This post first appeared at Jacobin.
George W. Bush has to be high in the running for the worst president in the history of the republic, and he probably would’ve reigned unchallenged for at least a few decades had Hillary Clinton’s inept campaign not led to her defeat. As it is, the less than two months of Donald Trump’s volatile presidency suggests his full four years will at least be neck and neck with Bush’s eight.
Still, Bush’s presidency was historically disastrous, which makes it understandable that since Trump’s ascent, Bush appears to be waging an understated media campaign to rehabilitate his image — one which the media has happily assisted him with.
Trump’s insanity has led many liberals and other former Bush opponents to start “reconsidering” Bush’s presidency. Slate implored Bush to “speak to his party” about its latest descent into Islamophobia. “Compared to Donald Trump, George W. Bush looks like a paragon of statesmanship,” Francis Fukuyama wrote in 2015. Photos of everyone from Hillary Clinton to Michelle Obama embracing Bush have gone viral, while the former president recently yukked it up with Ellen Degeneres on her talk show.
More recently, Bush earned accolades for saying he didn’t like “the racism” and “name-calling” of the Trump era, and that the media was “indispensable to democracy” — fairly innocuous comments that are apparently grounds for heroism when stated by Bush.
Much of Bush’s rehabilitation is, as the Washington Post recently documented, both a result of the fact that next to Trump, just about anyone compares favorably, and because of a nice speech Bush delivered in 2001 as he prepared to murder and torture thousands of Muslims, telling Americans that “Islam is peace,” speaking out against recent hate crimes, and assuring American Muslims he wouldn’t resurrect Roosevelt-style mass internment. (It is apparently an admirable and statesmanlike thing to pledge not to round up innocent people in camps without due process based on their religion.)
Style Over Substance
In 2011, he had to abruptly cancel a visit to Switzerland after the risk of a criminal complaint against him for torture became a very real possibility. The same year, a seven-member war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur found Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair guilty of “crimes against peace” in absentia. Richard Clarke, a former top counterterrorism official under Bush, is on the record saying he thinks he and his administration committed war crimes.
Contrary to Bill Maher’s recent assertion that Bush was an “honorable man” who liberals “cried wolf” over, the well-known broad strokes of Bush’s presidency are enough to show that Bush was easily one of the most vicious presidents to ever take office. Bush and his underlings sold a campaign of outright lies to the public in order to embroil the United States in a totally unnecessary war that killed between 150,000 and 1 million Iraqis and destabilized an entire region.
He instituted a worldwide torture régime that continues to be stain on the United States’s global image, and which ensnared numerous innocent people. He instituted a vast, secret, and illegal surveillance apparatus, most of which survives to this day. He (just barely) spearheaded a government response to one of the twenty-first century’s worst natural disasters — visited on a majority black city — that was slow, often incompetent, and clearly racist.
Bush’s actions killed and maimed far more Muslims than his nice words ever saved. But this has always been the rub: liberals’ preoccupation with symbolic gestures and saying the right thing also led them to largely give Obama an eight-year pass for carrying out policies that were as bad as — and in some cases, worse than — Bush’s.
It’s also worth noting that the things liberals and radicals hate about Trump, such as his promises of torture and war, weren’t policies he invented. Trump didn’t institute torture or establish Guantanamo Bay — his loveable, goofy predecessor did.
These few things alone should be enough to disqualify someone from being suddenly revered as some kind of elder statesman. Yet Bush’s record was even worse than this.
It’s great that Bush promised not to sweep up hundreds of innocent people in a dragnet in a highly publicized speech. But in reality, this is exactly what he did, rounding up and detaining at least 1,200 people, some for as long as eight months. Many of them were Muslims and most were from Middle Eastern, South Asian, and North African countries; some of them citizens, some of them visa holders. A tiny fraction of them were actual security threats with tangible links to terrorists.
As Human Rights Watch detailed, the administration denied many detainees basic rights like the right to an attorney on the basis that they were non-citizens. In one case, a North Carolina Muslim convert, who was a member of the National Guard, had married a Yemeni man who was visiting the United States. He was detained by the military, while she was accused by soldiers of being a spy and pressured to take an honorable discharge; in another, a US citizen from Palestine was sent home with a leg monitor that served as a constant source of humiliation.
The Bush administration also introduced a secret program, the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CAARP), blacklisting people from certain Muslim-majority countries from becoming citizens, residents, or otherwise immigrating to the United States. The administration also spied on prominent Muslim Americans, including Bush supporters and a former member of his administration, one of whom was actually at Bush’s side as he delivered his now-vaunted “Islam is peace” speech. It instituted the notorious no-fly list which in theory keeps security threats off planes, but in practice keeps small children, a senator, Cat Stevens, and other Muslims with similar names to terrorists off planes.
Anyone alarmed by Stephen Miller’s televised declaration that the president’s powers “will not be questioned” should be reminded that this mindset was the core belief system at the heart of, and pioneered by, Bush’s presidency.
This philosophy, espoused by officials like John Yoo, David Addington, and Dick Cheney, was that of a powerful presidency unencumbered by Congress, international treaties, and other checks on executive power. It was something Cheney had pushed ever since, in his view, Watergate had neutered the presidency, instructing Reagan’s incoming chief of staff in a 1980 memo to “restore power & auth to Exec Branch” and “get rid of War Powers Act.”
Whether or not Bush personally subscribed to this ideology was unimportant; either way, Bush aggressively claimed new, extreme powers as president, including the right of preemptive war and the power to indefinitely detain anyone without due process — a colossal abuse of power both at the time and in the context of two centuries of US history.
A True Friend of the Press
Bush’s anger at the “name-calling” of today’s politics and his defense of the importance of a free press should theoretically come as a shock to anyone who lived through his presidency. Bush was hardly a paragon in this respect.
There was the time Bush was actually caught “name-calling” a reporter for doing the job he now considers essential, calling the New York Times’s Adam Clymer a “major league asshole” without realizing it was being picked up by a microphone. Clymer had had the temerity to write articles that suggested Cheney’s charitable donations were less than the average for people with his net worth, and that Bush ads claiming he had a prescription drug plan had “zero” accuracy. Bush refused to apologize for the insult, offering only “regret that it made it to the airways.”
When Bush found out someone had used the domain www.gwbush.com (you can see it here in its heyday) to make a website critical of Bush, complete with a fake image of Bush snorting cocaine, Bush’s reaction was: “There ought to be limits to freedom.”
Bush’s administration also had a habit of bombing journalists, particularly Al Jazeera.
Bush officials tried to delegitimize Al Jazeera’s reporting on the US siege of Falluja in similar terms to Trump, with a military spokesperson terming their reporting “propaganda,” “lies,” and “not legitimate news sources.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called their reporting “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.”
Under Bush, the United States bombed Al Jazeera not once, but twice: first in Kabul in 2001, when its office was destroyed for reasons the Pentagon couldn’t explain, even after the news agency had given authorities the location of its office; and again in 2003, this time in Baghdad, after the location had again been disclosed to authorities. In the latter, one journalist was killed.
The same day, an American tank killed two Reuters cameramen after it shelled the Palestine Hotel, where more than one hundred journalists were staying, and US forces attacked an Abu Dhabi TV office. According to the International Federation of Journalists, by 2005, sixteen journalists and other media staff had been killed by US forces in Iraq.
The UK’s Daily Mirror later reported, based on a five-page “Top Secret” memo leaked to the agency, that Bush had told Tony Blair in 2004 of his intention to bomb Al Jazeera at its headquarters in Qatar and elsewhere. The memo never saw the light of day, as the Blair government threatened to prosecute any outlet that wrote anything more about it. Prior to this, the Bush administration had detained and tortured a completely innocent Al Jazeera journalist in Afghanistan, keeping him locked up for a total of seven years, six of those in Guantanamo.
Bush loved the adversarial press so much, he continually tried to undermine it by planting pro-administration propaganda in media outlets.
At least four different reporters were paid by the administration to promote various Bush initiatives. Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 to promote Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform plan and to try to get other black journalists to do the same; columnist Maggie Gallagher was being paid $21,500 by Health and Human Services to promote a Bush initiative encouraging marriage, which she did in outlets like National Review; conservative commentator Michael McManus received $10,000 to do the same; and a freelance writer got at least $7,500 from the Agriculture Department to get articles published in outdoors magazines that put a glowing spin on federal conservation programs.
These efforts were particularly pronounced when it came to the Iraq War. The Bush administration planted hundreds of pre-packaged video news releases in local news broadcasts that mimicked the style and appearance of actual news stories, promoting the Iraq War (as well as a host of other administration programs). It also paid a contractor to pay Iraqi journalists for favorable stories and to insert articles by American soldiers in Iraqi magazines.
A Familiar Pattern
Besides this, what makes the sudden push to rehabilitate Bush particularly puzzling is that in many ways Bush’s approach to government was identical to Trump’s, both in its penchant for scandals and its pro-corporate approach.
His anti-environmental policies were no different from Trump’s, with Bush gutting regulations, pulling the United States out of a landmark international climate deal, and staffing various environmental posts with individuals who had worked in industries opposed to their missions. The administration appointed ninety-two lobbyists to its transition advisory teams in 2000 and 2001.
Bush’s administration was so mired in endless scandals, there was at one point talk of “scandal fatigue.” These ran the gamut from a secret energy task force chaired by Dick Cheney that relied on recommendations from the fossil fuel industry, to Karl Rove helping a GOP strategist secure a job at Enron, and a Bush aide’s involvement in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal. There was also the administration’s ties to Halliburton, which couldn’t account for $1.8 billion it had billed the government for contract work in Iraq and Kuwait.
Bush may be dismayed at racism today, but this didn’t stop him from kicking off his 2000 South Carolina campaign at Bob Jones University, which banned interracial dating and called Catholicism a “Satanic counterfeit.” Nor did it stop his campaign from launching a whisper campaign there accusing John McCain of fathering an black child with a woman who was not his wife (his daughter had been adopted from an orphanage in Bangladesh).
As president, Bush would choose Martin Luther King’s birthday as the date to announce his opposition to affirmative action. Even if you care only about symbolic actions, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more pointed symbol than that.
If all of that is not enough, consider this: while governor of Texas, Bush set a record for sending people to die — 119 in five years — after promoting and signing a law limiting prisoners’ rights to appeal. Some of these people included Betty Lou Beets, who killed her husband after a lifetime of abuse, and a convicted rapist who had a mental age of six, had suffered similar childhood abuse (including being forced to drink his own urine out of the toilet), and didn’t even seem aware he was being put to death. Compassionate conservatism indeed.
Bush may not have gone around openly bashing immigrants or shouting his Islamophobia from the hilltops. But if that’s the standard we’re now going to use for decent statesmanship, we’re in trouble. Bush was an arrogant, dangerous president whose recent mild comments criticizing the guy who turned his brother into a national joke in no way outweigh the discriminatory, destructive policies he put in place over eight years, nor the lasting damage he did to the world by launching an illegal war which bathed the Middle East in blood and whose disastrous consequences we will be living with for decades. If the media can’t remember that, one shudders at the thought of how they’ll treat Trump when someone even more reactionary than him ascends to the presidency.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.