Watching President Bush defend his legacy during his final address Thursday night was a reminder of how far the 43rd President has fallen from grace. No longer the confident, and some would argue cocky, commander-in-chief who stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in 2003, pretending to be in a combat zone while off the coast of San Diego, in view of a “Mission Accomplished” banner that exemplified the administration’s lack of truthfulness regarding the Iraq War. The George W. Bush that stood before a live audience in the White House, and millions of Americans watching on television and the Internet was a beaten man. His somber tone reflected the dire straits in which he leaves our nation.
It would be easy to join the “Bush bashing,” the piling on of “W” that has become a popular sport in the final days of his administration. While we my opinion of Mr. Bush is less than positive, and borders on contempt, the seriousness of our present circumstances calls for a more reasoned and analytical dissection of the damage his administration has caused our country. If there was ever a teaching moment about the perils of ineffective leadership, it is upon as the Bush presidency comes to an end.
George W. Bush won election in 2000 in a tainted contest, with the U.S. Supreme Court certifying his victory in one of the most politically influenced opinions in the Court’s history. His “victory” came at the expense of an electoral system that was already viewed as suspect by many of those who had their votes discarded. And while all of the fault for the Florida debacle cannot be laid upon the Bush team, the manner in which he became President set in motion a tenure that lacked legitimacy from the outset. His visible presence after the attacks of September 11, 2001 gave him a reprieve as the nation rallied around him. He quickly wasted that good will when he allowed Vice President Dick Cheney and his merry band of neo-cons justify violating our civil liberties and the sovereignty of a foreign nation by claiming every conceivable threat as a terrorist action. In the process he trampled the Constitutional rights of American citizens and the human rights of civilians in Iraq.
The damage to the international reputation of the United States under the Bush years cannot be overstated. Where we were once seen as a beacon of democracy and a leader of the “free world,” our stock quickly decreased among parts of the world that had viewed us with some degree of admiration. We gave extremists license to engage in the worst behavior because the Bush administration so lowered the bar that torture and humiliation became accepted practices, and Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib became synonymous with a new level of human indifference not traditionally associated with the government of the United States. Through it all, the violence in Iraq raged, and our men and women in combat died or suffered serious injury for an unjust cause. And innocent Iraqis, many of them children, will never forget that their lives were obliterated at the hands of Americans. A generation of Iraqi youth will forever associate our country with this war and may always be susceptible to extremist views because of our own extremism.
Our fall from grace played out at home as well. The administration’s careless and callous response to Hurricane Katrina was one of the dark chapters in our nation’s history. To see thousands of American citizens, most of them Black, some of them poor but all of them entitled to be treated with dignity, abandoned by their government was a shameful act that Mr. Bush bears the single greatest responsibility. I will never forget his laudatory “Heck of a job Brownie” to FEMA head Mike Brown and Mr. Bush’s mother’s remark that evacuees in Houston were better off than they had been in New Orleans. If there was ever a moment when an American President had failed his people, it was George W. Bush’s ineptness during the Katrina crisis.
Of course, the war in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina, are now overshadowed by the recession. The collapse of the economy may be what truly defines the Bush years. As millions of Americans lose their jobs, companies file for bankruptcy, the mortgage market melts down and financial institutions collapse, the Bush name may eclipse Herbert Hoover as a symbol of absolute failure. I tend to lean toward Iraq and Katrina as my measures of Mr. Bush’s failures but the economic crisis will likely come to be treated historically as the event that frames the Bush presidency. It is no wonder that President Bush’s popularity has plummeted over the course of the last year. In a very real sort of way for average Americans, the buck really did stop at the desk of the President. More so than any President in the past, Mr. Bush is being held personally responsible by Americans who are on the cusp of financial disaster.
There is a palatable sense of relief among Americans that the Bush presidency is over and understandably so. Every presidential transition brings with it a sense of excitement even if there is some apprehension among those who did not support the new President at the polls. I sense that even among people who did not vote for Barack Obama there is hope that his administration will restore our nation and undo the damage caused by Mr. Bush. I hold out the same hope. It is time for Mr. Bush to hand over the keys to the mansion and return to Texas. This not a “so long” but a firm and overdue goodbye.