As January 20 grows larger in the window, I've been thinking more often about the Bush legacy -- specifically about certain aspects of the president's record that are in danger of being completely obliterated and replaced with myths and wholesale fiction. Some of this effort is of course the purview of Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and their legacy project, while rough drafts of revisionist Bush history are being contributed by certain establishment media hacks -- desperate to chisel into the record their take on this outgoing president.
For example. Last week on a special episode of Hardball, my favorite insufferable hack, TIME's Mark Halperin, remarked that one of the president's greatest accomplishments was his response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
I do think he deserves high marks for his public presentations after a rocky start in the first few hours. [...] You can't be sure of it, but I'm confident that he performed there very well. And other presidents may not have performed as well.
Which other presidents? Lincoln after Fort Sumter? Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor? Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis? At least Halperin interrupted his verbal dry-hump to acknowledge (sort-of) that President Bush sat there in a glazed stupor for nine minutes after being told, literally, that America was under attack.
Like many Bush legacy myth-makers, Halperin has no sense of history. Or he does, but he conveniently ignores it. If he were able to peg this historical event into its proper context, Halperin would realize that the president's "rocky start" was the first in a series of disastrous performances. The Indonesian tsunami. The Iraq insurgency. Katrina. The economic meltdown. And on and on. Halperin describes those several hours as if the president's inexcusable behavior was an isolated incident -- an aberration -- a brief hiccup in an otherwise stellar eight years of lightning fast reflexes and unwavering heroism.
The rest of the president's September 11 response, Halperin says, deserved "high marks." Better than other presidents, he told Chris Matthews who somehow maintained a straight face.
Not a chance in hell, Mr. Halperin. President Bush's immediate response to September 11 was mediocre at best, even by the most lenient criteria. This notion that he somehow rose above and beyond the very basic template -- the standard operating procedure for reacting to a crisis is nothing more than a tall tale. A lie, if you will.
The patriotic flag-waving of those days managed to temporarily obscure the reality that his was a paint-by-numbers response. Nothing more. Inevitable roundelays of Lee Greenwood, Chinese-made yellow ribbon magnets and American flag window clings (most of which ended up festooning the medians of America's highways), confused the senses and helped to create the myth that President Bush was a colossus of leadership. The efficacy and accuracy of Mark Halperin's spurious draft of post-9/11 presidential history depends entirely upon the patriotically-skewed memories of those days.
In fact, any human being who occupied the office of the presidency on September 11, 2001 would very likely have handled things the same way. Knowing what we know now about the president's incompetence, it's actually conceivable that a hypothetical Random President X -- Al Gore, for instance -- might've performed even better.
Any random human being would've been hustled to the safety of Air Force One. Any random human being would've delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress. Any random human being might've said, "Coming here makes me sad on the one hand, but it also makes me angry," whilst visiting the destruction at the Pentagon. By the way, President Bush actually said those words at the Pentagon when asked by a reporter to respond to the devastation there. The great and powerful Bush, whose response was apparently more awesome than most, said he was both angry and sad. Brilliant! High marks!
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 drive" are among the first that come to mind. Not quite the caliber of sentiment expected of a world leader whose every word, as the elected representative of his people, should have rightfully reflected the memory of those who died on that day.
Ultimately, if we look beyond the generous benefit of the doubt the president received after September 11, it's easy to recall a long line of reactions to September 11 that guided us deeper into darkness and death, rather than into the enlightenment of a new era in world history.
What I recall is a litany of awful, illegal and destructive responses to September 11 on behalf of the president. I'm thinking specifically about White House-sanctioned torture. I'm thinking about extraordinary rendition. I'm thinking about Abu Ghraib and illegal invasions and interminable occupations. I'm thinking about how a CIA agent tasked with tracking loose nukes was outed as part of effort to lie about the justifications for that invasion and occupation. I'm thinking about 35,000 American military casualties. I'm thinking about post traumatic stress disorder. I'm thinking about a system that allowed many September 11 heroes to die of respiratory-related illnesses. I'm thinking about illegal and unconstitutional searches and seizures. I'm thinking about the USA PATRIOT Act, the Military Commission Act and the "terrorist surveillance program." I'm thinking about known-knowns, "bring 'em on" and "watch what you say" warnings. I'm thinking about orange alerts, duct tape, bottled-liquids bans, cable news animations of exploding airplanes and national waves of hysteria tweaked by well-orchestrated fear-mongering campaigns. I'm thinking about the tens of thousands of terrorist attacks -- some of them on American soil, most of them against American interests and all having occurred despite the lie that the Bush administration has "kept us safe." To that point, I'm thinking about decades of future blowback which historians and foreign policy experts might attribute directly to President Bush's reaction to September 11.
Instead of compassion, reason, rationality and inspiration tempered with humility -- traits evident in the crisis-handling of other presidents -- we can easily recall self-indulgence, dangerous pride and indignity; sloganeering and exploitation in lieu of positive words and deeds -- words and deeds which so many of President Bush's predecessors have managed to summon under similar duress.
So in the face of a well-funded and high profile revisionist crusade, one of the most important tasks of our generation will be to preserve the real legacy -- the legitimate history -- of the Bush administration, and especially the sheer mediocrity of President Bush's immediate response, and utterly destructive long term reaction to September 11.
The motivation for rising to this challenge need only be found in the thought of our posterity learning the history of those days and the broader history of this decade as written by Mark Halperin and Karl Rove.
Order my book: One Nation Under Fear, with a foreword by Arianna Huffington. Also available in stores.