I’ve been focused on economic policy lately, so I sort of missed the big push to rehabilitate President George W. Bush’s image in the run-up to the opening of his presidential library in Texas recently; also, as an anti-Bushist who pointed out how terrible a president he was back when everyone else was praising him as a Great Leader, I’m kind of worn out on the subject.
But it does need to be said: Mr. Bush was a terrible president, arguably the worst ever, and not just for the reasons many others are pointing out.
From what I’ve read, most of the pushback against pro-Bush revisionism focuses on just how bad his policies were, from the disaster in Iraq to the way he destroyed the Federal Emergency Management Agency; from the way he squandered the budget surplus to the way he drove up the costs of Medicare, the health insurance program for older Americans. And all of that is fair.
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But I think there was something even bigger, in some ways, than his policy failures: Mr. Bush brought an unprecedented level of systematic dishonesty to American political life, and we may never recover.
Think about his two main “achievements,” if you want to call them that: tax cuts and the Iraq war, both of which continue to cast long shadows over our nation’s destiny. The key thing to remember is that both were sold with lies.
I suppose one could make an argument for the kind of tax cuts Mr. Bush rammed through — tax cuts that strongly favored the wealthy and significantly increased inequality. But we shouldn’t forget that Mr. Bush never admitted that his tax cuts did, in fact, favor the wealthy.
Instead, his administration canceled the practice of making assessments of the effects of tax changes, while their pitches to voters promoting the cuts amounted to an expert class in how to lie with statistics. Basically, every time the Bushies came out with a report, you could be sure that it was going to involve some kind of fraud, and the only question was which kind and where.
Even more important, Mr. Bush lied us into war. Let’s repeat that: He lied us into war. I know, the apologists will say that “everyone” believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but the truth is that even the category “W.M.D.” was a con game, lumping together chemical weapons with nukes in an illegitimate way. And any appearance of an intelligence consensus before the invasion was manufactured.
Why did the Bush administration want war? There probably was not a single reason, but can we really doubt at this point that it was partly to prepare the ground for the 2004 election? And right there you have something that should block Mr. Bush from redemption of any kind, ever: he misled us into a war that probably killed hundreds of thousands of people, and he did it in part for political reasons.
There was a time when Americans expected their leaders to be more or less truthful. Nobody expected them to be saints, but we thought we could trust them not to lie about fundamental matters. That time is now behind us.