The Bush presidency: a retrospective

Posted on January 15, 2009

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President George W. Bush gave his farewell address to the nation tonight, ending a tumultuous eight year stint in the White House that saw the nation change fundamentally during his time in office.

In November 2000, I was a college sophomore voting in my first presidential election. I watched the primaries from afar, then did the student’s homework of comparing Bush and Gore. I made a chart during the debates outlining each of their positions to better make my decision. After consideration, I decided that Bush was the better choice, and I cast my first vote, entering the electorate and proudly becoming an active participant in the political process.

The Florida debacle put citizens at each others’ throats. Though Bush won every recount, and came out ahead in several objective recounts after the election was certified, cries of Bush was “selected not elected” and Bush “stole the election” and Bush “isn’t my president” echoed throughout the land. The tone for the Bush presidency was set.

The first few months were largely uneventful, save for the scandalous fall of Enron, and a quiet presidential term might have been served out had it not been for the events of one day: September 11, 2001, a day that changed the tone and nature of our country as surely as the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. The left and the right praised Bush for guiding us through those trying weeks and months as we learned the face of the enemy and went after him in Afghanistan. Some of that praise was later withdrawn in 2004 as Bush’s concerned facial expressions as he read to children after learning of the attacks were ridiculed during that campaign as showing a lack of responsiveness.

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In early 2003, another campaign would begin that would define the Bush presidency: the invasion of Iraq. Citing information from both domestic and international intelligence agencies that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, weapons he had used against Iran and against the Kurds, the Bush administration made the case to the United Nations that these WMDs could not be allowed to fall into terrorist hands as Hussein would be favorable towards the enemies of the free world. The UN passed a final resolution prompting Hussein to disarm and allow in weapons inspectors to verify the disarmament. Hussein refused, and against a great deal of world opinion, America invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003.

During the conquest of the country and the subsequent capture and trial of Saddam Hussein, the war again split the nation in two. The war in Iraq has been compared to Vietnam, always unfairly in my opinion. From a military standpoint, the Iraq war was successful in securing the territory of a nation and driving out all remnants of the previous regime, like capturing Hanoi and occupying North Vietnam would have been. The to date 4,152 American military deaths from a brutal and bloody insurgency utilizing guerilla tactics and IEDs are each and every one a tragedy, but as a whole they do not numerically compare to the nearly 56,000 killed in Vietnam. And the level and intensity of public opposition to the war, while increasing gradually over time, never approached the frenzy of the late ’60s.

Regardless, after scouring the country, no WMDs were found, though the Duelfer Report noted that Hussein planned on reconstituting his weapons programs as soon as international pressure subsided. Nevertheless, Bush’s critics used this lack of “probable cause” to paint him as a bloodthirsty warmonger eager to inflate the bottom line of Halliburton. Bush tried to communicate that the war in Iraq was more than just a search for WMDs, but a campaign to free an oppressed nation from a brutal tyrant, to plant the seeds of democracy in a hotbed of intolerance.

Domestically, he was raked over the coals for the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which was more of a failure on the state and local levels than at a level of preseidential responsibility. Despite this, the nation enjoyed decent economic times and steady job growth until the last year of Bush presidency, when the bottom fell out from the banks and the scurrilous charge of too much deregulation was blamed.

After a first term where his supporters vigorously defended him against hateful charges from the left and carried him to reelection victory against John Kerry, they were slowly disappointed over the course of Bush’s second term with episodes like the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination, the Dubai Ports deal, and culminating in a massive immigration reform bill concocted with the help of Ted Kennedy and John McCain that saw massive opposition from the American people. The final ignominy was his insistent push for the bank bailout. He leaves a Republican party in shambles and a conservative movement in shreds as his attempt at “compassionate conservatism” has split the once unified front into political pragmatists eager to reach toward the center-left and embrace big government and principled conservatives who adhere to Reagan conservatism.

Bush always seemed to bring out the absolute worst in his detractors. Called a “miserable failure” by then Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, he was mocked for his poor communication skills and insinuated to be nothing more than a dumb monkey by late night comedians and left-wing pundits, even though he had better grades than the supposedly erudite Kerry. He was called ridiculous names like Nazi and fascist, and fears of his reimposition of a military draft were stoked in the 2004 campaign. On an almost daily basis, he was subjected to intense and unrelenting attacks, some on policy, many personal, since the first day of his presidency.

The Bush years could be seen as a lost opportunity, and without question, he has made missteps, which he himself acknowledged tonight. Yet I firmly believe that despite whatever political differences or disagreements one might have with his decisions, George W. Bush is fundamentally a decent man. I do think that he made his calls on what he thought was right for the country, not what was politically expedient at the time. He never responded directly to his fiercest critics, electing to attempt to stay above the fray, which may have been classier but ultimately hurt him in the long run.

A president cannot be judged fairly until most of the people who lived through his term are either dead or elderly. Until then, hatreds and passions will burn too brightly for a fair accounting. I don’t know how history fifty years from now will judge George W. Bush, and he won’t be reckoned among the greats of our leaders, but I think he will be better judged than those who hate him believe. If nothing else, he kept our homeland safe from terrorist attack and operated out of a love of his country and a deep faith in the American people. He deserves some criticism, but he did not and does not deserve the disgusting personal assaults he has had to suffer for eight years. The classlessness of the haters shows me the incorrect way to criticize and oppose politicians, and I will strive to never act as I have seen them act.

So I watch the first President I voted for walk away from the podium. America has changed under his watch, just as I myself have changed, just as every single one of  us has been a witness to history and been altered by it. Another chapter in America’s story has ended. Whatever his choices, he made them from a love of country, and no matter what else, Bush is a good man and a patriot. He did the best he could, and he tried the best he knew how. I wish George W. Bush well, and I thank him for his eight years of service.

Update: They just can’t resist. Michelle Malkin has the final parting shot at Bush from the Associated Press, and Patterico has the fair and balanced headline from the L.A. Times.. Let the man be, already.

Update: The independent-minded Christopher Hitchens, who voted for Obama, explains why he’s glad Bush won the White House, and the Wall Street Journal theorizes on the the real reason Bush is hated.

Update: In a final juvenile and classless insult, the former President is mocked during the transfer of power. So much for all that unity and bipartisanship. Listen, kids, you won the election and have control of both houses of Congress. Try to show at least a little class, or at least act like adults. You just embarass yourselves otherwise as the rhetorical bullies you really are.

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Posted in: News, Politics