Yes, Bush Was That Bad

Can we please stop rehabilitating Republican ghouls?

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney inside the presidential limousine in February 2008. The U.S. National Archives / Flickr

Back in March 2016, I made a prediction:

If, God forbid, Trump is elected, some day, assuming we’re all still alive, we’ll be having a conversation in which we look back fondly, as we survey the even more desultory state of political play, on the impish character of Donald Trump. As Andrew March said to me on Facebook, we’ll say something like: What a jokester he was. Didn’t mean it at all. But, boy, could he cut a deal.

When I wrote that, I was thinking of all the ways in which George W. Bush, a man vilified by liberals for years, was being rehabilitated, particularly in the wake of Trump’s rise.

Thursday’s speech, in which Bush obliquely took on Trump, was merely the latest in a years-long campaign to restore his reputation and welcome him back into the fold of respectability.

Remember when Michelle Obama gave him a hug?

That was step two or three. This week’s speech was step four.

For years prior to that, our image of Bush was emblazoned by the memory of not only the Iraq War, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, of not only the casual violence, the fratboyish, near-sociopathic, irresponsibility, of Bush’s rhetoric of war (remember when, after the Iraq War was over, in June 2003, Bush turned to his administrator general there, Jay Garner, and said, “Hey, Jay, you want to do Iran?”). It was also imprinted with the memory of the laziness and incuriosity, the buoyant indifference, that got us into war, not just the Iraq War but also the war on terror (the original sin of it all, if you ask me) in the first place.

All those now pining for the pre-9/11 George W. Bush, a man who took his responsibilities to the nation — and his duty to its people — seriously, an anti-Trump who, whatever his many flaws, at least had a sense of the gravitas of his office and its burdens, might want to have a read-through to what was going down in the Bush administration circa August 2001.

Roemer then asked Tenet if he mentioned Moussaoui to President Bush at one of their frequent morning briefings. Tenet replied, “I was not in briefings at this time.” Bush, he noted, “was on vacation.” He added that he didn’t see the president at all in August 2001. During the entire month, Bush was at his ranch in Texas. “You never talked with him?” Roemer asked. “No,” Tenet replied. . . .

And there you have it. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has made a big point of the fact that Tenet briefed the president nearly every day. Yet at the peak moment of threat, the two didn’t talk at all. At a time when action was needed, and orders for action had to come from the top, the man at the top was resting undisturbed.

Throughout that summer, we now well know, Tenet, Richard Clarke, and several other officials were running around with their “hair on fire,” warning that al-Qaida was about to unleash a monumental attack. On Aug. 6, Bush was given the now-famous President’s Daily Brief (by one of Tenet’s underlings), warning that this attack might take place “inside the United States.” For the previous few years — as Philip Zelikow, the commission’s staff director, revealed this morning — the CIA had issued several warnings that terrorists might fly commercial airplanes into buildings or cities.

And now, we learn today, at this peak moment, Tenet hears about Moussaoui. Someone might have added 2 + 2 + 2 and possibly busted up the conspiracy. But the president was down on the ranch, taking it easy. Tenet wasn’t with him. Tenet never talked with him. Rice — as she has testified — wasn’t with Bush, either. He was on his own and, willfully, out of touch.

But now that’s all forgotten. Or being forgotten.

It may be, however, when it comes to Trump’s rehabilitation, that things will move faster than I predicted, that Trump won’t have to wait as long as Bush to get out of the doghouse.

After all, Sean Spicer is now up at Harvard, tutoring the hopefuls of tomorrow’s ruling class.

And just after Roy Moore got the Senate nomination in Alabama, Paul Begala was quoted in Politico: “What do they say in recoveries? You have to hit bottom? I thought that, with Trump, they [the GOP] hit bottom. But, apparently not, because Moore is worse.”

And there you have it, the stage is already being set. Given the relentless march rightward of the Republican Party, there will always be something worse waiting in the wings, something worse that will inevitably furnish Trump with a retrospective glow — even though it was Trump who set the stage for that something worse, in the same way that it was Bush who set the stage for Trump.

So, here’s a message to everyone on Twitter or Facebook saying, gee, I never thought I’d be saying this, but next to Trump, George W. Bush really isn’t so bad: one day, I promise you, I guarantee you, you will be saying, gee, I never thought I’d be saying this, but next to TK [that’s editor-speak for “to come”], Trump really isn’t so bad.

Unless, that is, you get out of this terrible habit of burnishing the past — something you can only do because it’s no longer in front of you — and dehistoricizing the present.