It is a common belief among historians that we must wait 30 to 50 years before we can objectively assess the relevance of current events. Yet as the chief executive gets ready to leave office on Jan. 20, 2009, many of us are considering how we should interpret the significance of the Bush years. For a president who based his entire legacy on the worst foreign policy debacle in our nation’s history (the Iraq war), the place of George W. Bush in American history does not seem promising.
A review of the last eight years unequivocally puts Bush in the discussion of the nation’s worst presidents. Firstly, many Americans perceived Bush’s ascendancy as illegitimate. He was appointed, not elected, by a partisan, 5-4 Supreme Court decision, one that defied the Founding Fathers’ hopes of an independent judiciary. When the 9/11 attacks occurred and practically the whole world was at our side, Bush had a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate sound leadership. Unfortunately, “W” foolishly squandered this opportunity and for most of his second term, Bush’s approval ratings have hovered around 30 percent.
What explains this steep decline? In part, Bush’s desecration of the individual liberties contained in the United States Constitution. At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. prison in Cuba, the Justice Department reported that on at least three occasions, the CIA engaged in waterboarding, a technique widely considered to be torturous. Waterboarding, in effect, defiled the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. For several months, the administration also deprived Guantanamo inmates of the right to habeas corpus, one of the most cherished liberties scaling 800 years of Anglo-American history.
The administration fared no better with regard to the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. Indeed, the administration’s willingness to engage in warrantless wiretapping demonstrated a use of power characteristic of police states. On top of this, the administration’s signing statements and its contempt for congressional subpoenas in the U.S. Attorney’s scandal shows that the current bunch of neo-conservatives in Washington holds little regard for checks and balances. Such disrespect for individual liberties and the rule of law has significantly undermined America’s moral credibility in the international community.
The most catastrophic blunder of Bush’s presidency was the invasion of Iraq, a country that had absolutely no connection to the 9/11 attacks. It is almost certain, in retrospect, that both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney lied to Congress about WMD and Saddam Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda. The Scooter Libby Trial, moreover, illustrated the depths to which the administration would suppress dissent. Money wasted on the Iraq war could have been spent on universal healthcare, education and fixing the dilapidated infrastructure of New Orleans, Minneapolis and 100 other cities.
Furthermore, the decision to finance the war through bonds rather than taxation imperiled an already weakening U.S. dollar and carried tremendous consequences for our nation’s prosperity. Given the current sub-prime and derivatives market mess and the impending recession, the Iraq war has left us in an extremely precarious position. In the end, Iraq will probably erase the U.S.’s post-WWII hegemony.
Based on these factors, it is unfortunate that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi balked at the opportunity for impeachment hearings. Democrats can only blame themselves for caving into Bush’s demands for war funding and capitulating to the Republican falsehood that defunding the war was somehow “not supporting the troops.” What could be more against the troops than keeping them in harm’s way, depriving them of the adequate equipment to prevent roadside bombs, extending tours of duty and placing wounded troops in the deplorable, rat-infested conditions of Walter Reed Hospital?
Will Bush be considered the worst of all time? Obviously, the answer depends on who you ask. But some historians have already weighed in. Two of the nation’s most prestigious American historians, Eric Foner of Columbia and Sean Wilentz of Princeton, have placed their bets in the affirmative.
As an educator, I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to discuss these issues within the classroom immediately, not 30 years from now. As a friend of mine once said, “It does no good to teach the class on the Nixon administration right now.” Bush’s antics in the White House, which trump Nixon’s in many regards, must be accurately conveyed to the public.
If posterity does not fully realize the egregious faults of the Bush administration and, more importantly, what we can learn from them, then historians will have failed in one of their most essential tasks.