George W. Bush's Presidency, the Worst of Times

The pomp and circumstance surrounding Bush's presidential library cannot be the final say on his legacy.

By + More
FE_DA_130424Statues.jpg
Statues of former Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush are seen during a tour of the new George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on April 24, 2013.

How little there is to celebrate about George W. Bush.  How much there is to rue. Next to his son, his father's short presidency seems worth at least a short thank you note.

The younger Bush's presidential library fanfare calls for a reckoning before his rangers paint pretty lies the size of Texas all over the place. The squat man in the cowboy hat, Dick Cheney, was a useful reminder of the greatest one: you know, something about Iraq and WMD. Then came the war started under false premises and promises to the world community. After nine years, we left the country in shambles, like a trashed fraternity house, Bush's scene at Yale. The untold civilian death toll is kept hidden in the shadows.

Before Bush took the oath of office, we knew his true colors from the darkness down in Florida. Folly, farce and tragedy were not far behind for American democracy, and perhaps you can say we deserved it. But he also hurt the whole world and our standing in it.

The pretty paint job on his presidency has already started. Another Bush war is now being waged on the truth. For starters, the gallery of living presidents gave Bush a platform to laud himself for staying "true to our convictions."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

What's so great about that? Not only was he wrongheaded, but always aggressively so. He never looked back, he never thought twice. In this way, Bush reminds one of Andrew Jackson, his doppelganger. At least Jackson fought his own battles – like the one in New Orleans, the beguiling city Bush flew over on Air Force One when it was drowning. He later looked upon the Wall Street meltdown with the same kind of bemused detachment.

There are three things you are going to hear about Bush. He kept us safe. He expanded freedom. Finally, history will decide. That's the tough crowd's storyline and, in a way, its marching order. Pundit Charles Krauthammer picked up on it fast, asserting in The Washington Post that Bush "created the entire anti-terror infrastructure that continues to keep us safe."

You have to admire such excellent embellishment.

As for keeping us safe, the terrorist attacks of September 11th happened on Bush's watch, despite intelligence warnings all summer that the system was "blinking red." His national security people, notably Condoleezza Rice, persistently ignored the threat of al-Qaida, and Bush himself rudely dismissed a CIA briefer at his Crawford vacation ranch in August for bearing more bad tidings of a terrorist plot within the United States. Really rude, because presumably he had better things to do that day.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Was George W. Bush a Good President?]

If Bill Clinton had been president on 9/11, you can bet on him being blamed by the Republicans 'till he was out of town by sundown. Yet somehow, some way, it became the best thing that happened to Bush, the jump start to his presidency. Who can forget his inspiring leadership, telling us to fight terrorists by going shopping?

Ready to move on to expanding freedom? An absurd claim from the man who opened the sinister specter on Guantanamo, where scores of men have been held for years as terrorist suspects. There is no trial in sight after torture was visited upon many of them in the name of expanding freedom. Closer to home, the Patriot Act swiftly became law after 9/11, which clamped down on civil rights and freedoms, right down to our library books.

So much for keeping us safe and expanding freedom. The best defense Bush uses as an apologia for the wasteland of his eight years, at home and abroad, is that history will decide. Curiously, he even asks visitors to his library to make mock decisions in his shoes. He seems to be pleading: "It was hard!"

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

That won't wash, for we know Bush has a reckless disregard for history. In a telling moment with Bob Woodward, Bush scoffed at the notion of history's judgment, saying that we'll all be dead anyway. 

The library's soft focus on hard facts cannot be the final say about George W. Bush. Shakespeare would have a field day with the father-son rivalry, the doting, sharp-tongued mother, and the colorful Cabinet war council - producing our own "war president."

In the Bard's absence, Bill Clinton slyly spoke to the truth of the Texas scene, stating that former presidents use their libraries to rewrite history. Clinton was also a reminder of "high cotton" peace and prosperity, a land where we lived in the best of times. Then came the worst of times. And that's no lie.

  • Read Mary Kate Cary: George W. Bush Could Teach Barack Obama About the Middle East
  • Read Jamie Chandler: Republicans Aim to Cut Political Science Research
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad