Drowning Our Sorrows, Lifting a Glass

Drowning Our Sorrows, Lifting a Glass

A sobering toast to the dubious achievements of the worst president in American history.


Millions of people are expected to descend on the nation’s capital for the inauguration of Barack Obama. It is unprecedented: churches, temples, mosques and tribal councils have hired buses to attend. Schools are closing for the day. Universities are setting up JumboTrons to watch the festivities. Global media will join the dancing in the streets.

A friend recently asked me if I thought all these constituencies were celebrating the same things. Did I think this coronation-scaled civic bliss was mostly about Obama’s being our first African-American president? Or was it because his win convinces us that some “post-race” American Dream has been ultimately affirmed? That he’s going to improve the economy? Repair global relations?

The question made me reflect for a moment. Yes, the symbolism of his race is significant, although it certainly cannot be equated with the end of racism. And surely we’re uplifted by Obama’s being so genuinely likable and smart. No doubt the euphoria is also unusually great because his campaign drew constituents into political engagement–the phone banks, the door-to-door canvassing, the social networks, mass e-mails and text messages. As a result, people feel personal, even possessive, satisfaction about his victory.

But at least as important as all that, I think, is a kind of Wizard of Oz-ish fizzy relief about George W. Bush’s exit–as in Ding Dong, the Wicked Warlock is melting into a nice little past-tense puddle. There’s a giddily celebratory sweeping out of the indubitably, absolutely, completely, very worst president in our history. So many bad things have happened in the past eight years that it’s hard to keep them all in one’s head at one time. Another friend says he hung a list in the hallway of his apartment building, tabulating all the really awful things he blames Bush for. Other neighbors added to it. At first, he said, he was going to use it to host an inauguration party at which people would knock back a shot for each phenomenally inept executive flub. But then, he says, “I realized we’d all be drunk for a year.”

In any event, it’s a great list; the sheer length of it reminds one how dizzyingly mismanaged the executive office has been. Here are a few of the highlights, to get you in the mood of groveling gratitude for the new course we are about to embark upon:

Pax Americana and the aspiration to consolidate a global American empire. The Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive warfare. Hurricane Katrina and “heckuva job, Brownie.” The explicit rejection of the Geneva Conventions. John Yoo’s and Alberto Gonzales’s redefinition of torture. Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank subsidizing his girlfriend. Ahmad Chalabi. The FCC allowing greater consolidation of media. The outing of Valerie Plame. The manipulations asserting that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The addled handling of Harriet Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Opposition to stem cell research. The looting of the National Museum of Iraq, and the burning of Baghdad’s National Library. Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks that rioting in Iraq was the sign of a liberated people and that Iraq was no more violent than some American cities. Stacking the Civil Rights Commission with conservatives, like Abigail Thernstrom, who want to overturn sections of the Voting Rights Act. The shooting death of Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari and injury of journalist Giuliana Sgrena at the hands of American soldiers. The appointment of ultraconservatives John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Cheney filling his friend with birdshot. The USA Patriot Act. Doing away with habeas corpus. The National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping of citizens’ phone calls and e-mails. The notion of an unchecked, unaccountable “unitary executive.” The failure to keep official numbers of dead Iraqi civilians. The forbidding of photographs, or even visibility, of American military dead. The multilayered, high-level lying about how football hero Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. Halliburton taking kickbacks from Kuwaiti oil suppliers. Paul Bremer dispensing billions of dollars for contracts in Iraq, which disappeared, never to be accounted for or recovered. Blackwater mercenaries accused of murdering Iraqi civilians. “Military tribunals” established outside the military justice system, with no due process or right to an attorney or to cross-examination or even to know the charges. The silly disparagement of the national anthem sung in Spanish. Bush talking directly to God. Abu Ghraib. Profiling Arab, Muslim and Latino immigrants. Guantánamo. Extraordinary rendition. Lousy veterans’ benefits. Lousy veterans’ hospitals. The failure to provide soldiers with reinforced armored vehicles (“You go to war with the army you have,” explained Rumsfeld). The refusal to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder as a legitimate condition. Monica Goodling’s political litmus tests in hiring for nonpolitical posts in the Justice Department. Expelling Helen Thomas from the White House press room and putting in fake reporter “Jeff Gannon” to throw adoring softball questions. John Ashcroft’s draping of bare-breasted sculptures in the Justice Department. His subpoenas of more than 2,500 records of abortions performed at public hospitals. Gonzales firing US Attorneys around the country for political reasons. Oh, and did I forget the economy?

This is only a short list–it doesn’t even touch on the things we were spared but that might have happened: Bush’s (failed) nomination of Bernard Kerik to head Homeland Security; the privatization of Social Security; the elevation of Alberto Gonzales and Robert Bork to the Supreme Court; a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

“Honestly,” says my friend, “who needs booze? Just reading the list, you could get drunk and have a killer hangover.” I do suppose we’ll all sober up after inauguration day. But I’m going to sneak a look at the list every now and then, just to make sure I don’t take anything for granted. However challenging the future we face, an Obama administration represents real change.

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