Twenty years ago next month, President George W. Bush appeared before the United Nations and warned that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a “serious and growing danger,” setting the stage for an invasion six months later based on false premises about super destructive weapons and alleged connections to the 9/11 attacks.
The war killed 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis, and cost the United States $800 billion. according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
I’ve been thinking about Bush’s legacy because I saw a half-price book at a local bookstore subtitled “How the Bush Administration Brought America into Iraq” and realized, frankly, nobody cares. At least not in this country. Too much has happened in the intervening two decades.
Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as Editorial Page Editor and is a former Op-Ed Page Editor and Sunday Opinion Section Editor.
Remember the Bush years? At the time, many people thought he was the most horrible president in history. I clearly remember the Rolling Stone cover in May 2006. Bush sat on a stool in a donkey cap with a goofy expression, and the headline asked, “Worst President Ever?”
Democrats had a particular hatred for this inexperienced scion of an entitled political family and for the moral failings of his administration. The hug of torture, for example. The offshore prison at Guantánamo where the suspects were (and still are) detained without trial. The unnecessary war with Iraq that shattered America’s reputation around the world.
Those were the days when Bush was compared to the least successful presidents in history: James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Richard Nixon.
But those days are over. These days, you’re more likely to hear that Bush is a surprisingly talented painter, even a charming dinner companion. He is a friend of Michelle Obama: “I love him to death.” she said — and if she likes it, why shouldn’t we? His approval ratings have rebounded dramatically, going from a lethargic 33% favorable when she left office to a solid 61% favorable in 2018. according to a CNN poll. For a Republican, he’s starting to seem refreshingly rational and reasonable.
How did that happen?
Well, obviously part of this is due to the passage of time, which heals all favorability ratings. Nixon, who was ousted from office during the Watergate scandal, was more popular when he died in 1994 than when he resigned 20 years earlier. Bill Clinton bounced back from his Lewinsky lows. Americans quickly forget their history. His evil is enough for the day, as the Bible says.
But the main thing that happened, I’m afraid, was someone even worse and more terrifying: Donald Trump, a president so utterly transgressive that Bush began to look almost okay in the rearview mirror.
Yes, it was Bush, not Trump, who signed the Patriot Act and mishandled Hurricane Katrina, presided over the start of the Great Recession, and championed the privatization of Social Security. He was the idiot who extolled the Americans who were “working hard to put food in his family” and asked “Are your children learning?” and then he dared to insist that he had been “undervalued”. His policies caused far more deaths than Trump’s.
But at the end of the day, there is a significant distinction in my mind between the mistakes perpetrated by Bush and those attributable to Trump, who for my money really was the worst president, certainly of my life.
Trump was not just any bad president.
What made Trump unfit was not his policies or even your beliefs, to the extent that he had any. It was his character. He is a dishonest, anti-democratic, twice-indicted demagogue, a corrupt and irresponsible man with no principles who couldn’t get over his own obsession with personal enrichment, personal aggrandizement and a place on the center stage.
His refusal to accept the 2020 election results showed that Trump has no respect for American institutions and the rule of law.
Bush made a lot of mistakes and his policies caused a lot of damage (especially if you were, say, a detainee in Abu Ghraib prison). But I never believed that he would put his own ambition for power above the best interest of Americans.
I hate having to make such dire moral distinctions. Perhaps these exercises are best left to the philosophers.
But the distinctions matter.
As much as I dislike Bush and strongly disagree with Liz Cheney and am horrified by so many Republican positions, I look forward to the day when my political opponents are no longer reckless rule breakers or coup instigators.
I look forward to the day when we can go back to fighting the issues with Republicans who are not crazy or Trump.
In the meantime, the priority for now and for the foreseeable future must be wresting control of that party from the dangerous hands of Donald Trump and denying him and his acolytes a path back to power, because that would be catastrophic for the United States, its reputation, prosperity, and peace and security.
I’m not saying I want to bring back George W. Bush or anyone like him. I’m just saying that Donald Trump is a special case and poses a unique threat.