What was the single worst thing about George W. Bush’s presidency?

With Be Nice To Bush Day (H/T, Atrios) having come to a merciful conclusion, some of us, having had our unhappy memories of 2001-08 so rudely revived, have been thinking about George W. Bush’s enduring legacy. On his blog today, Paul Krugman writes that Bush’s biggest failure was not so much any of the awful policies he enacted (though there were plenty of those). Instead, he argues, there was “something even bigger”:

Bush brought an unprecedented level of systematic dishonesty to American political life, and we may never recover.

I rarely disagree with Paul Krugman, but in this case I beg to differ. I agree that the Bush administration did indeed turn lying into a high art. The lies were bigger, deeper, more brazen, and, to use Krugman’s word, more “systematic” than ever before. A key innovation of Prevaricator-in-Chief Bush and co. were the lies they told about domestic policy. Not that it hadn’t been done before (see: Reaganomics). But Bush and crew really were bold as brass when it comes to the scale and scope of the lies they told about issues like tax cuts, the budget, and the cost of Medicare Part D. Krugman’s comment that the way the administration sold these policies “amounted to an expert class in how to lie with statistics” rings painfully true. Lying was institutionalized to a degree that we rarely see outside outside of explicitly authoritarian, anti-democratic regimes.

So yes, they took lying to a new level. But where I part company with Krugman is the idea that lying “wasn’t standard practice before” and that “the president as con man was a new character in American life.” Can we have forgotten this man so quickly? Or this one?

During my childhood, the president of the United States resigned in disgrace after telling the country a series of rancid lies about his participation in the cover-up of a sordid criminal conspiracy. And just in case I felt the urge to pass that off as an aberration, there were Reagan’s many and profound duplicities about everything from economic policy to Iran-contra to U.S. covert operations in Central America to his fantasies about personally witnessing the liberation of Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

Before that, of course, there were of course the countless lies LBJ (and JFK, and Nixon) told about Vietnam. And throughout and after the Cold War, there were various other presidents’ whoppers about U.S. participation in various bloody — and sometimes outright genocidal — covert ops in a variety of countries.

Krugman says, “There was a time when Americans expected their leaders to be more or less truthful.” Perhaps. But at least since the beginning of the Cold War period, no one paying close attention had any reason to expect truth from American presidents. At one point or another, and to varying degrees, they all lied like fiends.

So if it wasn’t the massive dishonesty, what then was the most reprehensible act Dubya and company committed? Certainly, starting a unjust and tragic war on the basis of lies has to be near the top of the list. But unfortunately, that action was not unprecedented.

Ultimately, I believe the Bush regime’s most reprehensible acts were probably the torture and the other grotesque abuses of civil liberties and human rights they perpetrated — all in the name of national security. Openly embracing torture as acceptable U.S. policy was a radical break with long-standing American norms and values. Sadly, the Obama administration has continued far too many of the Bush administration’s most egregious national security policies. With practices like the military tribunals and Gitmo, the Bushies institutionalized policies that, to the extent they occurred before, had existed in a grey area and on a far smaller scale, never openly or as part of an officially recognized system or organization.

So far as honesty goes, the Obama administration, though far from perfect, is a dramatic improvement over the Bush regime But I remain genuinely shocked at the Obama administration’s support of some of the most repellent Bush-era national security policies, including the continuing existence of Gitmo and the drone strikes (which of course Obama has expanded). Bush released some serious evil in this world, and tragically, I don’t see us reversing course and attempting to undo it any time soon.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee