Heckuva Job

ThinkProgress had a snippet of Bush’s 2000 inaugural address, and for some reason I decided to reread it. Looking back on it after eight years, it’s pretty breathtaking. For instance:

“Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation’s promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.

America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness.

Some seem to believe that our politics can afford to be petty because, in a time of peace, the stakes of our debates appear small.

But the stakes for America are never small. If our country does not lead the cause of freedom, it will not be led. If we do not turn the hearts of children toward knowledge and character, we will lose their gifts and undermine their idealism. If we permit our economy to drift and decline, the vulnerable will suffer most.

We must live up to the calling we share. Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment.”

Read this and think of Bush’s response to Katrina:

“Where there is suffering, there is duty. Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities. And all of us are diminished when any are hopeless.”

And consider this:

“America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected.

Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience. And though it requires sacrifice, it brings a deeper fulfillment. We find the fullness of life not only in options, but in commitments. And we find that children and community are the commitments that set us free.

Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted, unhonored acts of decency which give direction to our freedom.

Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love. The most important tasks of a democracy are done by everyone.

I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility, to pursue the public interest with courage, to speak for greater justice and compassion, to call for responsibility and try to live it as well.

In all these ways, I will bring the values of our history to the care of our times.

I completely agree. But I see no evidence at all that Bush meant a word of it. Worse, I don’t see any evidence that he even understood it. Conscience and civility matter enormously. They are, as Bush said, matters of character that turn on “uncounted, unhonored acts of decency”. Before Katrina, putting a talented, competent person in charge of FEMA, or making sure that the Department of Justice operated fairly before the US Attorneys scandal broke, would have been uncounted, unhonored acts of decency.

But Bush couldn’t even manage honored, counted acts of decency, like not torturing people, or coming up with something resembling an honorable response when the implications of his administration’s policies became clear.

He’s a small, small man, who ought to have spent his life in some honorary position without responsibilities at a firm run by one of his father’s friends. Instead, he ruined our country, and several others besides. He wasted eight years in which we could have been shoring up our economy, laying the groundwork for energy independence, making America a fairer and better country, and truly working to help people around the world become more free. Instead, he debased words that ought to mean something: words like honor, decency, freedom, and compassion.

To this day, I do not think he has the slightest conception of the meaning of the words he took in vain.

Sometimes, when I write things like this, people think I am trying to excuse Bush — as though I cannot condemn him unless I take him to be a scheming leering monster. I disagree. I think that when someone who is not mentally incompetent gets to be Bush’s age, if he has no conception of the meaning of honor or decency, he has no one to blame but himself. And to say of a person that he does not understand those things — that he could stand before the nation and speak the words Bush spoke in 2000 with so little sense of what they meant that it’s not clear that we should count him as lying — is one of the worst things I think it’s possible to say about a person.

Especially if you add one further point: the one and only thing that might have mitigated Bush’s failings would have been for him to be sufficiently self-aware not to have assumed responsibilities he could not fulfill. Obviously, Bush did not have that kind of self-awareness. But it amazes me to this day that becoming President did not force him to recognize the nature of the responsibilities he had been given, and to try his best to live up to them. Honestly: I don’t know how it’s possible to become President and, not try your absolute best to appoint really competent people (‘Heckuva job, Brownie!’), to ask obvious questions that people don’t seem to have focussed on, like ‘have we actually planned for the occupation of Iraq?’, and so forth — not to do any of those things, but instead to just go on being the same petulant lazy frat boy you’ve always been.

Apparently, though, it is possible. And we all get to pay the price.

PS: Special Peggy Noonan flashback:

“Mr. Bush’s eyes filled with tears as he took the oath of office–quite possibly a historical first–and people have discussed why. Family redemption, old losses now avenged. Maybe. But I suspect they were the tears of a 54-year-old man who hadn’t amounted to much in his first 40 years–poor student, average athlete, indifferent businessman, all of this in contrast to his father’s early and easy excellence. He had struggled to find himself and his purpose; amazing and fantastic things had happened, and he had gone on to make himself a president–“Called to do great things.”

I think as he stood with his hand held high he felt deep gratitude, deep love, and a hunger to do right, to actually serve and not only dominate his country.”

If only.

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