It was inspiring to see them side by side at Southern Methodist University in Dallas: Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. For their service to this country, we are indebted to each one of them.
It’s just too bad they got together for such an inauspicious occasion: dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. I hate to be a party-pooper, but there are two things wrong with that. One, we don’t need another presidential library. The landscape’s already cluttered with 13 of them.
There’s no George Washington Library. No John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison Library. Yet, ever since FDR, we’ve bought into the rule that every president, good, bad, or blah, has to have his own egocentric, brick-and-mortar building — instead of building one new Smithsonian Presidential Library housing the papers of every former president.
Second thing wrong: for the next week or so, everybody’s going to feel obliged to say nice things about President Bush. On his arrival in Texas, even President Obama, who repeatedly blasted “the failed policies of George W. Bush” and his “dumb” war in Iraq during his 2012 re-election campaign, praised him as someone “concerned about all people in America, not just those who voted Republican.” The Wall Street Journal trumpeted that Bush’s approval rating is up since he left office. In the National Journal, Ron Fournier challenged all Americans: “Go Ahead, Admit It: “George W. Bush is a Good Man.”
Well, I’ll make a deal with Mr. Fournier: I’ll admit that George Bush is a good man — if he’ll admit that George Bush was a lousy president! I met President Bush a couple of times. He was always kind to me. He liked to joke around. He would have been fun to have a beer with, if only he’d have a beer. But that doesn’t change the fact that his presidency was a disaster.
Yes, as WSJ reports, Bush’s image has improved since 2008: from 31 percent favorable when he left office to 35 percent today. Hardly a cause for celebration. And the reason it’s not higher is because Americans have not forgotten his record. It’s too recent and too painful.
We’ve not forgotten that George Bush inherited a $236 billion surplus from Bill Clinton, but immediately squandered it with two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans that put us back to deficit spending. We’ve not forgotten the ban on embryonic stem cell research. We’ve not forgotten the fact that George Bush launched two deficit-financed wars — a justified war in Afghanistan and an illegal war in Iraq, based on lies about weapons of mass destruction — which, together with the tax cuts, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, will account for almost half of the $20 trillion debt the nation will owe by 2019.
We’ve not forgotten the wave of illegal phone taps at home and illegal water-boarding abroad that followed September 11. Indeed, how could we forget? A two-year, nonpartisan review by the Constitution Project, a legal research and advocacy group, published this week concluded that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” in the years immediately following September 11. Not only that, they also reported “no firm or persuasive evidence” that torture provided any information that could not have been obtained more readily by other, legal, methods.
We’ve not forgotten the slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, a direct result of Bush budget cuts to FEMA. Nor have we forgotten the crash of 2008, which brought this nation to the brink of financial disaster and resulted in the loss of 8 million jobs. In fact, we’re still trying to recover from it.
Of course, George W. Bush also did some good things. He tried to soften the image of the Republican Party by steering it toward a policy of “compassionate conservatism.” He was the first to put forth a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, a plan almost identical to the one President Obama proposes today, and a plan Bush’s fellow Republicans rejected to their own misfortune. And, unlike his former vice president, President Bush has set a model for former occupants of the Oval Office by staying on the sidelines and out of the headlines.
For this, we give him due credit. But that doesn’t change the facts: George Bush is a nice man, but he was still a mediocre president.