The View From Bush's Dead End

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 19, 2008; 12:49 PM

Wondering how President Bush rationalizes his conviction that history will vindicate him?

Washington Post opinion columnist Charles Krauthammer this morning offers insight into Bush's thinking -- and an extraordinary example of the contorted logic required to defend what ever-increasingly appears to have been a massively failed presidency.

Bush hasn't had an extended interview with a reporter since early August, hasn't held a news conference in more than two months, and won't even take quick questions at photo ops anymore. Nevertheless, the president found an hour to talk to Krauthammer about his legacy on Monday.

The columnist emerged with the following message: Bush is not aloof and detached, as observers such as author Bob Woodward would have you believe.

No, he is possessed of "equanimity."

"In the hour I spent with the president (devoted mostly to foreign policy), that equanimity was everywhere in evidence," Krauthammer writes, "not the resignation of a man in the twilight of his presidency but a sense of calm and confidence in eventual historical vindication."

To support the argument for historical vindication, Krauthammer indulges in -- or perhaps more accurately, passes along -- one fallacy after another. The most outrageous is the assertion that going to war in Iraq -- which Krauthammer admits remains a bit controversial -- was not entirely the Bush administration's call. "Bush was hardly alone in that decision," Krauthammer writes. "He had a majority of public opinion, the commentariat and Congress with him."

But a central point of the repeatedly validated Bush critique is that the president (either knowingly or cluelessly, we're still not quite sure) led a massive misinformation and exaggeration campaign that led the nation into supporting the war on false pretenses. That his propaganda campaign worked does not somehow allow Bush to evade his personal responsibility. Quite the contrary.

Similarly, Exhibit A for Bush's fortitude is the president's decision -- "in the face of intense opposition from the political establishment (of both parties), the foreign policy establishment (led by the feckless Iraq Study Group), the military establishment (as chronicled by Woodward) and public opinion itself" -- to order a troop surge in Iraq.

"The surge then effected the most dramatic change in the fortunes of an American war since the summer of 1864," Krauthammer writes.

But despite the Washington conventional wisdom, there is plenty of reason to doubt the surge's effectiveness. See, for instance, my interview on NiemanWatchdog.org with author Peter Galbraith.

Galbraith explains that violence in Iraq is down for a variety of reasons -- least among them the surge. And his key and very important point is that if "victory" in Iraq is a secular, democratic and pro-Western Iraq, then the surge -- regardless of what the White House and its defenders would have you believe -- has not gotten us any closer. Rather it has led rival factions to dig in their heels, consolidate their power, and prepare for an epic battle once the coast is clear and Bush is long gone.

Krauthammer writes that Bush notes "with some pride" that "he is bequeathing to his successor the kinds of powers and institutions the next president will need to prevent further attack and successfully prosecute the long war."

Those of course include the power to conduct surveillance without a warrant and torture terror suspects.

Krauthammer then concludes by chanelling Bush's favorite, if widely disputed presidential analogy: "Bush is much like Truman, who developed the sinews of war for a new era (the Department of Defense, the CIA, the NSA), expanded the powers of the presidency, established a new doctrine for active intervention abroad, and ultimately engaged in a war (Korea) -- also absent an attack on the United States -- that proved highly unpopular.

"So unpopular that Truman left office disparaged and highly out of favor. History has revised that verdict. I have little doubt that Bush will be the subject of a similar reconsideration."

Former Karl Rove deputy Peter Wehner blogs for Commentary: "Charles Krauthammer is in my opinion the finest columnist of his generation and one of the finest columnists America has ever produced. His pieces are always worth reading, but his climate-changing piece in today's Washington Post, on the Bush legacy, is especially so."

And as it happens, also on today's Washington Post op-ed page, former Bush adviser and now columnist Michael Gerson writes that everyone else is wrong about the Bush Doctrine-- even including Krauthammer.

"The content of the Bush doctrine directly reflects President Bush's convictions about the nature of the post-Sept. 11 world," Gerson explains.

"[W]hen President Bush's foreign policy vision was under general assault in late 2005 and early 2006 -- the bloody low point of the Iraq war -- he set out in his 2006 State of the Union address to defend three prongs or elements of the Bush doctrine against growing American isolationism."

Gerson describes them as:

No 1: "Aggressively confronting emerging security threats." (Gerson argues that "Iraq shows the challenges of implementing preemption; it does not disprove the theory.")

No. 2: "Democracy promotion."

And No. 3: "Fighting disease and promoting development."

But the first two prongs, at least, are clearly no longer operative.

A Contrasting View

With a more skeptical view of Bush's legacy, author Ron Suskind writes in Esquire: "George Walker Bush is not a stupid or a bad man. But in his conduct as president, he behaved stupidly and badly. He was constrained by neither the standards of conduct common to the average professional nor the Constitution. This was not ignorance but a willful rejection on Bush's part, in the service of streamlining White House decision-making, eliminating complexity, and shutting out dissenting voices. This insular mind-set was and is dangerous. Rigorous thinking and hard-won expertise are both very good things, and our government for the past eight years has routinely debased and mocked these virtues.

"President Bush was unmoved by any arguments that challenged his assumptions. Debate was silenced, expertise was punished, and diversity of opinion was anathema, so much so that his political opponents--other earnest Americans who want the best for their country--were, to him and his men, the moral equivalent of the enemy. It is important to note just how different such conduct has been from the conduct of other presidents from both parties. . . .

"[T]his ahistoric president seems to have never appreciated just how hard-won are the institutions of American liberty. Article II of the United States Constitution grants stunning power to the president, power almost beyond imagining to be entrusted to one man. But for George Bush and Dick Cheney, it wasn't enough. And so, with a level of secrecy that betrayed a basic mistrust of the American people, they proceeded to expand the awesome power of the presidency and in the process upset the balance of powers designed by the founders. And in this, the president and vice-president found their greatest success. In fact, this presidency has succeeded spectacularly in the project that most mattered to Bush and Cheney, and that is putting the United States on a more authoritarian footing.

"And with our fear being very carefully managed by our national leaders, and with President Bush exploiting our darker instincts, we in the press, in the Congress, in the electorate generally, simply weren't vigilant enough. And that is perhaps the best lesson to take away from the presidency of George W. Bush."

Financial Crisis Watch

For the second day in a row, Bush stepped out of the Oval Office to make a brief statement about the financial crisis. This one was longer than yesterday's -- nine minutes. This time he was flanked by the real men of the hour -- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke -- as well as Securities and Exchange Commission Chris Cox, who Republican presidential candidate John McCain called upon to resign yesterday.

But I doubt it was any more effective. Bush stiffly read a prepared text, summarizing the unprecedented government actions that had already been announced by Paulson and others. And with a surprising lack of emotion, he called on Americans to remain confident in the economy.

"America's financial system is intricate and complex, but behind all the technical terminology and statistics is a critical human factor: confidence," Bush said. "Confidence in our financial system and in its institutions is essential to the smooth operation of our economy, and recently that confidence has been shaken.

"Investors should know that the United States government is taking action to restore confidence in America's financial markets so they can thrive again.

"In the long run Americans have good reason to be confident in our economic strength."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal that Bush's statement yesterday morning (see my column yesterday) "appeared to have little immediate impact save for drawing new attacks from Democrats."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "After days of silence amid a broadening financial crisis, President Bush yesterday defended his approval of 'extraordinary measures' to shore up faltering Wall Street firms and said his administration would remain focused on the 'serious challenges' facing the troubled economy. . . .

"[T]he statement, which lasted just two minutes, included no reassurances about the overall strength of the U.S. economy -- a notable omission for a president who invariably emphasizes the positive when discussing economic issues.

"Democrats criticized the brevity of Bush's remarks and sought to blame him for much of the crisis. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that the meltdown was due to the administration's 'failed policies' on the economy and financial markets and suggested that Bush had failed to offer sufficient leadership during this week's dramatic market turmoil.

"'We wondered if he was ever going to come out of hiding on this subject,' Pelosi said. 'He came out in one minute and said very little. What was expected was an explanation to the American people of what is happening because it has a direct impact on their lives.' . . .

"Leon E. Panetta, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton (D), said Bush 'appears to be AWOL' on the economic collapse. 'When there is what I would call an economic 9/11 crisis on our hands, it is really important to try to restore confidence with the American people,' he said. 'The fact is that people hired him for that job; they didn't hire Hank Paulson.'

"White House aides bristle at such criticism. . . .

"'Democrats will be critical no matter what we do,' said White House spokesman Tony Fratto."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In the increasingly surreal world of the White House, the appearance was a sign that all pretense of normalcy is gone. All week long, with Wall Street engulfed by what analysts are calling the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, President Bush had mostly stayed out of sight, except when trying to maintain the fa├žade of business as usual.

"To be sure, other presidents, most recently Mr. Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, have been careful about what they say in public when Wall Street is in turmoil. But by all outward appearances, Mr. Bush has been reduced this week to almost a bit player in his own government."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press that it's been "[n]ot exactly a week of limited government. Just limited public involvement by Bush."

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: " Mindful of his low approval ratings, President George W. Bush has sometimes likened himself to Harry Truman, an unpopular president when he left office and now admired for his handling of the Cold War.

"But in the grips of what some experts are calling a once-in-a-century financial meltdown, Bush could soon find himself struggling to avoid comparisons to a very different president -- Herbert Hoover, who presided at the start of the Great Depression. . . .

"'The question is, on whose watch did this whole mess happen?' said Terry Madonna, a political historian at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. 'Where was the financial regulation? Where was the oversight? Where were you?' . . .

"'Bush's response to the financial crisis has been Katrina-esque,' said Douglas Brinkley, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, referring to the widespread perception the president was out of touch with the situation when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

"'It's a very fast world and we look for a president to step out in public and get ahead of events. Instead we get delays and wishful thinking,' said Brinkley."

Roger Simon writes for Politico: "George W. Bush will continue to draw a paycheck until noon on Jan. 20, 2009. (If there is still any money left in the U.S. Treasury to pay him, that is.) But what has he been doing to earn his pay lately? Not calming fears among his fellow citizens about their life savings, that's for sure. . . .

"We are talking about a real crisis in America that is going to turn into a real panic unless the president does something. Modern presidents have assumed duties beyond their constitutional ones, and one duty is to provide guidance and leadership that establish calm and restore confidence in times of trouble. George Bush did this very well following Sept. 11, but he is not doing it now.

"The stock market swoons, home prices fall, job losses mount. But the president does not want to talk about it. Not really. And he certainly does not want to take any questions about it. . . .

"He needs to sit down behind that big desk in the Oval Office and have a formal address to this nation. Then he needs to hold a news conference and answer questions, even the unpleasant ones."

Ownership Society Watch

Tony Pugh writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Whether it's disappearing work-based health care, the move from traditional pensions to 401(k)s, the push to privatize Social Security or just making it harder to file for personal bankruptcy, these and other social supports and safety nets that were designed to make Americans more secure have been watered down, abandoned or altered so that individuals bear a greater share of the risk and cost."

Surveillance Watch

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "A privacy group filed a class-action lawsuit on Thursday against the National Security Agency, President Bush and other officials, seeking to halt what it describes as illegal surveillance of Americans' telephone and Internet traffic.

"The lawsuit parallels a legal action brought against the AT&T Corporation in 2006 by the same nonprofit group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, charging that the company gave the N.S.A. access to its communications lines and customer records without proper warrants.

"Congress derailed that lawsuit this year by passing legislation granting immunity to telecommunications companies that had provided assistance to the agency, though the foundation has said it intends to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.

"A lawyer with the foundation, Kevin S. Bankston, said the new suit opened a 'second front' against a 'massively illegal fishing expedition through AT&T's domestic networks and databases of customer records.' . . .

"When Mr. Bush started the program in late 2001, the N.S.A. began eavesdropping inside the United States without court warrants for the first time since 1978, when Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to oversee such intelligence collection. In January 2007, the administration announced that the eavesdropping was once again being conducted under court oversight, but the lawsuit contends that related surveillance programs continue without judicial review."

Just a Joke

Patricia C. McCarter writes for the Huntsville Times about the fundraising brunch for Republican congressional candidate Wayne Parker that Bush was supposed to attend yesterday. Because of the financial crisis, Bush stayed home and sent Cheney instead. The fundraiser was held at "a stately 9,500-square-foot place that resembles the White House."

McCarter writes: "In an air-conditioned tent on the Crosbys' back lawn, Gov. Bob Riley introduced Cheney to the crowd. After the vice president made his remarks, a surprise phone call by Bush was broadcast through speakers. The president generated much laughter when he jokingly referred to the National Security Agency wiretapping without legal warrants.

"'Thank you for your kind words, Riley,' Bush said on speakerphone. 'I was monitoring - by the way, legally monitoring - your introduction.' . . .

"The Parker campaign didn't reveal how much money was raised, but with 300-plus guests there - and some of those paid $10,000 for a more private reception with Bush-turned-Cheney - simple math shows it could have been in the hundreds of thousands."

Iraq Watch

Steven Lee Myers and Sam Dagher write in the New York Times: "An agreement to extend the American military mandate in Iraq beyond this year -- near completion only a month ago -- has stalled over objections by Iraqi leaders and could be in danger of falling apart, according to Iraqi and Bush administration officials. . . .

"The major remaining point of contention involves immunity, with the United States maintaining that American troops and military contractors should have the same protections they have in other countries where they are based and Iraq insisting that they be subject to the country's criminal justice system for any crime committed outside of a military operation, the officials said.

"In a television interview this week, Mr. Maliki cited the example of an Iraqi killed by an American soldier in a market, saying that a case like that should fall 'to Iraqi courts immediately.'

"'This,' he said of the American position, 'they reject.' . . .

"Mr. Maliki also, for the first time, raised the possibility of seeking an extension to the United Nations mandate at the Security Council. . . .

"'Even if we ask for an extension, then we will ask for it according to our terms and we will attach conditions and the U.S. side will refuse,' he said in an interview on Wednesday with the directors of Iraqi satellite television channels. 'U.S. forces would be without legal cover and will have no choice but to pull out from Iraq or stay and be in contravention of international law.'"

Poll Watch

Peter Hecht writes in the Sacramento Bee: "The fact that President Bush's latest job approval rating in California stands at just 25 percent is hardly earth-quaking news in the Golden State. After all, a Field Poll summary concludes that the president has been 'in the very low trough' of polling for two years running.

"But the new state poll is getting personal, and that doesn't reflect well on the president's standing in California either.

"In a Sept. 5-14 Field telephone survey of registered voters, 59 percent of poll respondents said they don't believe Bush is personally capable of handling his job.

"Asked whether 'the primary reason Bush has not performed well is that his personal capabilities have not been up to the level required for the job,' 43 percent of Californians said they 'agree strongly' and an additional 16 percent said they 'agree somewhat.'"

O'Reilly Watch

Ryan Powers reports for Thinkprogress.org that Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly yesterday made this pronouncement on his radio show yesterday: "This is the end of President Bush's legacy. He's done. He's through. . . . You know, I like President Bush personally, I think he's done some good things in the war on terror. But he will now go down in history alongside Jimmy Carter as an ineffectual leader, particularly in the last four years, with Iraq and now the economy imploding. And I'll tell you the reason why: it's poor leadership on his part and the people that he picked to run certain things have been disastrous. And no leadership and now Americans are getting hurt."

Prosecution (Non) Watch

John Curran writes for the Associated Press: "Lots of political candidates make campaign promises. But not like Charlotte Dennett's.

"Dennett, 61, the Progressive Party's candidate for Vermont Attorney General, said Thursday she will prosecute President Bush for murder if she's elected Nov. 4.

"Dennett, an attorney and investigative journalist, says Bush must be held accountable for the deaths of thousands of people in Iraq -- U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. She believes the Vermont attorney general would have jurisdiction to do so.

"She also said she would appoint a special prosecutor and already knows who that should be: former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the author of 'The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder,' a new book."

Respite Watch

At least Bush has something to look forward to today.

Frank Dell'Apa writes in the Boston Globe: "The Celtics have been working on arranging a visit to the White House since shortly after winning the NBA championship in June.

"Three months later, the trip has been finalized and the team will meet President George W. Bush this afternoon."

The team "'received a call from President Bush after the Finals,' team president Rich Gotham said . . . yesterday. 'And about a month later, we received a letter inviting us to the White House. Of course, we said we would be honored to come, but it was a question of finding a date. We were mostly working around the president's schedule."

Late Night Humor

Here's Steven Colbert on Wednesday night, responding to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino's recent pronouncement that Bush has failed to catch Osama bin Laden because he doesn't have "superpowers."

"Why doesn't President Bush have super powers?" Colbert asks. "Yes, we have given him the power to wiretap, to search and seize without a warrant, to go to war without Congressional approval, and to change laws with unlimited signing statements. But those aren't superpowers. They're just unprecedented extraordinary powers. . . .

"We have got to get him superpowers."

Ideally, Colbert concludes, Bush would become "The Decider: A flying, psychokinetic vigilante who can waterboard terrorists in his mind until they give up bin Laden's secret location. He might even get the superpowers he has needed for years, like the psychic ability to know that invading Iraq won't help you capture someone who's hiding out in Afghanistan. Or the super-vision to sense that an intelligence briefing entitled 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the U.S.' deserves a second read."

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger and John Darkow on Bush's view of the economy, Jim Morin on Bush and McCain's view of the fundamentals, Rob Rogers on Bush's dead bull, and Kevin Siers on Cheney and Palin.

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