In Sunday's Washington Post, Douglas Brinkley opened the official public portion of the debate amongst historians as to whether President Bush has been the worst president in American history. Meanwhile, the debate on this topic has been on-going in the blogosphere for as long as I can remember. Brinkley writes that it's the Iraq War which will place George W. Bush amongst our worst presidents and most of us from the blogs can agree that it's one of the president's leading trespasses on a long, long list.
Iraq, in fact, is a terrible symptom of the president's horrifyingly awful reaction to September 11. It is his mishandling of 9/11, ultimately, that makes him not amongst our worst, but the worst American president.
I've always held that anyone -- even a child -- would've reacted similarly to President Bush during and after 9/11 in all aspects. His stunned inaction during My Pet Goat in Florida; his initial statements; his address before the joint session of Congress; the invasion of Afghanistan; everything. All predictable, all textbook, all ordinary. It was all too typical of President Bush's mediocre nature: do what is basically expected, but not much else. And then, rather than using 9/11 as a means to unify us all through humanitarian legislation and positive, uplifting acts to truly change the world for the better, the president instead exploited 9/11 with the goal of consolidating executive power and selfishly indulging the foreign policy whimsy of his associates.
Almost as tragic as the attacks themselves, President Bush turned the nation and the world down a path of darkness, tragedy and more death. America is more divided than it has been since the Civil War. Many former allies disdain and merely tolerate us. It's difficult to image now that the people of Iran -- an "axis of evil" nation -- held massive candlelight vigils honoring our fallen citizens. As a result of the president's 9/11 reactions, Republicans, in their defense of the president, have tossed aside intellectual honesty, rationality and thoughtfulness, while Democrats, with their patriotism constantly and wrongfully at issue, have either acquiesced or have allowed formerly important issues to sag under the weight of dealing with cleaning up the president's mistakes.
Looking back at the last five years, I can't help but to compare our recent history to a time travel movie in which the time-space continuum has skewed into an alternate reality and the events that should've happened after 9/11... simply never existed. In other words, September 11 should have initiated an era of peace and collective world unity. But through the president's incompetence, stubbornness, ambition and greed, the polar opposite has occurred. For five years, we've existed along a false timeline in which Biff Tannen is a wealthy gambling kingpin -- his pearl-handled revolver aimed at Michael J Fox's head.
I firmly believe that President Bush's incompetent actions from 9/11 through today will be viewed as one of the great historical "what ifs." Imagine if Nixon had been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Imagine if Stephen Douglas had defeated Lincoln and allowed secession and continued slavery. Imagine if the French hadn't joined us in our fight for independence. Since 9/11, it feels as if we've lived through one of those dark what ifs.
Imagine if President Bush had been a better man and used 9/11 to appeal to the better angels of our nature.
What if he hadn't withdrawn much of his financial pledge to help the heroes of 9/11 with medical costs, and, now that they're no longer useful in photo ops, has allowed them to die slow, choking deaths mired in bankruptcy? What if the president had pledged as much money and support for the surviving first responders as he has for Halliburton and the Iraq War?
What if the president had kept his eye on Bin Laden rather than pulling out, leaving Afghanistan to flounder and Bin Laden to escape unharmed?
What if, like Lincoln (the president's unlikely roll model), the president had used 9/11 as a catalyst to inaugurate an era of renewed equality?
What if the president had preserved our liberties and worked in a bipartisan way in Washington, rather than chiseling away our rights and destroying the national unity that we felt on those days in September?
What if the president hadn't exploited 9/11 so flagrantly for politics and profit as to strip it of its deserved reverence?
What if, instead of a man who actually grins and smirks when discussing Iraq casualties, we had a president with the intellectual and oratory chops to make any of these "what ifs" a reality, because President Bush surely does not.
A better man usually aspires to positivity in the face of tragedy and brutality, but in the final analysis history will show that President Bush barely even tried.
It's a hell of a lot easier and feels so much better to appeal to the reactionary aspects of human nature: the lizard brain fight or flight instincts we all have. It's easy, then, for American leaders to pursue and exact revenge, especially when our nation is the sole military superpower. "The people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon," isn't the modern equivalent of "four score and seven years ago" or "a date which will live in infamy." It was a ham-fisted applause line. It was an easy statement of vengeance. And it was his finest moment. Later, in an address at ground zero, the president recycled the Gettysburg Address which not only served to devalue the impact of Lincoln's words, but also exposed the president as unoriginal and, in context of others like Lincoln, made the president seem small and inadequate.
Can you remember a single complete line from the president's 9/20/01 joint session address? I can't. Thinking back to those weeks, I remember a litany of bumper sticker slogans better suited for tourist traps than the Oval Office. Slogans like "smoke the evildoers out of their holes" and "we will not be cowed" and "watch this putt" are amongst the first to come to mind. Not quite the caliber of sentiments expected of a world leader whose every word, as the elected representative of his people, should have rightfully reflected the posterity of those who died on that day.
Thousands of men and women were killed in an attack which stemmed from American foreign policy blowback, and the most comforting lines President Bush could deliver amounted to a syllabus of roadside billboards and dialogue from bad video games. I recall waiting for his next line to be, "All your base are belong to us." He came close to that Zero Wing line with, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." There it is. There's the line. I remember now. His most memorable line from the 9/20 address was an ultimatum to people like Saddam Hussein and, I believe, most of the Democrats and the news media. Subsequently, both the traditional media and the Democrats alike caved on the Patriot Act and every lie perpetrated in the lead-up and early execution of the Iraq War.
Iraq itself certainly carries more than enough weight to make President Bush one of the worst presidents ever. But despite its nonexistent connection to 9/11, Iraq was, in the mind of the president, an opportunistic reaction to 9/11. Iraq was the "Pearl Harbor type event" heralding an Iraq invasion the PNAC neocons fantasized about in the 1990s. So you can't cite Iraq without forever coupling it with 9/11 as the latest and most deadly result of "hearing from all of us."
The myth of President Bush as somehow a "hero" of 9/11 needs to end. If we can, for just a moment, look through the smoke, rubble and death and evaluate our chief executive's reactions to 9/11, it's easy to see a man who wasn't meant to be president during this era -- a man who most definitely was not designed for his time.
If we set aside the benefit of the doubt the president received after 9/11, it's easy to recall a series of decisions that guided us deeper into darkness and death, rather than into the enlightenment of a new era in world history. Instead of compassion, inspiration and humility, we can easily recall indulgence, dangerous pride and indignity; sloganeering and exploitation in lieu of positive words and deeds -- words and deeds which so many of his predecessors have managed to summon under similar duress.
The feeble, laughable President Bush who has emerged in recent years is the President Bush that would've existed throughout his first term had 9/11 never happened. Were it not for the undeserved support he received after 9/11 -- support which didn't reflect upon him, but rather on the patriotic instincts of America to rally around the president (any president) -- he would've surely lost his re-election bid and been relegated to the ranks of our most ineffectual presidents.
When you couple this basic incompetence with the awful track record of his post-9/11 history, it's not hard to rank him amongst our worst presidents. Far better presidents have been doomed to single terms, simply because they didn't have a major national crisis to falsely inflate their importance. But you'd be hard pressed to find any president who handled a national crisis in a similarly haphazard, destructive way. And there-in, lay the Iraq War.