Sunday, December 03, 2006

Malice, or Incompetence?
Today the Washington Post offers two historians' early assessments on George W. Bush's likely place in history. Eric Foner of Columbia is pretty straightforward in his take: Bush is the Worst.President.Ever, combining Nixon's arrogance and partisan spite with Buchanan's ineptitude and Harding's tolerance for corruption.

His former colleague Douglas Brinkley, now at Tulane, has a somewhat different take: Bush is bad, but his failures are those of stubbornness and misjudgment: if I'm reading this right, Brinkley argues that Bush is above the very bottom rung by virtue of his personal integrity:

Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes. Oddly, the president whom Bush most reminds me of is Herbert Hoover, whose name is synonymous with failure to respond to the Great Depression. When the stock market collapsed, Hoover, for ideological reasons, did too little. When 9/11 happened, Bush did too much, attacking the wrong country at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has joined Hoover as a case study on how not to be president.

You might not be surprised to read that I think this lets Bush off much too easily. Brinkley--a fine historian and really excellent writer, by the way--inspired me to do something I almost never do: write a letter in response. Here the gist of it:

While I think your assessment is mostly on the mark, I must take strong issue--as I'm sure many others will as well--with one sentence:

"Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes."

This is only the case if you're willing to give Bush a pass on all of the following:

--Manipulation and "stove-piping" of pre-war intelligence for his "war of choice"
--The leaking of Valerie Plame's identity and other actions of "pushback" against war critics
--Intentionally misleading Congress about the estimated costs of Medicare Part D
--Executive-branch involvement in the nexus of Abramoff-related scandals

This is just off the top of my head; I'm sure that a brief Google search would yield many more.

It's also worth noting, of course, that Nixon's "zero-integrity" misdeeds surfaced in no small part because he had a Democratic-majority Congress willing to stand up to him. With the exception of a razor-thin Senate majority for 16 months or so, the Democrats have had no institutional footing to stand up to or investigate Bush through his first six years in office.

And while you might be correct that Bush is "an honest man"--though the families who have lost loved ones in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf Coast might disagree--I believe people often described Harding in similar terms.

The great criticism of Harding, as I understand it, was that he was a weak leader who didn't exercise control of his subordinates or cronies. Despite his much-lauded "resolve," I think the same can be said of Bush--or, perhaps more accurately, he isn't so much weak as indifferent and unengaged. Thus he supported borderline-delusional ideologues in the Defense Department, hired and praised utterly incompetent and unqualified hacks like "Brownie," and acceded in staffing the Iraq Provisional Authority (among many executive-controlled departments and agencies) with twenty-something Republican operatives whose career aspirations were more along the lines of Lee Atwater than George Marshall. So the choice as I see it, in assessing Bush's record is this: was he malicious, or just stunningly incompetent?

In terms of performance, I suspect Bush is the worst, and I find his presence in the office to be a walking, talking middle finger to the notion of meritocracy: had he been born George W. Smith, his life possibilities would have ranged from Town Drunk to Assistant Manager at a sporting-goods store.

But it also must be said that, terrible as his performance has been, the consequences of it for the day-to-day lives of most Americans--obviously, with tragic exceptions such as those who were thrown into the Iraq meat grinder or saw their lives destroyed by Katrina--have been relatively light. At least to this point, if there was ever a moment when we as a country could "afford" a president as disastrously bad as George W. Bush has been, it was probably 2001-2009. The damage, unfortunately, is likely to accrue later on, when all the problems we've failed to deal with during his period of misrule--fossil fuel dependency and climate change, the shift to a post-industrial economy and demographic transformation of the populace and labor force, and the widening "opportunity gap" between the children of the poor and everyone else--ripen further.

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