Because on April 25 this smug, self-serving man had a smug, self-serving library dedicated to his memory, he's been in the news of late. Friends and foes alike have struggled, sometimes with awkward results, to find nice things to say about him. Others have made it clear that, given the immense damage he inflicted on our body politic, they will have none of it.
You can find attempts to describe the wreckage from Alternet and ThinkProgress. You can find some indignant snark from Mother Jones and Daily Kos. One blogger produced a commentary-free list of both positive and negative accomplishments that turned out to be pretty damning in its dispassionate way.
I wanted to take some time to do what I did with Bill Clinton: write up Top Ten lists for the Best Things and the Worst Things he did. This difference here is that while Clinton had plenty of contenders for both lists, with W it's a challenge to pad the former and winnow down for the latter. In order to get a grip on the dystopic torrent of catastrophe that was the Bush presidency, I've combined several of the nastiest offenses into more general categories. This list isn't ranked; you can choose for yourself what you think hurt the most. But I have to start with this one:
1. It's the Sociopathy, Stupid
I'm not just glibly tossing around pejorative rhetoric when I suggest that Bush may be a sociopath. It's an idea that Kurt Vonnegut explained coherently, based on clinical studies of this particular personality disorder - the notion that many of our leaders simply lack a normal conscience. One study shows that as much as 4% of the population may have the disorder, and many of them have attained positions of great power and responsibility: "Because sociopaths are ruthless and will squash their rivals and burn
institutions to the ground in order to reach their goals – but great at pretending that they care about people – they are incredibly destructive." That fits our fratboy president to a T. But more than most, he pulled the curtain aside to reveal his abhorrent moral character with remarks that illustrate his sadistic sense of humor. I'm thinking here of moments like the mocking of a death-row prisoner pleading for her life. Or the fist-pump he gave as a kiss-off to fellow world leaders at his final G8 summit, as he celebrated his achievements in quashing action to combat climate change, announcing "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter." Or how, one year before the invasion of Iraq, while his aides were ostensibly discussing a peaceful resolution to the non-existent problem of WMDs, Bush poked his head in the door and quipped "Fuck Saddam! We're taking him out!" Which is much cuter than the WMD "comedy" video he showed at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, long after the falsehoods of his casus belli had led to needless death and destruction. And even though it wasn't meant as a joke, it's just as instructive to recall the infamous push poll question he used against John McCain: "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for
president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?"Whether such despicable behavior makes Bush a sociopath or not is beside the point: in every case, the cruelty of his remarks prefigures the cruelty of his policies.
2. Invading Iraq: "I'm going to have a successful presidency."
The title here is a reference to the revelation that Bush was planning to invade Iraq even before being elected, and that his principal motivation, as he described it, was to bolster his political popularity as a way of enacting his preferred agenda. Bush's fans will inevitably cite his "taking out" Saddam as one of his greatest achievements, but keep in mind the cynicism underpinning the whole sordid debacle. Bush and his administration relentlessly pursued the war they wanted through an endless litany of lies and distortions, seizing on the 9/11 attacks to exploit the nation's fear and rage. Though he had long since decided to start a war there, Bush had to have the difference between Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites explained to him just two weeks before the invasion. While he assured Pat Robertson that our side would suffer no casualties, Bush's aides were making ridiculously low-ball estimates of the war's financial costs - no surprise, since anyone who didn't was fired. So while regime change was carried out swiftly due to the massive asymmetry in force capabilities, the occupation was bungled in every imaginable way. From lack of planning, understaffing, failure to secure explosives and munitions, indisriminate roundups of Iraqis into Saddam's reopened gulags, delegation of authority to inexperienced GOP operatives, and the infuriating looting of the entire capital (save for the oil ministry), it seems like Bush couldn't have done a better job of inspiring an insurgency if he'd tried to. So the war turned into a prolonged stalemate and Bush's presidency into the opposite of "successful." Apologists will point to the supposedly successful "surge" policy, which served, like Nixon's "peace plan" in Vietnam, to delay the inevitable withdrawal of our troops in order to save face and foist the blame for any continuing messiness onto his successor. And neither Bush nor Obama can claim any credit for bringing our occupation to a conclusion; essentially, the Iraqis kicked us out.
3. The 9/11 Attacks: "You've Covered Your Ass."
There are any number of legitimate unanswered questions about the backgrounds of the 9/11 hijackers, the forces behind them, and the events of that day. You could set the all aside and still look at the Bush Administration's handling of 9/11 as one of the biggest disasters in our history. Before, during and after the attacks, Bush and his aides displayed the familiar combination of hubris, arrogance and incompetence that marked so many other of their policies. As has been amply documented, Bush and his key advisers repeatedly downplayed and ignored the threat of terrorism in general and al-Qaeda in particular, up to the point of threatening a veto if FBI funding were diverted to counterterrorism efforts. In the weeks leading up to the attacks, a series of warnings came from multiple intelligence sources, culminating in the infamous August 6 memo "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." The president responded to his briefer with the quotation above, and then went fishing. In the aftermath of the attacks, Bush, as previously noted, was quick to capitalize on them to advance his political agenda, as he and his allies painted anyone who dared to disagree with him as traitors. History might be kinder if he had also presided over an appropriate response, but history shows he spectacularly botched the capture of Bin Laden and quickly diverted our resources to his long-planned Iraq war. While, to be fair, counterterrorism efforts have improved markedly since that point, it's a stretch to assert, as his defenders inevitably do, that "he kept us safe." Claiming "no terrorist attacks on US soil after 9/11" conveniently ignores the unsolved anthrax attacks, the DC sniper case, and the LAX shooter. But the weasel words "US soil"obscure the rising rate of terror attacks killing US citizens across the globe during his watch.
Stay tuned for:
4. Afghanistan: Our Longest War
5. Civil Liberties: You're Killing Me
6. Kyoto and Beyond: Trashing the Planet
7. The CEO President: Bush's Worst Hires
8. Katrina: Abandoning New Orleans
9. Assaulting Democracy, from Forida Onward
10. And, Oh Yes, Crashing the Global Economy