Like a ghastly echo that is old enough to vote, the news is once again thrumming with stories of an election recount in Broward County. Eighteen years ago, a similar recount was disrupted by one of the most indefensible Supreme Court decisions ever made, and the world began its inexorable slide toward the abyss that now confronts us. Because gallows humor is how doom is endured, there is (of course) an internet meme to mark the moment: A photo of an older, grayer Al Gore above a caption that reads, “Florida Recount Wraps Up, Al Gore Declared President.”
Good one, internet. It only hurts when I laugh.
Compounding the existential misery that is always present when anything related to George W. Bush comes up, George W. Bush himself has come up once again. Last weekend, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, a nonpartisan institution dedicated to educating people about the country’s founding documents, awarded Bush its prized Liberty Medal. The medal is given “to recognize leadership in the pursuit of freedom,” and has also been awarded to Nelson Mandela, Rep. John Lewis, Malala Yousafzai, Muhammad Ali and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
They gave this one to George.
“I would still invade Iraq even if Iraq never existed.” —George W. Bush to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, 8/21/2006
I remember being told, over and over again, that Iraq possessed 26,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons (equal to 1,000,000 pounds) of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; 30,000 munitions to deliver the aforementioned; aerial drones to spray the aforementioned; mobile biological weapons labs to manufacture the aforementioned; and uranium from Niger for use in Iraq’s “robust” nuclear weapons program. Every last inch of that was a lie, and millions of innocent people are either dead or displaced because of it.
“See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.” —George W. Bush, Athena Performing Arts Center, 5/24/2005
I remember Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who failed to heed Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s warning to “watch what we say” when he denounced Bush’s bogus Niger uranium claims in a New York Times editorial. The Bush administration retaliated by exposing Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA agent. Before her cover was blown by her own government, Plame’s job was to keep weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists. All her networks were obliterated, and all future data she could have collected on WMD proliferation was lost, because her husband properly named George W. Bush a liar in the public prints.
“I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.” —George W. Bush, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 6/18/2002
I remember watching two tall towers in Manhattan disappear into a ravenous cloud of fire, dust and bonemeal. George W. Bush and all of his people, upon arrival to the White House nine months earlier, had been frantically warned by the outgoing administration to keep a hard eye on the doings of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda cadre. On August 6, 2001, during one of the longest vacations any president has ever taken, Bush was given his daily briefing. It was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” One month earlier, counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke told senior law enforcement officials, “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”
Today, there remains a certain breed of cat who will still tell you George W. Bush protected us from terrorism. In New York City, there is a hole in the sky as big as that lie.
“I told the country we did that. And I also told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it.” —George W. Bush justifying the use of torture, 4/11/2008
I remember Abu Ghraib, the black hoods, the backs bent in agony, the smiling faces of the torturers and the shame that endures the abrasions of time. I remember Enron at the beginning and the financial collapse at the end. I remember Dick Cheney telling the National Archives they couldn’t have his taxpayer-owned paperwork because the Vice President’s office was not part of the Executive Branch. I remember lawfully issued congressional subpoenas that were ignored by the Bush administration as if they were flyers stuck beneath a windshield wiper. I remember the massive tax cuts for rich people that, along with two wars, eviscerated a historic budget surplus in order to prove that government doesn’t work. I remember Ahmad Chalabi and Judith Miller. I remember total surveillance, plastic sheeting and duct tape, the PATRIOT Act, politically expedient terror alerts, “Bring ‘em on,” and that merciless, vapid smirk.
“You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.” —George W. Bush, speaking to a divorced mother of three in Omaha, 2/4/2005
More than anything, I remember believing with all my heart and soul that we as a people would learn something from the experience that was George W. Bush and never, ever repeat it. I believed that we were not, in fact, a nation entirely populated by hopelessly credulous racist sexist greed-riddled forgetful warmongering proto-fascists who crave authoritarian rule because collective cowardice is its own cold comfort: At least you know you’re not alone.
I still believe that, but the National Constitution Center gave George W. Bush the Liberty Medal this past weekend for his “leadership in the pursuit of freedom,” and another small part of me died at the doorstep of the very idea.
Maybe the award committee lost a bet, or maybe the so-called “Bush nostalgia” that has allegedly been floating around like a persistent fart ever since the current president lumbered into office is just that pervasive.
“As a leader,” Bush told biographer Mickey Herskowitz in 1999, “you can never admit to a mistake; that is one of the keys to being a leader.” Sound familiar? One of the reasons Trump is able to do so much damage is because Bush already broke pretty much everything in his ruinous passage through history. Barack Obama spent his eight years in a futile attempt to glue it all back together again, but mostly it didn’t stick, and here we are.
Let’s maybe try a little harder with the awards next time.