The jig has been up for some time now for the once revered Bush administration PR machine with the President's job approval rating failing to crack the fortieth percentile in more than two years. In fact, the President's numbers never really rebounded since 2005 following his hugely unpopular attempt to privatize Social Security; the tragic milestone of 2000 fallen U.S. soldiers hit and surpassed in Iraq; and of course, his administration's woefully inept response to Hurricane Katrina.
That year, Katrina's wake washed away whatever credibility remained following the exposure of this Administration's penchant for payola, staged "town hall meetings," disingenuously named initiatives like "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests," fabricated news reports praising the President's prescription drug program, gallingly inappropriate stunts like strutting across an aircraft carrier in a flight suit to declare "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, and even a phony reporter planted in White House press briefings as a lifeline. Such propaganda tactics would make "The Ministry of Truth" from George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 blush.
And now the same folks that brought us the needless $3 trillion war in Iraq have the mother of all swan songs left in store: redefining the Bush legacy as something other than a failure. Weekly Standard senior writer and GOP insider Stephen Hayes let slip earlier this month that an unofficial White House PR campaign is afoot - which Hayes dubbed the "Bush Legacy project" -- with the mission of highlighting what they believe are the President's accomplishments and shirking responsibility for the more numerous and far more consequential failures.
For instance, during the first in a series of scheduled media "exit interviews" with the President, ABC's Charlie Gibson asked Bush if he could have a "do-over," what it would be. In true "mistakes were made" form, Bush shrugged off any personal responsibility, replying: "[T]he biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said, you know, the weapons of mass destruction, is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration."
In reality, more than a few people formerly in his administration have come forward as witnesses to a serious failure of leadership, not intelligence, including former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and former CIA national intelligence officer Paul Pillar. Collectively, they tell a tale of a White House that cherry-picked questionable intelligence supporting the claim that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and blatantly ignored intelligence that contradicted it. A White House that pressured Clarke and others to find any way to link the 9-11 attacks to Saddam Hussein. A White House that outed an undercover CIA operative in retribution for her husband going public about dubious claims Bush made about Iraq pursuing nuclear material in Africa.
Their accounts perhaps provide some explanation why Bush, when asked why he rarely mentioned Osama bin Laden anymore during a March 2002 press briefing, -- just six months after the attacks of 9-11 - replied: "I don't know where he is. I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him." By that time, the mastermind behind the most deadly attack ever on American soil who shamefully remains at large today on Bush's watch had already become an afterthought in the most costly bait and switch scheme in our nation's history.
No further proof is needed that the White House PR team is a shell of its former self with their decision to allow the always loveable, reassuring face of Vice-President Dick Cheney back on the airwaves again, despite the recent CNN poll that found 1 and 5 Americans think he is the worst VP ever. Darth Buckshot is still up to his old Jedi mind tricks, confidently looking the American people straight in the eye and insisting that waterboarding isn't torture and that the unimaginable human and financial toll of the war in Iraq was well worth it. Not stopping there, during an interview with ABC News, Cheney said he adamantly disagreed with Karl Rove's recent statements that if the intelligence concluded that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, the nation probably would not have gone to war. And when asked on Fox News Sunday this weekend what he thought was the "highest moment the last eight years," Cheney didn't skip a beat: "Well, I think that the most important, the most compelling, was 9/11 itself, and what that entailed." 9/11, his proudest moment? Clearly Dick didn't get the memo.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the White House recently felt the need to distribute a memo to Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials with vague talking points on what Bush accomplished the last 8 years, just in case they find themselves at a loss of words during their final round of public speeches. The memo reportedly includes such talking points as "responded with bold measures to prevent an economic meltdown;" "kept the American people safe;" and maintained "the honor and the dignity of his office."
No word yet whether the highlight reel will include the President's assault on labor or the 6 million fewer Americans that have health insurance since he took office; or the nearly 2 million lost jobs and the more than 2.5 million homes have that been foreclosed on so far this year; or the national debt nearly doubling to over $10 trillion thanks to repeated irresponsible tax cuts for millionaires in a time of war.
No word yet whether the talking points on the unnecessary and mismanaged war in Iraq will note the over 4,200 dead Americans soldiers and over 30,000 more wounded; or how we are less safe as a result after yanking critical military resources from the central front on terror in Afghanistan.
We can expect some self congratulation on the President's education program, but not for the millions of children left behind thanks to its underfunded mandate. No word yet whether the systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming will make the list. Or how about all the sweeping deregulations written by and for their biggest supporters from the big drug, financial, insurance and oil companies that delivered record profits for each industry at our expense?
And what of the deep recession the nation has struggled through for the last year? The White House memo reportedly proclaims that Bush "responded with bold measures to prevent an economic meltdown." Indeed, another "Mission Accomplished." The millions of Americans who have lost their jobs and homes this year or saw their retirement evaporate on Wall Street apparently owe the President a debt of gratitude.
The White House will no doubt keep attempts at white washing recent presidential history relatively quiet for now. Because, really, how would it look for the sitting President to be focusing his remaining days in office repairing his legacy rather than on the enormous problems left in its wake, like the half a million more jobs that disappeared last month?
But while the administration's subtle efforts at an extreme legacy makeover may seem laughable today considering Bush's painfully obvious culpability for the nation's woes -- that doesn't mean those efforts should be left unchecked at any level. Just ask the Reagan administration.
In 1987, President Reagan's job approval rating plummeted to 42 percent during the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. However, in the remaining months of his presidency, Reagan went largely unchecked and managed to leave office with a 63 percent approval rating -- allowing his conservative disciples to redefine his presidency as an example of successful conservative governance. A remarkable feat, to be sure, for a legacy of unhinged deficit spending, draconian cuts in federal assistance to local governments, a homelessness boom, and a refusal to acknowledge the fledgling AIDS epidemic. Reagan got away with repairing his legacy on the way out the door; George W. cannot be allowed to do the same.
Fearing a repeat of history, Americans United for Change launched a preemptive strike in January 2008 with a multi-million dollar "Bush Legacy Project" of our own with the goal of cementing into history how 8 years of failed Bush-conservative polices have ruined our economy, threatened our national security and sacrificed so many key domestic priorities. The effort included a national television ad aired around Bush's final State of the Union address and culminated with a 5 month long national Bush Legacy Bus Tour, a 45 foot, 23 ton museum on wheels featuring interactive exhibits on Bush's worst policy failures. The Bush Legacy Bus traveled 24,000 miles, visited 42 states, and was visited by tens of thousands of Americans while parked in front of the local constituent offices of Bush's conservative enablers in Congress.
The Bush legacy should be remembered as a grand and failed experiment of what happens when conservatives are in complete control of the government. Conservative ideology rails against government, argues that government is the problem, not the solution. So when a government run by conservatives is faced with the most important responsibility any government has - to protect its citizens - is it any wonder you wind up with a tragedy of epic proportions like Katrina?
For helping drive a stake in the heart of conservative governance for years to come, Bush actually deserves all the credit and thanks in the world.