Monday, October 06, 2008

Bush's Legacy

Last week, in The New York Times, Timothy Egan took the measure of the second Bush administration. Bush's legacy, he wrote, is "a Mount Rainier of shame and failure." -- and it is defined by three catastrophes. Each of those catastrophes occurred despite the advice of Bush's chosen advisers -- all of whom were thrown overboard, when Bush judged that they were not team players.

Such was the fate of Paul O'Neill, who "sounded an alarm, saying Bush's rash economic policies could lead to a deficit of $500 billion." Then there was the case of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Eric Shenseki, who told his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, that any invasion of Iraq would require roughly the same number of troops who were deployed in Desert Storm. Rumsfeld saw to it that Shenseki applied for his pension early and did not attend the retirement party.

Then there was the case of the man who oversaw the first invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who warned that any invasion should be approached with a thorough understanding of the Pottery Barn Rule: "If you break it, you own it." Powell, too, was shown his way to the exit.

Mr. Bush simply could not tolerate ambiguity or dissent. As he told Bob Woodward, "I don't need people around me who are not steady. . . . And if there's a kind of a hand wringing going on when times are tough, I don't like it."

It is that childlike insistence that everyone has to play by George's rules which will mark Bush's legacy. "Historians will recall," writes Egan, "that in each of the major disasters on Bush's watch, there were ample warnings -- from the intelligence briefing that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike a month before the lethal blow, to the projections that Hurricane Katrina could drown a major American city, to the expressed fears that letting Wall Street regulate itself could be catastrophic."

Those same historians will recall Paul Begala's comment that Bush is "a high functioning moron." The comment is unfair; but it does raise the question of how Americans managed to choose Bush -- not just once, but twice. I suspect that their choice had less to do with rationality than it had to do with hubris and fear -- and a good politician's ability to exploit both.

"If ever there was an argument for voting against politicians who are confident about their cluelessness," Egan concluded, "Bush is it." That is a legacy which transcends both time and space.

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