he accomplished. So far, no one has come up with an answer.
Stem Cell research - This is not a debate I enjoy. Finding a legal precedent for the beginning of human life is emotionally wrenching, and the impact of the decision on other lives is horrifying, no matter which way it falls. The only thing in this debate - like the debate over the legality of abortion - which seems certain is that the law must either trust individual doctors and women to make the right decision in each case, or must arbitrarily decide in advance what that "right decision" is, and find a way to intrusively enforce it.
It's a lose-lose situation.
9/11 - There was a moment after the attacks when all Americans were on the same page, and felt the same way. For me, that ended on 9/15/2001, when Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced (without any evidence) that he intended to get revenge on Saddam Hussein for the attacks. I can't find a reference to that speech, but CBS dug up notes that were more revealing in 2002.
The following points Mr. Bush mentioned in his video all stem from bad decisions made at the urging of his most trusted advisors. Going into combat was debatably the correct move in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq. The lasting debacle that is Homeland Security is a testament to the kind of "big government" that Mr. Bush was elected to bring down, and while in the context of "winning" (an idea that was never defined or given a tangible goal) in Iraq the Troop Surge was the right decision, it would not have been necessary if not for the earlier mistake of invading Iraq in the first place.
Re-election - 2004 was a frustrating time for me. Everything I had seen the Bush Administration do to that point told me that the next four years would be equally, if not more awful. And yet, when the Democrats handed us the turd sandwich that was John Kerry, and the American people failed to demand a third option that wasn't on the menu, I began grasping for hope. In the debates, Kerry dismantled Bush point by point, while perversely making him look like the better candidate; Bush spoke of love for each other and our fellow man, and actually gave me a glimmer of hope that his second term would be marked by humility and compassion.
Tax cut plan - When we got our check - which my lovely bride still refers to as our "Dirty Bush money" - we had to ask: where does this money come from? Did it come out of the welfare checks that would have gone to the "welfare queens" that conservatives hate so? Nope; they're still ahead of us in line at the grocery store buying foods we can't afford. Did it come from subsidies that we shouldn't be paying for "oil exploration" or for small farmers - like ConAgra?
Apparently it came from all of those places where you don't see spending happening; roads, bridges, schools, state and local services, and infrastructure.
At least we got a big screen TV out of the deal, right?
Global AIDS initiative - This really does seem to be a success; at least the 1.7 million Africans benefiting from it might think so. What I find interesting is that no one seems to think of it when they talk about Mr. Bush's successes. Obviously, his opponents wouldn't want to admit that it's a Good Thing(tm)... but it's worth wondering why his supporters wouldn't tout it more loudly.
Unless it simply goes against everything they believe in; tax dollars going to save the lives of brown people in foreign lands without any discernable profit to the U.S.
Mr. Bush: I applaud you for this success.
Then there are the areas where Mr. Bush regrets his failings:
Social Security - I've written and spoken many times about how I agreed with Mr. Bush's approach to this, and how it bears a more rational look from all sides.
Immigration - This, too, is often overlooked as part of the Bush Administration's plans. A real Comprehensive Immigration Reform which would welcome those who want to become a legitimate part of our Dream, and find ways to secure our border against criminals, thugs, and smugglers is still needed. I still hope that we'll be able to look past our racist and nationalistic instincts, and past our petty desire for some kind of "justice" against those who have committed a relatively minor crime, and come up with a solution.
Katrina - This was a difficult issue for everyone. On the one hand, the U.S. President doesn't control the weather, and obviously can't be expected to anticipate every emergency that crops up. Personally, I ignored a lot of the criticism of the immediate response from the White House because so much of it seemed to come from political animosity and misdirected fear; at the same time, there were a lot of bad things that happened or didn't happen because the government was unable to perform its mission.
I saw Katrina as a symptom of the success of Grover Norquist's goal to reduce the government to something that could be drowned in a bathtub. New Orleans showed us that a bathtub is the least of our worries. If we don't invest in public infrastructure, and ensure that the organizations that oversee its maintenance are kept up to date and efficiently managed, we could all end up in a similar situation. There is no way to know in advance whether it will be a hurricane, an earthquake, wildfires, or some other disaster. Global Climate Change scientists have been warning for decades that storms and weather patterns will become more severe AND more unpredictable. Without good government, we will be unprotected.
Katrina did not show me that the Bush Administration was "bad"; it showed me that good government is important.
"...Putting ideology aside" during 2008 economic crisis - This is a point where I agree with Mr. Bush. I agree with him wholeheartedly that the ideology he espoused did not have the answers needed to protect us from the economic crisis. He may not be willing to admit it - his GOP successors certainly don't - but the ideology of "unregulated financial products" that he championed throughout his presidency caused the crisis, just as clearly as uncontrolled speculation caused the 1929 crash.
Thanks to Annie for posting Mr. Bush's video. I intend to read his book, and if moved to do so, may write about it. But I am grateful that Mr. Bush was able to lay out the points that are important to him. It gave me what I have long needed to help define his presidency, and to rationally describe my reaction to it.