Monday, April 22, 2013

The Wrath of the Conquest of the Planet of the Bride of the Son of the Return of Cranky Blogging

It's not exactly about any one thing in particular, but just thinking about the horrific mistake that GOP governors made in 1999 to put some guy who had no real interest in government or public affairs into the Oval Office...well, it sure makes me cranky every time I think about it.

Fine, I suppose there's more; there's a news peg to it. George W. Bush's presidential library is about to open, and so we're getting Bush stuff all over the press, such as this National Journal piece on Bush's "Reluctant Re-Emergence on the Political Scene" with a subheadline that "these days he's more interested in painting, golfing, and enjoying time away from politics."

Which makes me cranky because as far as I can see, he was always more interested in golf, baseball, and pretty much everything except the world of public affairs.

Oh, I think he enjoyed the game of electoral politics (is it too mean to say that he enjoyed it especially when he was winning? Perhaps). As Richard Ben Cramer taught us, the Bush family is nothing if not competitive. But beyond that? I find it very, very, easy to imagine that he paid little attention to public affairs either before or after his political career.

And I think that's highly unusual for politicians, and pretty much unheard of for presidents. Granted, it's not as if they're all Bill Clinton, who seems to be almost pathological in his obsession about policy, by all accounts (then, too, Clinton seems pathological in so many obsessions). Plenty of politicians appear to be highly interested in one realm of public affairs but relatively indifferent to others. And certainly many are drawn to politics as a career mainly because they love the power that it gives them, or because they like the attention, or whatever. But there's normally a reason that they become politicians and not, I don't know, rock stars.

That's even true for most dynastic politicians; they may have gone into the family business simply because it was the family business, but most of them absorbed interest in the world along with their choice of career. I'm not much of a fan of JFK or Al Gore, but I don't think anyone would accuse either of them, or George H.W. Bush for that matter, of having little interest in the world of public affairs. There are some politicians who seem to be far more interested in the processes of policy-making than the outcomes...I get the sense that Bob Dole was like that, for example, and I think a lot of Congressional leaders have been like that to a greater or lesser extent. But for them, mastery of process makes mastery of substance necessary, so it doesn't much matter.

If I'm right about Bush -- and, to be fair, it's possible we'll learn more in the future that will prove me wrong, although I doubt it -- then I can't think of anyone at a high level of politics even remotely comparable. All of which made him ill-equipped to cope with the presidency. All presidents have to deal with insufficient knowledge about public policy; Bush had far less, on far more topics, than most. And he had fewer successful (or, to be blunt, sober) life experiences to fall back on.

Anyway, my guess is that Bush's reputation will wind up if anything worse, not better, than his current reputation. Why? Because I suspect that when we get more information, we'll see more instances where he was indifferent, uninvolved, unprepared, easily manipulated, and generally not up for the job and not particularly interested in doing anything about it. In other words, I'm guessing that the worst stereotypes of him as president will turn out to be true -- and that his reputation, currently hurt by outcomes, will stay lousy or get worse as we learn more about process. Note: I twice there said "guess," and I mean it; I could be wrong! But I've yet to see any evidence that pushed me the other way.

Dan Drezner, while hardly defending Bush, thinks that there is some reason to believe his reputation will improve. Drezner says that Bush has been a good ex-president...but he's been "good" more in the sense of Gerald Ford (staying out of the way) rather than a Jimmy Carter, doing good works. I sort of expect that Bush will wind up doing good works the way that his father has, eventually, but he certainly isn't going to be a Carter or a Clinton. Nor will he, obviously, spend his retirement writing books about important issues, the way that Nixon did.

Drezner also thinks Bush will accrue "credit" because of what came after him, at least when it comes to Republicans and foreign policy/national security. I disagree! I think that Bush will -- properly -- be seen as responsible for that poor quality. After all, most of it comes from Bush's administration promoting people who are now responsible for much of that poor quality, and discrediting or undermining those who were more sound on those issues. Going back to the previous paragraph -- Bush deserves some blame for this post-presidency, too. It's true, and as Drezner said to Bush's credit, that in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks Bush worked against "anti-Muslim hysteria." But it was Bush Administration veterans who encouraged that sort of thing during the Obama years, and George W. Bush sat by and did nothing, when it's quite possible he could have made a difference.

And then Drezner gives Bush, or at least his economic team, credit for their actions in fall 2008. I don't know...I think it's more likely that historians will focus more on inaction leading into the economic disaster (or policies which actively brought it on) rather than policies which avoided even worse outcomes. In that sense, it's much like the Bush Iraq policy in his last two years in office; whatever good marks he gets for changing course, it's all in the context of rescuing a self-made disaster.

A have to mention this somewhere...there's torture. I mean, first of all, that Bush's administration adopted torture as policy. Even if we want to give a very generous reading of things, it's still a terrible mark against him. And again: I do think that Bush is the one person capable of preventing the Republican Party from becoming the pro-torture party, or at least of dramatically changing the odds of it happening, and he hasn't done it. On top of that, there's the civil liberties record...yes, all presidents (Madison excepted) do poorly on that during wartime, and on civil liberties it's hard to say that Bush was the worst, but still he was pretty awful, and that's apt to look bad to future historians.

Despite all this, we're already seeing and are sure to see revisionist stuff about Bush, most of it perfectly evidence-free.

The whole thing is enough to make me very, very cranky.


  1. Not a pip of disagreement with the body.

    Wondering if this topic is worthy of the title, though. It's not like Bush revisionism has been percolating around THAT much; that linked piece is the only one I've seen. And, while the implication of the "these days" line is that he was once interested, it's not totally incorrect, in that he did choose to run for these offices, despite being able to just keep running the Rangers with Daddy's friends' money.

    There are the appropriate lines in there, like “You have no idea how relieved he is to be out of the game,” one of his oldest friends said. “He doesn’t miss politics even a little.”

    I'm not sure how a person could read that piece and not read between the lines: "this was a terrible president, and he was totally uninterested in politics."

  2. It's so weird to credit Bush for being a "good ex-President" because he stays out of the way. That's really just another way to express the essential Does-Not-Give-A-Shit of his character, which is probably the trait that was most disastrous for him.

    Some of my most scare-mongery friends were afraid he'd cancel the 2008 elections. I told them just look at the guy- he clearly did not want the job anymore, if he ever really did.

  3. "Wondering if this topic is worthy of the title, though. It's not like Bush revisionism has been percolating around THAT much"

    There's been a little; the "Miss Me Yet?" billboards come to mind. Generally, there's a few psuedo-smartass Republicans who try to draw a comparison between Bush and Obama. Almost everything I've seen has fallen flat, though (even those billboards were often defaced).

  4. I wonder if we shouldn't have seen this coming from the very beginning, when Bush hired Dick Cheney to review the potential vice-presidential candidates, and Cheney came back saying, "I'm better than any of these guys," and Bush just said "OK." I don't remember anyone saying at that point, "Bush is easily manipulated and not really interested in what his adminstration woud look like." But in retrospect, that's obviously what was happening, right? It should have been obvious long before he became president.

  5. I believe I can support your thesis with one anecdote.

    It has been years since I became convinced that President Bush decided to run for President for no other reason than that it was the coolest gig in the world. I believe there was one incident that demonstrated that he could have been an effectively responsible President if he had taken an interest in policy.

    He personally negotiated a series of difficult hurdles to organize the first truly international contest in baseball. The ability was there. Just not the interest.

    1. That is a terrific post.

      I'm sure I've said this here at some point, but Bush isn't just memorizing batting averages. I've heard him talk about baseball, and he sounds genuinely intelligent -- and I have a pretty high standard when it comes to sounding intelligent about baseball.

    2. I have heard good arguments that Bush would have been a great Commissioner of Baseball. It wouldn't have been too surprising of his fellow owners to elect a son of a President over a used car salesman. Alas, what could have been.

  6. Also:

    Agree with TN's comment on Cheney.

    And on Matt's comment: well, when I do cranky blogging, the first one of the day gets the extended title, and I didn't want to start with the other and obvious cause of cranky blogging because everyone already dealt with it yesterday. Unless you're saying I should have reserved "Wrath" in particular for a better occasion, but it was time to move on from Conquest/Planet...

    1. Nope: made the comment before there was a whole string of them. Was just saying that, by itself, the one piece wasn't all that crank-inducing.

  7. Here's the Drezner link:

    1. Ugh. Can't believe I didn't include that. Fixed, now. Thanks.

  8. I get cranky when people want to define the Surge as the true essesnce of the Iraq War. As I've probably said before, I think there is some continuity between the foreign policy of Bush's second term and Obama's first because both necessarily had to focus on cleaning up the mess created by Bush's first term.

    On the other hand, I'd give him credit for his reponses to the crash in 2008. It's not like he's solely responsible for the collapse (Reagan and Clinton contributed to it as well), and he had to break with a lot of people in his party to do it.

    1. Here I think we can give GWB credit for one correct decision, albeit far too late: the firing of Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. The man was one strategic blunder after another. Bush seems to have finally gotten the point after the Generals' Revolt, but it speaks to his failure in leadership that he stood behind DR for as long as he did.

  9. I think I argued previously that you can't evaluate the elevation of Bush without considering life in 1999. Fukuyama's End of History was still much of the rage, and Seinfeld had just ended his historic run. I understand Fukuyama is still a successful professor, but when you happen on a rerun of Seinfeld at 10:30 on your local Fox station, doesn't it seem like it's from the 1950s?

    Not only that - the terrible events of the past week got me remembering that moron who suffocated when he sealed himself in his house with saran wrap, following the suggestion to do so to avoid chemical gas attack. Even with the disruption of the Boston Marathon bomb, who the hell would saran wrap themselves in their room? If memory serves, that happened eight years ago, it feels like eight generations ago.

    Which got me thinking about another angle on the ongoing American v. Parliamentary political system debate: our fixed elections are too spread apart given the current pace of life. Particularly senators and POTUS; those elections are now almost lifetimes apart, given the speed with which stuff changes these days.

  10. The other interesting thing about Dubya is whether he is protected, a little, by a corollary to Hitler's "the bigger the lie, the more people believe it". In Dubya's case, the corollary might be "The bigger the indifference, the fewer people see it".

    For example, Dubya apparently launched a war of occupation in Mesopotamia without first realizing that there was some difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. This is so staggering its difficult to process. I was trying to think of an analogy; the best I could do was a foreign power launching a war of occupation in the Reconstruction South without realizing the difference between blacks and whites.

    But that analogy is flawed because even if you knew nothing about the history between blacks and whites in the antebellum south, it wouldn't take long to realize that the whites had for many years been oppressing the blacks. You could understand the landscape pretty quickly, even if you came in ignorant.

    The Sunni/Shi'a issue? That ancient conflict has defied explanation in many dissertations and scholarly papers. Maybe its better to go in like Mr. Magoo, as Dubya apparently did? You almost have to go to that explanation, and laugh a little, because to take seriously an occupation in Iraq that was not premised even on awareness of the Sunni/Shi'a thing might otherwise cause you some serious unremitting headaches.

  11. "I can't think of anyone at a high level of politics even remotely comparable."

    I know he was only VP, and that for only 4 years (after being a senator for, what, 8 years and a Congressperson for 4), which is still the same amount of time in elected office as GWB, and all of it in federal government offices.

    But I give you J. Danforth Quayle.

  12. This is an appropriate post for me to ask a question that's been on my mind for a while. Well, more than one question.

    It became clear to me that GWBush was someone's puppet, but whose? Did he have the same puppet master when he was governor as when he was president?

    And who is the puppet master for Rick Perry?

    In some ways I can't believe this isn't common knowledge among those who care about politics, but I've never found the answer on the internet.

    Speculation is fine, for what it's worth, but more definite evidence will be appreciated, especially with links if possible.

    I'm also seriously pissed off at GWBush for running though he was uninterested. However, I'm also pissed (or cranky) with the whole Bush family. They must've known this was a sham, if not a mistake. I'm not forgiving them anytime soon.

    1. That goes back to the Saturday Night Live skit Where Poppa Bush shoots GW in a hunting "accident" before he becomes President. IIRC

    2. SNL also got W. exactly right in his acceptance speech:

      "Daddy, help me. I never thought I'd win this thing and I want out!"

      (Will Ferrell really nailed Bush)

  13. I think a historically comparable figure might be Warren G. Harding. He was the candidate chosen in the original "smoke-filled room" because the GOP couldn't agree on anyone else. There's no evidence he really wanted to be president. Eisenhower also may have had relatively little of the ol' fire in the belly, and even his supporters thought at the time that his presidency was "a faltering force" (as one put it). I'm guessing Ike was more interested in policy than W, but still, at nothing like the level of Nixon or Clinton.

    As to Quayle, whom doc mentions above, I've seen an interesting theory that he was GHWB's choice for veep because he was the son-figure whom W was supposed to be but, as of '88, wasn't because he was still in his dissolute phase. So yeah, he was basically W with a Senate seat and a reputation for knowing at least a little about one or two issues. Which also goes to ModeratePoli's point: The Bush family knew perfectly well that W was a latecomer to the game and a problematic choice for national leadership. Down the road, his poor reputation is therefore going to help take Bush Sr.'s down a notch as well. (And if it hasn't already killed off any chance Jeb might have had, I'd be very surprised.)

    1. That's the part I've never gotten: Jeb.

      My best guess is that, while they really were aiming for it to be Jeb, that W. took offense to Jeb being SO OBVIOUSLY the favorite, that he said "I'll show Poppy!" and ran out of spite. Poppy got him the Rangers gig, an oil company, and the governorship; Ham Rove & company took it from there.

      The funniest part of this story was that the Republican party didn't help out Poppy when he needed them to, partially due to Poppy's choice of Quayle. Ordinarily, a young former VP would be a frontrunner; W. could have wanted to run, but would've pulled a Rick Perry and been done. But, no....the GOP field in 2000 wasn't really "cleared" (there were a dozen of them!), but it was exceedingly weak. I even wonder if there were people in the GOP having a chuckle over the whole thing....until they realized that W. actually might win the nomination.


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