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The Bush Presidency, Undead | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The Bush Presidency, Undead

My new Nation column is called “The Reluctant Fundamentalist (and the Journalist Spy)” and it’s about the conflicts raised by Mira Nair’s challenging new film.

And here’s a second column I did for the Nation website on Maureen Dowd’s various crimes against common sense and gun control.

Oh, and I gave a talk at to Cornell’s Mario Enaudi Center for International Studies on the topic of “On the Search for a Liberal Foreign Policy” on Monday afternoon. It’s written up here and you can watch it on video, here.

Bad Judgment Awards:

Two of the worst decisions in all human history occurred recently. The first was to award the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary to Bret Stephens. The second, even worse if anything was even remotely imaginable, was to award the 2013 Sidney Hillman Award for commentary to Andrew Sullivan. I had a few other things to say this week, but nothing so important that it should draw attention away from the above atrocities. Seriously, when I first read about this award, my first thought was “We liberals deserve to lose,” and I should have gone to work for Goldman Sachs when I had the chance.

I did a little investigation, and it turns out there is apparently no truth to the rumor that the Hillman Foundation plans to rename itself the “Fifth Columnists’ Foundation” for the occasion. Ditto the “Charles Murray Cheerleader Society.” As to whether it plans rename itself the “Kick Liberals in the Teeth, Slander Them, Lie About Them and Brag About It and then Be Given an Award By Those Very Same Liberals” Foundation, I could not get anyone to confirm or deny. Here is the foundation’s excuse for its betrayal of the great union leader Sidney Hillman’s life. Here is my (true) assessment of Mr. Sullivan contributions to craft...

Today’s List: Worst Ten Decisions of the Past Hundred Years:

1) 1922, Stalin, rather than Trotsky, becomes dictator of the Soviet Union

2) 1941, Germany invades Russia

3) 1941, Germany declares war on the United States

4) 2000 Supreme Court gives Bush election

5) 2003, Bush invades Iraq

6) 1964 LBJ orders retaliation for imaginary Gulf of Tonkin attacks

7) 1948 Palestinians turn down UN partition offer 

8) 2013 Hillman Award for Commentary to Andrew Sullivan

9) 2013 Pulitzer  for Commentary to Bret Stephens

10) 1974 New Republic is sold to Marty Peretz

Alter-reviews:

I wanted to like “Smash” but it’s so horrible that I had to stop watching it. Who cares if that fellow is an imperfect director or those two kids get their play done? Not me. I watch too much TV anyway. (I also deleted “Nashville” and “Revenge” from the DVR so all I’m really watching is HBO and FX, with a little PBS and a lot of TCM.) Anyway, I did rather admire Megan Hilty and so I was pleased for the opportunity to check out her, um, pipes at Joe’s Pub last week. The show was strangely short, forty minutes tops including the encore (which was a double bummer since, owing to the sequestration, my flight from Ithaca had been cancelled and I had taken a six hour bus ride to be there).  She did a powerful version of one my favorite songs, “Heart of the Matter,” and I did not recognize the rest, which are apparently on her new CD. Hard to judge, hearing them for the first time, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t grow and grow as an artist. I wondered if people felt this way about Streisand, in the beginning....

The Iridium is hosting “Four Generations of Miles this weekend” and it features Jimmy Cobb (who played drums on Kind of Blue), Sonny Fortune, Buster Williams and Mike Stern. I caught the first of these shows on Thursday night, as things were just jelling. I was familiar with, I guess, three generations of Miles. Pretty much everyone knows that Mr. Cobb played on Kind of Blue and he still plays with plenty of energy. And Buster Williams and Sonny Fortune, well, what is there to say. They were and are pros, and their solos were thoughtful and intelligent. But the revelation, at least for this blogger, was Mike Stern. He took the lion’s share of the solos—including especially on “My Funny Valentine,”—and it was hard to imagine where all that imagination began. What was great about the show was the fact of having no trumpeter—so the other instruments, particularly Stern and Fortune—got to redefine the songs and allow one to hear them anew.

Also, it’s Ellington Week at Jazz@Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis leading the band in Rose Hall and other shows in the Allen Room. Duke is a surefire way to improve your mood, if anything is. Check out the website for details. (And while you’re there, look into Catherine Russell at Dizzy’s. I’ve plugged her repeatedly in the past; she’s a throwback in the best sense.)

Now here’s Reed:

 

Lest We Forget: Why is the Press So Willing to Rehabilitate George Bush’s Legacy?

by Reed Richardson

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Milan Kundera wrote these words in his powerful 1979 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Set against the backdrop of totalitarian Czechoslovakia, Kundera’s book opens with a chilling example of the poisonous example of rewriting history to serve political needs.

On a cold, wintry day in February 1948, two Communist leaders, Klement Gottwald and Vladimir Clementis, stood side-by-side on a balcony in Prague’s main square to rally hundreds of thousands of citizens to their cause. It was a “fateful moment,” Kundera writes, one captured in an iconic photo of the two men that would soon be ubiquitous throughout the new country. Only four years later, however, Clementis would fall out of favor with the party, be charged with treason and hanged. Desperate to rid themselves of any trace of his now tainted legacy, the Czech censors set about dutifully scrubbing any documentary record of Clementis’s role, including that photo that every schoolchild in Czechoslovakia knew by heart. Right before the original picture had been taken, though, in gesture of solidarity, Clementis had removed his fur cap and placed it onto Gottwald’s head. In the new, doctored photo, the censors had predictably removed the image of Clementis, but not all evidence of his presence that day. For, still sitting atop Gottwald’s head, was that same fur cap. Truth is stubborn and isn’t so easily erased, in other words, as long as one knows where to look and is willing to remember it.

During this past week, what we as a nation choose to remember or forget has proved to be especially salient. Barely four years removed from his last day in the White House, the reclusive ex-President Bush has enjoyed an outpouring of media attention in anticipation of the opening of his new presidential library in Dallas. Of course, this is to be expected and naturally leads itself to some reflection of Bush’s tenure. But what was startling to see this past week was the degree to which the press willingly obliged a phalanx of Bush apologists intent on airbrushing out the many inconvenient and dreadful aspects of our 43rd president’s legacy.

This revisionism took many forms. Befitting a Washington press corps obsessed with horserace numbers, there was plenty of poll cherry-picking. Thus, much was made of an ABC News survey that found Bush’s overall approval rating had rebounded to 47 percent, up from the woeful 33 percent mark it stood at just days before he left office. Andrew Malcolm of Investor’s Business Daily squeezed a whole, sneering column out of this stone, mocking the similarly middling approval numbers of President Obama, who, he claims, has blamed Bush for just about everything that’s gone wrong, “except his miserable NCAA tournament brackets.” (Uh, Andrew, Obama’s 1-for-5 in picking March Madness winners, where’s your sheets?) Notably less popular among pundits like Malcolm, naturally, was a recent NBC News poll that showed Bush’s favorability still mired in the mid-30s.

The National Journal’s Ron Fournier chose to remind us that our presidents are “human” and that we could go ahead and admit “George W. Bush is a Good Man.” As proof of this revelation, Fournier cites a personal thank-you note he received from President Bush on May 24, 2002 during an overseas trip, bestowed upon him for his willingness to stand when Bush arrived at a press conference. (Fournier’s German counterparts in the press remained seated.) What Fournier leaves out of this story, though, is that, just the day before, this “good man” stood before the German Bundestag and said:

"I have no war plans on my desk." But, [Bush] added, "It's dangerous to think of a scenario where a country like Iraq would link up with the al-Qaida organisation...It's a threat to civilisation."

This passage contains one outright lie and one egregiously misleading statement. In fact, by late 2001, Bush had already begun extensive war planning with the military for the invasion of Iraq. And the 9/11 Commission and a Pentagon report both subsequently affirmed that at no point was there ever any credible evidence suggesting a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks.

Though Fournier generously concedes that these critical parts of Bush’s record are “worth exploring skeptically,” he nonetheless spends far more time touting how Bush was always on time for presidential meetings, required a formal dress code in the Oval Office, and had a knack for remembering the names of staffers’ spouses and children. But to imply Bush ably demonstrated “respect for the office of the presidency” simply through punctuality, politeness and political instincts is the very definition of, to borrow a tired phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Bush’s legacy of shamefully disrespecting the nation’s highest elected office with his outrageous prevarications on Iraq can’t be overlooked simply because he’s a “good man.”

Over at RealClearPolitics, former Bush aide Keith Hennessey was given free rein to serve up another juicy red herring: "George W. Bush is Smarter Than You." Hennessey, a lecturer at Stanford, recounted a recent classroom discussion about the 2008 financial crisis where one of his students asked: “How involved was Bush with what was going on?” To which Hennessey, in a classic debate gambit, reinterpreted the question to suit his own agenda: “What you really mean is, ‘Was President Bush smart enough to understand what was going on,’ right?” Perhaps caught off-guard, the student and the class remained silent in response, Hennessey recalls, which he took as proof of a grand liberal condescension of Bush’s intelligence.

This know-nothing “caricature” of the 43rd President, Hennessey complains, was sketched out by a meretricious press and filled in by mean late-night talk-show hosts. In contrast, he regales us with stories of a George W. Bush who was “extremely smart” and “highly analytical” and routinely outthinking his very smart advisors. What Hennessey noticeably fails to address is the critique behind the student’s actual and very legitimate question, however. For, at numerous points throughout his presidency, Bush, brilliant or not, was known for mentally checking out and displaying abjectly poor judgment.

During the height of that very 2008 fiscal crisis, for example, Bush inexplicably thanked Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson for "working over the weekend," as if rescuing the world’s economy was a task that might keep till Monday morning. In Bush’s first term, another former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, described a similarly frightening detachment on the part of Bush in economic briefings, “a blind man in a roomful of deaf people,” as he colorfully put it. Then, of course, there was this photo, taken 30,000 feet above Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. And let’s not forget that a mere six months after 9/11, Bush’s stance on Osama bin Laden, the man who had masterminded the murder of thousands of Americans on his presidential watch, was one of dismissive nonchalance: “I really don’t spend that much time on him.”

More guest-columnist misdirection took place when the folks at USA Today conveniently turned over space on their op-ed page to Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman. His message, couched as advice for the future of the Republican Party, was little more than a rosy recounting of the many supposed ways his former boss practiced “inclusiveness” in his policies and politics. Here again, a more careful look can see right through the legacy whitewashing. Bush’s message of tolerance toward Muslims after 9/11 was far from effective, despite Mehlman’s suggestions to the contrary. The climate of fear, ably stoked by the White House, notably led to a 1,600 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001.

But this isn’t even the most outrageous bit of revisionism in Mehlman’s column on Bush “inclusiveness.” That would be total absence of the issue of gay marriage. Indeed, one could argue no politician in US history demagogued anti-gay fears as successfully as Bush did during his 2004 re-election campaign, when his campaign architect, Karl Rove, helped orchestrate a nationwide effort of anti-gay marriage referenda to boost evangelical Christian turnout. (While their impact in most states seems to have been negligible, this University of Florida study found evidence that the anti-gay marriage ballot measure did prime Bush turnout in Ohio, the state that ultimately decided the 2004 election.) Ironically, in 2010, Mehlman himself came out as gay, yet he still seems to harbor enough loyalty for Bush to paper over one of the most shameful political moments from the president’s legacy.

Over at The Washington Post, Bush enjoyed an embarrassment of image-rehabilitation riches. The least worst of them probably belonging to Dan Balz and his long article about Bush “back in the spotlight.” Herein follows the sources, in order, quoted by Balz for the first three-quarters of the story: Tony Blair; Karen Hughes; Karl Rove; Hughes (again), Rove (again), Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation; and Joshua Bolten, former Bush White House chief of staff. Notice a theme, there? Only in the final three paragraphs of the thirty-two-paragraph article, when Balz quotes three successive academics who study presidential history, do we hear from any uniformly critical voices of Bush’s presidency.

Reading this for free? Chip in—fight the right with our reader-supported journalism.

Speaking of academics, the Post also let Stephen Knott, a professor at the US Naval War College, fire a barrage of broadsides at his profession in an op-ed entitled "George W. Bush is a Victim of a Rush to Judgment." (And looky here, Professor Knott also has a book by the same name you might want to buy.) In a way, though, Knott does his readers a service by listing a number of historians whose critiques place Bush among the worst presidents in our nation’s history. Not surprisingly, Knott makes little attempt at refuting their actual arguments, instead he just lumps them all into a bag labeled "too-soon-to-tell" and calls them partisan, liberal fear-mongers. At what point academic and historical studies on the Bush administration will be far enough removed in time to be valid in his eyes, well, he doesn’t say.

All of these are but prologue to the ne plus ultra of Bush revisionism, however. Boldly declarative, "Bush is Back" reads the Post headline over Jennifer Rubin’s latest attempt at hagiography. Even for Rubin, who has a well-documented history of intellectual contortionism, this post is blatantly, flagrantly dishonest. And at the nucleus of her breathtaking swing at writing Bush’s next memoir stands this paragraph:

Why the shift? Aside from the 'memories fade' point, many of his supposed failures are mild compared to the current president (e.g. spending, debt). Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11. People do remember the big stuff—rallying the country after the Twin Towers attack, seven-and-a-half years of job growth and prosperity, millions of people saved from AIDS in Africa, a good faith try for immigration reform, education reform and a clear moral compass.

Where to begin? “People” may remember the big stuff, but not Rubin, apparently. Besides giving Bush what Charles Pierce rightly calls "The Great Mulligan" for 9/11, she’s also cast down the memory hole the post-2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and the 2002 terrorist attack on the El Al airline counter at the LA Airport that killed three. As for seven-and-a-half years of job growth, it’s actually more like four. And what to say about a pundit who unironically ascribes to Bush a “clear moral compass” after the recent release of a bipartisan report that clearly documented his administration’s willful embrace of torture?

But wait, there’s more! Rubin is careful to ladle in heaping helpings of clichés to make the indoctrination go down smoother. Thus, we get “a robotic, cold president like Obama” contrasted with Bush’s “tender, tearful love of country.” Our enemies, naturally, must instead contend with Bush’s “steely anger.” What’s more, she recalls a “warm,” “productive” relationship between the US and Israel during Bush’s tenure, while overlooking his administration’s spectacular failure, where it inadvertently assisted the militant organization Hamas in gaining operational control of the Gaza Strip. And when she concludes with an assault on financial reality that judges Bush’s trillion-dollar debacle in Iraq, profligate government security costs and ridiculous tax cuts for the rich as merely “some excess in domestic spending,” compared to Obama’s “non-existent” courage in tackling our fiscal woes, I honestly wondered if she wasn’t a plant installed by the Post merely to keep its fact-checkers employed.

After such a climactic rewriting of history, delving into the mindset of native conservative media presents something of a denouement. Still grappling with how to treat a toxically unpopular president the Republican Party has been shunning since 2009, former Bush aide Ed Gillespie gives it a go over at National Review Online. His essay, "Cataloguing the Bush Years," proclaims in its subhed: “The opening of President George W. Bush’s library is a chance to look at the facts of his legacy.” As one might expect, the right has had to get creative to deal with the “facts” of Bush’s financial legacy. Fortunately, they’ve hit upon a fantastic arithmetic device called “averaging.”

[Bush] presided over an average unemployment rate of 5.3 percent (the second strongest of the past seven presidencies) and saw jobs grow steadily for four years from 2003 through 2007. In fact, the highest unemployment rate of any one year in Mr. Bush’s two terms (6.3 percent) is more than a full point below the lowest annual rate of Mr. Obama’s.

This is such a fun game, let’s play along with Ed, shall we? Let's see, the Titanic averaged 21 knots for the first 90% of its voyage (and 0 knots for the remaining 10%), which means the ship would have averaged a speed of a little less than 19 knots when its overall speeds were averaged across the entire trip. Not too shabby of a crossing time to New York harbor, amirite?

Okay, perhaps that’s not a fair mathematical comparison. Symbolically, however, one struggles to find a better analogy for the Bush administration’s combination of hubris, excess, recklessness, incompetence and calamitous conclusion than the disastrous voyage of the Titanic. And just as the iceberg that laid the ship low was never seen by those in charge on its bridge, it’s striking that in former party leader Gillespie’s “catalog” of the Bush years, one never encounters the word “Iraq.” But unlike with the Titanic, this is no accident.

If Kundera, who is still alive, chose to write a sequel to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he could do a lot worse than set it in the US during the first decade of the 21st century. If so, he might well begin the story about that period with a short passage based on another iconic photo, one where a stubbornly inconvenient “Mission Accomplished” banner sits in place of Clementis’s fur cap. No doubt, the powerful here in our country are now eager for us to forget that day and a lot of what we know about George W. Bush. But now, as then, it falls to the rest of us to remember—history and truth depend upon it. 

Programming note: I’ll be discussing my recent cover story for The Nation“The GOP-Fox Circus Act,” on Mark Thompson’s radio show, Make It Plain, tonight (Friday, 4/26). You can listen in on SiriusXM Left channel 127; his show begins at 6:00pm, but I'm told I'll be on sometime in the 7 o'clock hour.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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