The opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas, last week has led to a re-examination of the forty-third president’s legacy. An article in The Washington Post noted Bush’s approval rating has enjoyed a steady increase in the four years since he left office, attributing that spike to “the passage of time and Bush’s relative invisibility.” While that public invisibility has indeed been enjoyable, the library dedication should be an occasion to remember what it actually felt like in America during the Bush years. To take a tour through The Nation’s early judgments of Bush—before the wars, the cronyism, and the rejection of the rule of law brought such criticisms mainstream—is to be truly spoiled because there is so much to choose from, and there are many articles that deserve a second reading.
An early article on Bush’s first presidential campaign, “Running on Empty: The Truth About George W. Bush’s ‘Compassionate Conservatism,’ ” from April 1999, tried and failed to find a single way Bush had been compassionate to any constituency in Texas apart from his oil and gas industry cronies, arms manufacturers, polluters and other corporate malefactors. It also previewed Bush’s penchant for “speaking in tongues intended to be understood by the Christian right” and the regular-guy routine that became an important and effective component of his electoral strategy. “You think that if you could only forget the policies, the appointment and the vetoes, you could really love this guy,” Texas Observer editor Louis Dubose wrote. “He’s that good.”
An article published just before the 2000 election by David Corn, recent Polk Award winner and former Washington bureau chief for The Nation, considered the governor’s performance during the campaign—in which “Bush’s intelligence became a campaign issue”—and weighed the candidates’ respective closing arguments. “The dominant theme is, trust people, not the government,” Karl Rove told Corn. His boss’s own argument was more, well, succinct. “The greatness of America exists because our country is great,” Bush declared. At a certain point, one does feel a little nostalgic.
After Bush v. Gore, and after 9/11, The Nation had much more serious concerns about Bush than his garbled diction. In an editorial called “Bush’s Domestic War,” from December 2001, we took issue with Bush “invoking his wartime popularity and authority” for the purpose of ramming his conservative social and economic agenda through a reluctant Democratic Congress. “September 11 was supposed to change everything, but despite war and recession the President remains wedded to the same reactionary agenda he pushed before the attack,” we wrote. “Bush is squandering his chance to be a national unity President in order to pursue a conservative agenda out of step with the nation’s needs and the people’s expectations.” It was his pernicious combination of imperialistic foreign policy and reactionary domestic agenda that marked the Bush era in real time, and which deserves to be remembered today, despite the $500 million library and museum—and the former president’s calculated invisibility—designed to help us forget.
* * *
The idea of the presidential library—first conceived by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939—has endured its own share of Nation criticism and parody, as in a 1971 article by Los Angeles Times reporter Nicholas Chriss. In “Lyndon Gets His Library,” Chriss wrote that Johnson, like Bush, was “no longer all that interested in the gut politics that absorbed him in the past” and would probably spend much time in the library if he could ever pass through the rows of University of Texas students protesting the war he escalated beyond repair. Chriss further questioned the objectivity of the museum’s account of the Johnson years, the completeness of its documentation and the anonymity of its donors.
A mock advertisement for the future George W. Bush Presidential Library was published in The Nation in September 2004, written by senior editor Richard Lingeman, purporting to offer billionaire donors “an opportunity to discharge your debt to George W. Bush for the handsome returns provided by his administration.” The circular continues:
Visitors enter through the imposing three-foot-thick Rumsefeld Memorial Bronze Doors, inlaid with scenes of George W. Bush’s Ten Most Statesmanlike Moments. Once inside, visitors are escorted to the John Ashcroft Lounge for interrogation and full orifice search. After screening they may proceed to the Great Hall, where two large dioramas are displayed: “Mission Accomplished: George W. Bush Bringing Democracy to a Grateful Iraqi People” and “Mission Accomplished: George W. Bush Bringing Tax Relief to Grateful Billionaires.” In the rear will be the Wall of Fame, on which are prominently displayed the names or corporate logos of $5 million donors to the Library.
* * *
Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.