Sunday, January 22, 2017

Book Review: BUSH

In the week that the second witless Republican President of the twenty-first century was ushered into office, by coincidence I happened to pick a new biography of the first from the public library. I know his partisans are not going to think so, but Jean Edward Smith (who is a man, to my surprise) has put together what I thought was a relatively fair and balanced portrait of the man who, by time he left office, was regarded as one of the worst Presidents to ever sit in the White House.
I was one of them. And still am, if only because he did so much damage while he was in office. But I used to think he was a moron, an absolute intellectual dolt that stumbled into the White House with no real idea of what he was doing and nothing to recommend him other than his name. After reading this, Smith convinced me that he was and is not really a moron, in the sense that he is not stupid. What he is, is close-minded--one of those people that cannot be reasoned with once his mind his made up, and precious little went into his decisions that he wasn't already inclined to believe.
And that is where his Presidency, and the nation he led, foundered. Smith makes a decent enough case that some of what Bush wanted to do in the beginning--the tax cuts and educational reform--weren't harebrained ideas. No Child Left Behind, in particular, was hailed at the beginning as an innovative and necessary breakthrough; few foresaw what a disaster it was going to be. And a lot of how Bush was as President was born out of his experience as Texas governor; that post in Texas is largely ceremonial and doesn't require much of its occupant other than making decisions about courses of action already decided upon by the legislature. Bush was notorious for being "The Decider." To someone from New York, this seems simplistic and stupid. But to someone from Texas, that's how executives govern
The problem with that for Bush was that he surrounded himself with those that already thought like him, and was extremely reluctant to consider information that did not fit his existing notions. And this book makes it clear that most of the charges leveled against Bush are true. He came into office quite open about ousting Saddam Hussein at some point, and was searching for links between the 9/11 attacks and Iraq from the time the towers fell to the ground. He ignored people that differed with his ideas about the entire "war on terror"--almost everyone in the world, at some point, including many that I and other progressives have labelled villains for years (Donald Rumsfeld is the most prominent example; behind the scenes, he warned of what was going to happen in Iraq before it happened, every single development that surprised the other Bushies. But he was too much of a team player to openly disagree with policy once decided). To the bitter end, he still would not admit that his reasoning was wrong, and that every expectation he had about Iraq was wrong, and that the Iraqis might have other ideas about what was best for them than Bush did.
What is so frustrating about the war on terror, with its centerpiece in Iraq, is that on virtually every other issue while he was President, he wasn't so stubborn and hard-headed and close-minded. Yes, most of his ideas were wrong--but he jumped off the horses relatively quickly, and the author makes a very convincing case that Bush casting ideology aside to intervene forcefully in the 2008 financial crisis left Obama something to salvage, that as bad it was, it could have been a lot worse. And we are left to ponder why the Iraq war and the war on terror in general were such worms in the brain of Bush. The answer is one that is hard to credit in a grown man--but it is demonstrably true.
Bush's being a born-again was no secret. But his determination to fight in the Middle East came down to the fact that he believed that by doing so, he was bringing the end times closer--when attempting to get Russia to buy into the need for war, he told Putin that it was about "Gog and Magog," a famous passage from Revelation that is nonsense, but that every Left Behind nitwit believes with the certitude that only the religious zealot can muster. This mindset informed every decision, every thought Bush had about Iraq and the war of terror, and why it was so good vs. evil for him.
It's a frightening thought to contemplate. And no wonder Putin intervened in this election; he must think that all Republicans are easily-led-astray boobs, and he can be forgiven for thinking so. He can be forgiven much more easily, in fact, then we can forgive Bush. We are less safe, less secure, and less well off than we were when he took office, by a wide margin. His blunders will echo and resonate and extract a price for decades to come. And to find that we did it because he believes in religious fairy tales angers me to no end. He might not be the absolute worst President ever--but the general opprobrium he is held in is richly deserved, and he ruined not only my country, but a lot of the world with his obstinacy and lack of adaption to reality.

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