The perils of contemporary history are obvious enough, so it’s noteworthy that the famous Time series of presidential assessments has now encompassed the 43d chief executive. Our own Martin Longman reviews James Mann’s laudable effort to sum up George W. Bush’s presidency, and finds it generally sound and honest. But Martin clearly thinks it difficult to grasp the damage this presidency continues to wreak on our country. It’s helpful, he suggests, to recall the calamities of the time, which increasingly hinted at a calamitous legacy for “Bush 43:”
The failure of the Social Security privatization push was only one blow in what turned out to be a disastrous 2005. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to serve on the Supreme Court was soundly rejected by his own party. The violence in Iraq did not abate despite local elections, and the Democrats, emboldened by an invigorated antiwar movement, began to move sharply against the war. Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted for obstructing justice in the Valerie Plame affair. And then came Hurricane Katrina. According to Mann, even Karl Rove had objected to the appointment of Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noting his complete lack of relevant experience.
The year 2006 brought even worse news. The Supreme Court ruled in Hamden v. Rumsfeld that the administration had been violating the Constitution in their treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, necessitating a scramble to set up a military commissions system that never worked. In Iraq, the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a sectarian war, leading Condi Rice to tell Bush, “Mr. President, what we are doing is not working—really not working. It’s failing.” A group of retired generals rose up to demand the ouster of Rumsfeld, who was nonetheless retained. As the midterms loomed, Bush was dragging the Republicans to ruin.
And that’s before the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008.
The two words that jump out at me from Longman’s review are “accidental” and “reckless.” W.’s election via a nakedly political Supreme Court intervention was obviously not what you’d call an earned elevation (even though, as Mann quotes Poppy Bush as saying, the jump from being governor of Texas to president was at the time “a six-inch putt”) He was also very lucky to inherit a once-in-two-generations federal budget surplus to serve as a rationalization for the big income tax rate cut that had become the Prime Objective for conservative domestic policy–which he recklessly insisted on enacting at a time a more prudent president might have sought a bit of calming bipartisanship. And the Iraq War, of course, was the accidental byproduct of an unrelated attack on the U.S.–a reckless “war of choice” pursued by deceiving an already frightened American public.
The mess left to Bush’s successor is about what you’d expect from this kind of presidency. And as Longman concludes, posterity’s judgement of W.’s administration is unlikely to improve. The scary open question is how it might change if a third President Bush takes office in 2017.