Sunday, January 04, 2009

"A president forgtten but not gone"? That's a bit Rich...

I have no admiration, no soft spot, really no respect for George W. Bush. I think he's wrought terrible damage -- to our Constitution and civil liberties first and foremost, to U.S. interests and influence, to our economy and our environment. But I also think that this week Frank Rich guilds the lily with his bitter denunciations of the outgoing president. The piece is full of false analogies and overdrawn conclusions.

Start with Rich's take on the Administration's attempts to deal with the shoe-throwing incident:

Condi Rice blamed the press for the image that sullied Bush’s Iraq swan song: “That someone chose to throw a shoe at the president is what gets reported over and over.” We are back where we came in. This was the same line Donald Rumsfeld used to deny the significance of the looting in Baghdad during his famous “Stuff happens!” press conference of April 2003. “Images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over,” he said then, referring to the much-recycled video of a man stealing a vase from the Baghdad museum. “Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” he asked, playing for laughs.

Not all attempts to minimize an event are equal. Rumsfeld's blithe dismissal of U.S. forces' failure to stop a looting epidemic was a disgustingly callous write-off of a catastrophic problem. Rice, in contrast, can claim with some justification that the rage expressed by one individual -- notwithstanding that it was widely embraced by many Iraqis -- is not the main story in Iraq right now. She is speaking in the wake of hard-won, not to say miraculous, improvements in levels of violence and of government control of Iraq. The changes may not hold, but they are real.

Rich is surely right that the Bush Administration's "Accomplishments" booklet presents a risibly one-sided view of its record in Afghanistan, Pakistan, on the environment, etc. (My own take on eleven Bush 'accomplishments': "Arrayed together, they look like the pillars of an impressive presidency -- if you discount the incoming missiles of multiple disaster.") But really, what Administration does not idealize its own record?

In the same vein, Rich might be taking on any president's special pleading when he complains:
The president who famously couldn’t name a single mistake of his presidency at a press conference in 2004 still can’t.He can, however, blame everyone else. Asked (by Charles Gibson) if he feels any responsibility for the economic meltdown, Bush says, “People will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived.”
That's true. Bill Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Blilely act tearing down the walls between investment and commercial banking. Robert Rubin and Larry Summers opposed regulating derivatives. Clinton pressured Fannie Mae to loosen requirements for subprime lending (albeit in ways that look tame compared to the fraudulent and manipulative underwriting that took off in more recent years). That's not to minimize the destructive effects of the Bush Administration's much more aggressive antiregulatory zeal. But Bush is not out of line to point out that financial deregulation was in large part a bipartisan project.

Finally, while Bush deserves no pity and little honor, Rich willfully misunderstands -- or absolutely refuses to credit -- Bush's account of his internal experience:
The crowning personality tic revealed by Bush’s final propaganda push is his bottomless capacity for self-pity. “I was a wartime president, and war is very exhausting,” he told C-Span. “The president ends up carrying a lot of people’s grief in his soul,” he told Gibson. And so when he visits military hospitals, “it’s always been a healing experience,” he told The Wall Street Journal. But, incredibly enough, it’s his own healing he is concerned about, not that of the grievously wounded men and women he sent to war on false pretenses. It’s “the comforter in chief” who “gets comforted,” he explained, by “the character of the American people.” The American people are surely relieved to hear it.
Bush really did undertake a grueling number of visits to wounded soldiers and the families of those killed in action. That doesn't excuse rushing to war under false pretenses. But it also doesn't mean that he's not sincere in acknowledging the emotional toll that exposing himself to soldiers' and their families' suffering took on him, or in recounting the consolation he took from such meetings. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln are both reported to have taken a similar consolation, as Bush doubtless knows. It's not unflattering to the self to speak of such consolation. But I don't think it's faked, either.

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