Americans have been looking back on the two Bushes in absurdly glowing terms — the younger George since his grandiose speech on democracy (in which he blasted Donald Trump), and the elder since he died last week. I’m not generally one to take someone down in the wake of his demise, but I do make exceptions, not least when it comes to revisionist affection for very bad leaders.
In an earlier post I ranked the presidents who served during my lifetime — from Nixon to Obama — and I ranked them on the basis of their actual presidential record, not on the basis of charisma, management style, or reputation. My ranking was as follows:
1. Jimmy Carter — 49/60 (Good)
2. Bill Clinton — 42/60 (Average)
3. Gerald Ford — 38/60 (Average)
4. Richard Nixon — 28/60 (Poor)
5. Barack Obama — 20/60 (Bad)
6. Ronald Reagan — 15/60 (Bad)
7. George H.W. Bush — 12/60 (Bad)
8. George W. Bush — 4/60 (Atrocious)
Jimmy Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and the Bushes were the worst. I explained my scoring in detail here, but I repaste the explanations for the two Bushes below, since they are apparently needed in our age of alternative facts and absurdist revisionism.
George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993. Rating: Bad
Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We are still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East. Herein lies the biggest misperception of the elder Bush: he had the reputation of being wimp, but he was actually even more aggressive in using the military than Reagan, and he landed consequences more calamitous. His war against Iraq was an overnight success but a long-term disaster; because of it Osama bin Laden turned the jihad onto America; this in turn led to a second (and even more outrageous) war in Iraq by Bush’s son; and because of all that, Al-Qaeda morphed into the even worse Islamic State. As Ivan Eland notes, “Historians always give presidents credit for winning wars but never ask if the conflicts could have been avoided, or whether a long line of horrible consequences is worth the mesmerizing short-term military triumph.” (Eleven Presidents, p 242)
Prosperity (2/20): Because of Reagan’s unruly spending as a percentage of GDP, federal budget deficits ballooned to ungodly levels that would be superseded only under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It was left to the elder Bush to clean up Reagan’s mess, which he did not do, and ended up presiding over the recession of 1990-91. Setting a horrible precedent for both his son and Obama, he approved the largest federal bailout in American history, costing the government $300 billion over ten years. He should have followed the free market approach, at least to a degree, of letting savings and loans banks to go broke and allowing the economy to right itself as a matter of course.
Liberty (7/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and had commendable views on immigration. But his sins outweigh these causes. He pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal. He escalated the war on drugs, demanding more prisons and jails and prosecutors, while of course maintaining the legal disparities that made African Americans ten times as likely to be incarcerated. He did nothing to help against the spread of AIDS, regarding it mostly as a contemptible issue. And on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho: the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders; the residents were acquitted of all crimes; and yet one of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy.
A total score of 12/60 isn’t the record of a good president by a long shot. Just because you can watch an old video clip that shows George H.W. making favorable remarks about immigrants, and contrast that with an overt racist like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean the former deserves to be lamented. Seriously.
George W. Bush, 2001-2009. Rating: Atrocious
Peace (0/20): The younger Bush was an atrocious president in every way, and in my opinion the second worst in U.S. history after Woodrow Wilson. He invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) Ivan Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” He earns an absolute goose-egg in the peace category.
Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which killed the economy worse in the longer run.
Liberty (3/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions.
Those who conveniently forget why they were so infuriated by the above atrocities should pull their heads out of their asses. George W. was certainly not a “good president compared to Donald Trump”. He was appalling, pure and simple.