Monday, April 29, 2013

My Complicated George W. Bush Feelings

I don't usually like talking about politics, but I think I'm going to end up doing that from time-to-time on this blog. I'm not an expert on politics and probably won't ever claim to be. I generally dislike nearly everything about it as well. It's a dirty game and I (like probably everyone else) worry about our country's future with the political discourse that goes on. Of course any person who has studied history knows political discourse has always been dirty. Chester Arthur spent much of his short Vice-Presidential tenure trying to undermine James Garfield. This was due to a Republican party that was split (sound familiar?) and had two different factions of the party wanting to further two different agendas. Two centuries ago Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton dueled to the death because they disagreed. So relative to that, political discourse right now is pretty tame. I'm probably considered a moderate, though I am not exactly moderate on a lot of issues in my own opinion, I am just open-minded.

Anyway, the opening of his Presidential Library has gotten me thinking a lot about George W. Bush and the legacy he tells us he doesn't care much about right now. In 1998, the young, naive Bengoodfella swore he would never vote for George W. Bush if he ran for President (I also was a big John Edwards fan, so I hope that gives some more perspective on my naivety) because I thought he should have stayed Karla Faye Tucker's execution. 15 years later I know of greater injustices caused by our legal system than a reformed murderer being executed for her crime. So when George W. Bush ran for President in 2000, I listened to the debates, became horrified at Al Gore's makeup in the first debate, became confused by what a Compassionate Conservative really was, and eventually did not vote for George W. Bush. This was my first election where I could vote so I was very interested to find out the least until 1am when the election wasn't decided and I had a Biology exam at 9am the next morning that I had not studied sufficiently for. I gave up and just decided I would catch up on who won in the morning. Little did I know I would have another month or so to catch up and find out who the next President would be.

I immediately got wrapped back up into my own personal dramas and life, while thinking school vouchers weren't a bad idea and spent very little time trying to figure out what a Compassionate Conservative truly was. Roll on to September 11, 2001 when everyone's life in the United States changed in some way. I was that jerk who was saddened, scared and angry at the attacks on the Pentagon and New York City. I say I was that jerk because I wasn't really, really shocked at the events of 9/11 and this angered some of my friends. I knew people hated the United States and after Columbine, the Oklahoma City federal building attack, and the fact Saddam Hussein was still alive I thought it meant we could never rule out terrorist activities on U.S. soil. I didn't expect the enormity of the terrorist attack on that day though. The idea I wasn't shocked at the idea of a terrorist attack on American soil upset some of my friends, as if I was demeaning what had occurred or wasn't feeling any of the same emotions they were, which could not have been further from the truth. I knew the United States was hated and knew there were crazy people out in the world. I never thought the hatred would manifest itself in exactly the way it did on September 11.

So pushing ahead, wars occurred, WMD's weren't found, and I supported George W. Bush in 2004 because I wanted to give him a chance at four more years and I didn't like John Kerry as a candidate for President. That's sort of the problem with the two-party system, if you greatly dislike one candidate and want to vote to make a difference, then your options are limited. I had to go with the candidate I sort of liked over the candidate I didn't really like. So skipping ahead again, Bush didn't do a bang-up job in his second term. He made controversial decisions, controversial comments/actions regarding Hurricane Katrina, and then became a war criminal to many people. It's not exactly how I envisioned his second term going. So war protests happened frequently and nobody liked George W. Bush.

An interesting side-note to this is there is a very, very liberal college in my area that used to have students protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the front of the school with signs and yelling about Bush/Cheney being war criminals and begging the passing motorists to end the wars. I'm not sure what protesting to motorists was intended to accomplish, but at least they were speaking their mind. Then Barack Obama got elected, the same wars continued, Gitmo stayed open, and the protests magically stopped completely. It led me to believe the protests were less about Bush's policies and more about the fact they didn't like George W. Bush because of his political orientation. That's their right, but I can't say it didn't have an effect on me and show me this is how politics really works. If anyone could close Gitmo and stop the war it was Obama, right? It wasn't his war and he was resoundingly elected in 2008. We're getting to ending the war of course and bring our troops home now, but the protests just stopped immediately outside the college even though the war was still going on. I guess they don't feel the need to protest if it's their guy in office.

So after Bush's policies and me feeling the need for a fresh voice I voted Democratic in 2008. Yeah, I'm apparently a swing-voter and I hate it. I believe nothing, I have no real opinion, but only vote based upon how the wind blows. That's what you will hear/say. When I'm given two options for a meal I sometimes end up choosing a meal that I don't completely like, but won't give me indigestion. I like the idea of a two-party system, but I don't like having to compromise parts of what I believe every four years to vote for one of the two candidates. Trying to rectify this, I didn't vote Democrat and Republican in 2012 and was accused of wasting my vote by pretty much everyone. That's America for you. Agree or disagree with us, but you can only vote for the two options you are presented. You get chicken or steak. If you choose to only eat a salad then you get looked down on.

I'm getting off-topic now. I'm supposed to be describing my complicated feelings about George W. Bush. I have read his biography and watched all the interviews leading up to the Presidential Library dedication. He's unapologetic and clearly believes history will judge him more fairly. That's his choice and probably a good way for him to get past the fact he was extremely unpopular as he left office. I still look at a lot of his presidency as wasted, because 9/11 got him side-tracked and his agenda went with it. More about this in a minute, but he couldn't pass Social Security reform or immigration reform and he created the policy of attacking the enemy before they attack you (again). A foreign policy of preemptive action, that's part of his legacy. Punch someone before they punch you. His presidency wasn't a high point for this country and all the momentum he built on September 14, 2011 standing on the rubble at Ground Zero never completely took shape into other areas of his presidency.

The more I think about Bush, the more I see him as an example of American politics at its worst and how the Republican party has betrayed him. He's person non grata in the Republican party now. What's funny to me is that I don't think this is completely Bush's fault (his relationship with the Republican party). There are portions of Bush's immigration reform that can be seen in the immigration reform bill that is being proposed now. At no point will you hear that Bush's idea of immigration reform was rejected in 2007 by some of the same people who now think it is a good idea. The same goes for Social Security reform. Obama is proposing Social Security reform that looks a bit like what George Bush proposed and couldn't get passed. Of course, it was Republicans preventing him from passing the Social Security reform since he couldn't get support from his own party. So two of Bush's proposals that didn't pass in Congress while he was President still have legs in today's world. I don't think this obviously changes his legacy or anything like that, but it shows me that had there been an alternate universe where 9/11 never happened maybe we could have had meaningful Social Security or immigration reform prior to Obama's election. The Republican party didn't help him pass this legislation when he was President and it probably feels he is too moderate now (you know, if they didn't stay away from him because they also view him as a huge failure) to really help the Republican party with new ideas to attract voters. He's poison on all levels to them.

So Bush is at this bad spot politically. He's a war criminal who took away civil liberties away in the opinion of many Democrats, while to Republicans he is a person non grata who helped set them back as a party by having a failed Presidency (I would argue very strongly Bush isn't the cause of the Republican party losing the White House in 2008 and 2012). Bush really didn't do a good job of pleasing either party. He was considered hateful by Democrats, but wasn't quite hateful enough by some Republicans. His presidency was a failure, much of it his fault, but I can't ignore the fact he faced stern opposition from even in his own party when trying to pass reforms.

Nearly every interview given with Bush nowadays has the interviewer desperately trying to get him to apologize or admit he was wrong. Then they ask him about his legacy and he reinforces the fact he doesn't care about his legacy. It's become repetitious and slightly boring. Bush has said repeatedly that he doesn't care to talk about his legacy or guess what his legacy will be. He even told John King of CNN (in essence) "I will be dead when my legacy is finally decided, so I wish I would stop getting asked." He seems secure in his legacy and I think that frustrates many people. They want him to list all of the mistakes he made and he just won't do that. He's certainly being a very good ex-President, that's for sure. He has been quiet and not criticized his successor, which is always a classy thing to do.

I don't feel bad for Bush or anything like that, but he's poison within his own party and I don't know if it is completely because of his policy decisions as President. I think it is because his values don't match up with the direction part of the Republican party wants to move. He has to take some satisfaction in knowing there are many who bash his presidency but also don't completely disagree some of the ideas and proposals he submitted as President. Republicans love Bush when it comes to the Bush tax cuts, but otherwise they would rather he just go away and stay away, even if he isn't as grating as Karl Rove or give off an icky feeling like Dick Cheney can.

It's interesting how Bush goes out of his way not to apologize for his decisions and claim he doesn't care what we right now think of him, but he also goes to great, great lengths to make us understand his decisions and why the decisions he made were made. So I think he does really care what the public thinks about him. His autobiography went about explaining why he made certain decisions as President and he has a "Decision Points" exhibit in his Presidential Library where a visitor can interactively go through the decision-making process for big decisions based entirely on the advice that Bush received from his advisors. For a guy who doesn't care about his legacy he is trying very hard to convince people the decisions he had to make weren't exactly easy.

My feelings about Bush are very conflicted. I don't think he did a great job as President but I also don't understand the decisions he had to make in the climate where he had to make those decisions. I have no concept of the advice he was being given and had to act upon to keep America safe. I'm not excusing him, just saying the climate after 9/11 was pretty heated and preventing another terrorist attack was a major concern. Bush is certainly responsible for the Housing crisis in some ways, but I am not entirely sure another President could have avoided the housing bubble from popping and Wall Street going belly-up. I obviously could be wrong. It's complicated for me because I voted for him once, didn't vote for him another time and I don't hate him. I think he really believes he did the best he could. There was not another terrorist attack on American soil during his Presidency and Bush takes that as a success. Obviously there is a means to this end which has caused some controversy.

Bush seems convinced history will judge his legacy in a different way, but I'm not entirely sure. Who will his champion be 30 years from now? He is still a punchline four years out of office, Democrats generally don't like him and Republicans don't dare speak his name since it is synonymous with failure to many in the party. Who will stick up for him and try to change his legacy or help history see him differently? Even those who are furthering the political agenda that Bush began (or parts of that agenda) won't share credit or mention where some of these ideas originated. History is written by the winners and Bush didn't win. He presided over the failing economy, the housing crisis, two unpopular wars, Hurricane Katrina, and enhanced interrogation techniques. His work in Africa, the integration of his Cabinet, and keeping the United States safe after 9/11 will probably be a footnote to his presidency. I'm not sure history will judge George W. Bush any crueler than the present has done, but with no one being his champion I'm not sure Bush will need to be dead before he can fully understand what his legacy will be either.

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