Bush: Worst Ever or Just Misunderstood?

Telegraph has an article up that serves as a wrap-up analysis of the Bush presidency on the eve of his departure. There was one paragraph that really stood out:

Peter Feaver, who served as special adviser for strategic planning on Bush’s White House National Security Council, agrees: “He’s had a once-in-a-century natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, a once in a history of the Republic terrorist attack and he’s had a once-in-a-century financial crisis. Any one of those would be a pivotal moment. To have three is extraordinary.”

Exactly. Of course, when you combine that unprecedented level of crisis with a lack of diplomacy, aggressive rhetoric (which calmed down and was even apologized for in the second term but wasn’t forgotten by critics), a lack of charisma, questionable levels of intellectual vigor and a lack of any real communication between the president and the American people outside of State of the Union addresses and presidential campaigns, the historically low approval ratings and negative assessments of the Bush presidency are very unsurprising.

Telegraph contacted John Bolton, who said this:

“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he was strong and decisive and that was critical for both the country and for the Western world,” believes John Bolton. “In 100 years people aren’t going to remember Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib, they’re going to remember 9/11 and Bush’s reaction to it.”

Bolton is probably right that Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo will be largely forgotten, but only because they are not monumental events in comparison with economic crisis and buildings falling down in Manhattan, not because media spotlights on Bush’s legacy will be gushing about how great Bush’s megaphone speech was.

Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib do serve, however, as important testimonies to the evolving attitude toward presidential prerogative.

There’s a passage towards the end of Gene Healy’s book The Cult of the Presidency in which Healy points out that when Woodrow Wilson jailed citizens for political speech or Franklin D. Roosevelt put Japanese Americans into internment camps, they were cheered on by the media and the populace. Comparable government actions during the Bush era have led to unanimous condemnation, from Amnesty International to the Supreme Court of the United States. This, of course, isn’t an excuse for Bush’s assaults on civil liberties but a highlighting of how attitudes have changed.

However, it seems we are uncertain of how political leadership should respond in times of threatened security. By echoing the behavior of past presidents in times of crisis, the president is behaving in a way that doesn’t match our modern sensibilities. (The fact that detainees in Guantánamo are hooded, refused trial and possibly tortured but also given untouched copies of the Koran and food that meets their religious requirements encapsulates our confused attitudes.) Terrorism and natural disasters aren’t going to go away in the face of President-elect Obama’s saintliness and we will still be figuring out what it is we find acceptable and unacceptable long after President Bush has resigned himself to midland Texas.

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