Finding the Proper Epitaph

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 17, 2008; 1:18 PM

President Bush takes his legacy tour to the Army War College in Pennsylvania today, to make the case that he deserves credit for the absence of a terrorist strike against the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.

It's the latest salvo in the White House's continuing campaign to promote more positive views of the Bush presidency than the ones more commonly held by the public.

"Protected the Nation" is precisely the kind of epitaph the White House would like to see for Bush. But is it the best one? Iraq and the war on terror will inevitably be central to his legacy. Yet so may the devastated economy. There's also the matter of Hurricane Katrina, the growth of executive power, the decline of government competence, and so much more.

What do you think is the appropriate -- and appropriately short -- epitaph for this presidency? Share your views in my new discussion group, White House Watchers.

Today's Episode

The Associated Press reports: "On his way out of office, President George W. Bush is returning to the theme that helped win him a second term: preventing another terrorist strike against the United States.

"Bush on Wednesday was trumpeting his record on national security, emphasizing that terrorists have not struck again since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when homeland protection became his focus. The president was expected to promote the steps his administration has taken, such as reshaping the intelligence community and disrupting terrorists' financing, that future presidents can build upon for 'the long struggle ahead,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. . . .

"The White House sees a high point in its defenses against terrorism since Sept. 11 and is determined to promote the point.

"'Keeping America safe since that tragic day did not happen by accident,' Perino said."

The choice of the War College as a backdrop for today's speech is typical, as it will provide Bush with an audience guaranteed to be polite. But it's also a reminder of some of Bush's biggest failures.

More than a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq, the War College published a prescient report -- Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario -- that the White House essentially ignored. As James Fallows wrote for the Atlantic in 2004, the report warned of ethnic and regional tensions, advised that Iraqis would quickly turn against an occupying force and set out a 135-item checklist of key tasks that might have avoided disaster.

Then, in December of 2003, the college published a scathing report saying the war in Iraq was not only distracting from the real war on terror, but that Bush was pursuing an "unrealistic" quest that might lead to wars with states posing no serious threat.

Bush nevertheless chose the War College as the site of a major speech about the war in May 2004 -- a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to reverse the growing tide of public discontent over a campaign that had turned increasingly violent.

Did He Let the People Down?

Bush held yet another substanceless "exit interview" yesterday -- this one with CNN's Candy Crowley.

Crowley: "Has there been a time in the past eight years when you thought, 'I have let the American people down at this moment'?"

Bush: "I have given it my all. I have poured my heart and soul into the job. I have -- I understand, the institution of the president is more important than the individual. And, by recognizing that, you work to strengthen the institution.

"And I'm sure people have disagreed with my decisions, but they have been made with a lot of deliberation. And they have been made with one thing in mind, what's best for the United States of America."

Crowley asked Bush about his plans for the last several weeks of his presidency. "I feel a sense of obligation to my successor to make sure there is not a, you know, a huge economic crisis," Bush said. Then he admitted "we're in a crisis now. I mean, this is -- we're in a huge recession, but I don't want to make it even worse."

He also announced that he was encouraging his brother Jeb to run for Senate in Florida.

And then there was the hand-holding.

As Wolf Blitzer put it to Crowley: "He seemed also sentimental. And he reached out to you. I'm showing our viewers this picture. There he is. You can see him holding hands with Candy Crowley. There they are."

Crowley explained: "I think he really is nostalgic. . . . I've covered him for a long time. . . . But it was -- his weird moment was the shoe throwing and my weird moment was the hand holding."

Legacy of Lies

Two major reports in the last week provide a devastating view of Bush's legacy as a wartime leader.

The New Yorker's George Packer reads through both -- a bipartisan inquiry by the Senate Armed Services committee into treatment of detainees (see my Friday column), and a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction -- and feels sick to his stomach.

Packer writes: "The nausea I felt came from having seen and heard almost all of it before. The Senate inquiry finds that the humiliation and cruelty inflicted on prisoners at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib followed from directives that originated in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The Inspector General's report (which, at 513 pages, contains far more revealing detail than the declassified version of the Senate inquiry) establishes that the U.S. government was completely unprepared for the reconstruction of Iraq, owing to the almost criminal negligence of those responsible, and that the years since the invasion have been marked by bureaucratic confusion and incompetent execution, with private contractors playing a large role in the disaster. In both narratives, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld are the prime culprits, heading a large cast of failed officials, along with a few quiet dissidents. Both documents show, without quite saying so, that years of official statements amount to a long string of lies."

He adds: "The official sanction of torture and the woeful management of occupied Iraq are related pieces of a much larger epic: the first is marked by criminality, the second by bureaucratic ineptitude, but they are joined together as expressions and outcomes of the ideas and habits of mind of the highest officials in the Bush Administration. Eventually the country will need, even if it won't entirely want, the whole story to be told. The best way to tell it would be to reproduce the 9/11 Commission -- to convene a single bipartisan panel, with the authority to look into the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of the war on terror, and give the panel full investigative power, even if its conclusions put some of the principals in legal jeopardy."

The Torture Legacy

Matthew Duss writes in a commentary for the Guardian about Vice President Cheney's interview on Monday with ABC News: "Watching Cheney's brusque dismissal of concerns about his methods in the war on terror, you'd be forgiven for coming to the mistaken impression that these methods have worked. There is no evidence that they have. . . .

"The intelligence community, including professional interrogators, is virtually unanimous on the point that, as a means of interrogation, torture is effective at one thing -- extracting false confessions. As an instrument of political rhetoric however, torture has been used by Cheney and other conservatives as a means to evoke toughness, the willingness to embrace cruelty to protect Americans. But whatever short-term political gain this tactic may have had in expanding executive branch prerogatives, the damage to America's reputation -- making a mockery of our claims to uphold human rights -- has been incalculable.

"Given the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the international disgraces of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and the CIA's black sites, the Bush administration's sole claim to counter-terror success is the fact that the US homeland has not been attacked again since 9/11. As to actual proof that the absence of such an attack is the result of his policies of kidnapping and torture, Cheney just says: 'Trust me.' But for someone with a record of dishonesty like Cheney's, . . . such claims are simply not sufficient. If there's one thing Dick Cheney no longer deserves, it's the benefit of the doubt."

David Rose writes about detainee abuse for Vanity Fair: "Putting aside all legal and ethical issues (not to mention the P.R. ramifications), does such treatment -- categorized unhesitatingly by the International Committee of the Red Cross as torture -- actually work, in the sense of providing reliable, actionable intelligence? Is it superior to other interrogation methods, and if they had the choice, free of moral qualms or the fear of prosecution, would interrogators use it freely? . . .

"In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts."

The Broken Government Legacy

Michael Doyle writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Politics corroded Bush administration decisions on protecting endangered species nationwide, federal investigators have concluded in a sweeping new report.

"Former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald frequently bullied career scientists to reduce species protections, the Interior Department investigators found. Species from the California tiger salamander to plants and crustaceans found in vernal pools were rendered potentially more vulnerable as a result, environmentalists believe. . . .

"'The results of this investigation paint a picture of something akin to a secret society residing within the Interior Department that was colluding to undermine the protection of endangered wildlife and covering for one another's misdeeds,' Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., declared Monday."

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "In a report delivered to Congress on Monday, the inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found serious flaws in the process that led to 15 decisions related to policies on endangered species.

"The report suggested that at least some of those decisions might need to be revisited under the Obama administration."

The Last-Minute Legacy

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Not content to leave office as the most unpopular president in recent history, Bush is cementing his legacy of hardheaded autocracy by pushing through a record number of last-minute and particularly noxious changes in federal regulations. Bypassing congressional debate and often receiving public comments through government websites, the administration has in recent months issued dozens of 'midnight regulations' that in some cases could take years to reverse. This isn't just leaving a stamp on the country, it's more like inking a tattoo. . . .

"Once Barack Obama is sworn in, he'll have the power to clean up these regulatory disasters. That alone makes Jan. 20 feel like Christmas, Hanukkah and Three Kings Day rolled into one."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The Bush administration is doing a last-minute overhaul of the visa program for temporary farmworkers to make it easier to hire foreigners over Americans, to lower workers' wages and to erode their rights. You would think that after failing for eight years to fix immigration, the administration would pack it in rather than make one last listless stab at a solution. But this plan isn't even that -- it's just midnight meanness, right in time for the holidays."

Timothy Egan writes in a New York Times op-ed: "Imagine if President Bush, on his last day in office, invited his friends to lift the Lincoln portrait from the White House Dining Room, take the 18th- century furniture from the Map Room and -- for good measure -- poison the Rose Garden on the way out.

"In essence, he is doing the same thing this month with land that belongs to every American -- the magical redrock country of the Southwest."

Laura Meckler writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The outgoing Bush administration this week will finalize a regulation establishing a 'right of conscience' allowing medical staff to refuse to participate in any practice they object to on moral grounds, including abortion but possibly birth control and other health care as well.

"In transition offices across town, officials in the incoming Obama administration have begun considering how and when to undo it."

The Overspending Legacy

David Morgan writes for Reuters: "U.S. military operations, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, have cost $904 billion since 2001 and could top $1.7 trillion by 2018, even with big cuts in overseas troop deployments, a report said on Monday.

"A new study released by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, or CSBA, said the Iraq conflict's $687 billion price tag alone now exceeds the cost of every past U.S. war except for World War II, when expenditures are adjusted for inflation."

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "The government's spending commitments exploded by 25 percent in 2008, putting taxpayers more than $1 trillion in the hole even before the astronomical costs of the economic bailout were taken into account, according to an annual report released Monday by the White House. "

The Economic Legacy

Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "The deepening recession has eroded the financial standing and optimism of a broad swath of Americans, nearly two-thirds of whom say that they have been hurt by the downturn and that the country has slipped into long-term economic decline."

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "For the first time since welfare was redefined a dozen years ago, weaning millions of poor Americans from monthly government checks, the deteriorating economy is causing a surge in welfare rolls in a growing number of states. . . .

"[T]he new face of welfare includes people who have tumbled from the middle class -- and higher -- after losing jobs, savings and self-reliance. And some are returning to welfare years after they thought they had found permanent work and independence."

President Clinton and Congress abolished the old welfare system in 1996 and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which has strict time limits for benefits and work requirements.

But with this new economic downturn, Goldstein writes: "The job-centric nature of welfare remains popular in principle across the political spectrum -- but harder to put into practice. 'If there is no employment out there to get, then what?' asked Shery Bader, employment services manager for Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida."

Nuclear Proliferation Legacy

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "Implacable hawks with influence on the Bush administration are gutting what could have been President Bush's prime achievement in national security. Instead of leaving the Obama administration a disabled North Korean nuclear reactor and an effective agreement to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear arms, Bush may instead bequeath his successor an avoidable crisis, with North Korea restarting its nuclear reactor.

"The hawks - a group that includes Vice President Dick Cheney and former UN ambassador John Bolton - have sought to sabotage negotiations with North Korea in two ways. One is to break US commitments made in a series of six-party talks. The other is to demand that North Korea perform certain actions before any mutual agreement on those actions has been reached."

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The development of nuclear arsenals by both Iran and North Korea could lead to 'a cascade of proliferation,' making it more probable that terrorists could get their hands on an atomic weapon, a congressionally chartered commission warned yesterday.

"'It appears that we are at a 'tipping point' in proliferation,' the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States said in an interim report to lawmakers."

A Biographer's View

Bush biographer Robert Draper writes for CQ: "This has been a hard presidency to live through. Only an idiot, or Karl Rove, would claim otherwise. But as the Bush years dwindle in America's rearview, I'm struck by a certain irony -- which is that Bush's early detractors never imagined him capable of having such a jarring impact on American life. Remember? The incoming forty-third president was widely suspected of being a slight, apathetic, and drearily predictable figure. The sort of White House occupant you would barely notice. Well, history may very well condemn Bush, but not for irrelevance.

"Throughout my three-year reportorial odyssey inside the Bush White House, I heard numerous testimonials from uniformly sane, intelligent individuals who gushed with praise about one of the most unpopular presidents in recorded history. At times their admiration reminded me of the Beltway dupes in the movie Being There who elevated the vapid utterances of an idiot gardener to Moses-like sagacity. At other times, I understood exactly what they meant. Casual and smirky but also highly self-disciplined and a peerless listener; at times bullying and snappish but also gracious, self-deprecating, and ultimately humble . . . simple and not at all simple -- but definitely, memorably compelling."

Bush "usually had his feet on the desk and was scowling at some briefing paper or other, tending not to look up when I entered. Then would come his wiseass appraisal. By way of greeting, the president usually commented on my scuffed shoes or poorly chosen necktie. Whatever. It was important for him to establish dominance, and I was only too happy to make him feel comfortable. Early on, Bush had confessed to having a very poor memory -- 'I literally have trouble reconstructing events two weeks ago' -- and so I had learned that little was to be gained by hammering him on specific matters. Instead, I tended to throw out a couple of topics -- his relationship with al-Maliki, the Katrina flubs, immigration, the midterm 'thumpin' -- and let Bush free-associate, guided by my occasional intrusions."

Library Watch

From McClatchy Newspapers: "The present hasn't worked out so well for President George Bush. So now he's banking on a kinder and gentler future.

"With the days quickly counting down on Bush's White House lease, plans for the George W Bush Presidential Library are ramping up as architects finish designs for an edifice on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas intended to burnish the president's image for the ages.

"'I'm confident that people will come to change their mind about the president and some of the decisions he made,' said Mark Langdale, a longtime Bush friend who heads the foundation that is overseeing the library's development. 'You need time to get past the current news cycle and the prejudices and emotions of the moment'"

The Shoe Legacy

Robert Scheer writes in his San Francisco Chronicle opinion column: "The shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist is now a venerated celebrity throughout the Mideast, and his words to the president - 'this is the farewell kiss, you dog' - will stand as the enduring epitaph in the region on Bush's folly, which is the reality of his claimed legacy of success in the war on terror. That and the shoe-thrower's devastating follow-up as he threw his second shoe, 'This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq,' a reminder that we have used much deadlier force than a shoe in the shock-and-awe invasion once celebrated in the American media as a means of building respect for democracy."

One particular phrase from Bush's interview with ABC News's Martha Raddatz, right after the shoe-throwing incident, seems to be taking on some resonance. Bush said al Qaeda chose to make a stand in Iraq, Raddatz pointed out that al Qaeda hadn't even been in Iraq until the U.S. invaded -- and Bush replied: "Yeah, that's right. So what?"

Here's Newsweek's Howard Fineman talking to Keith Olbermann on MSNBC Monday night:

Olbermann: "And the legacy project, this obvious attempt in the last month, two months to improve his reputation as history begins to write his story, how is that going, exactly?"

Fineman: "Well, it's not going well. He's gone around to give a series of interviews to television stations and networks, and print outlets. They've not gone well because he doesn't have that great of a story to tell. . . .

"[T]he key line from that Martha Raddatz interview . . . -- that phrase, 'so what,' really, really sums up to a lot of people what the legacy has been."

Deepak Chopra blogs for Huffingtonpost.com: "As he makes the rounds of exit interviews, Mr. Bush continues to throw shoes at us. His 'So what?' attitude toward the disaster he created is the first shoe, the second is his blind assertion that the war in Iraq is close to victory. Informed Middle East experts, the very sort he ignored at the outset of his military adventures, point to a fragile peace that could be shattered at any moment. The Sunni population of Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed. Sadr City remains a powder keg. Half of the country's two million Christians have been wiped out or forced into exile. Civilian casualties since the invasion, counting the losses in sectarian attacks, amount to 150,000 at the very least and could be over 600,000 -- no one knows.

"For Mr. Bush to ignore these brutal facts and try to paper them over with slogans about democracy and victory must have something to do with the shoes hurled at him. It's heartbreaking to think of the pent-up rage and sorrow that lie behind the act. Those feelings are far from being quelled. Should Iraq turn into a Shiite theocracy with anti-American leanings, a fate that seems to be in the offing, Mr. Bush will have another thing to say 'So what?' about, but at least he'll be doing it in private."

Lin Noueihed writes for Reuters: "A shoe-throwing incident at an Iraqi news conference with George W. Bush has inspired a spate of Internet games where the players hurl footwear at moving targets of the U.S. president. . . .

"One game, which appears on the site www.sockandawe.com -- a pun on 'shock and awe,' the term used by U.S. military officials to describe the initial air assault on Baghdad in 2003 -- gives players 30 seconds to try to hit Bush with a shoe as many times as possible, with the score appearing in a corner of the screen. . . .

"Another game at bushbash.flashgressive.de, includes a leader board on which players can post their best scores. . . .

"'Bush's Boot Camp' starts with an audio quote of Bush saying 'those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.'"

Crisis Planning

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "The White House has prepared more than a dozen contingency plans to help guide President-elect Barack Obama if an international crisis erupts in the opening days of his administration, part of an elaborate operation devised to smooth the first transition of power since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The memorandums envision a variety of volatile possibilities, like a North Korean nuclear explosion, a cyberattack on American computer systems, a terrorist strike on United States facilities overseas or a fresh outbreak of instability in the Middle East, according to people briefed on them. Each then outlines options for Mr. Obama to consider. . . .

"The Bush team has also invited Obama transition officials to attend a 'national level exercise' set for Jan. 12 and 13 that may play out what would happen if the top leadership of the nation were wiped out in a single stroke, officials said. . . .

"The White House said the flurry of briefings and memorandums was meant to be helpful to the incoming administration, not an attempt to dictate to it, and members of the Obama team said they were taking it in that light."

The Anti-Bush

From the transcript of Time Magazine's interview with Obama:

Q. "When voters look at your Administration two years from now, in the off-year election, how will they know whether you're succeeding?"

Obama: "I think there are a couple of benchmarks we've set for ourselves during the course of this campaign. On [domestic] policy, have we helped this economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the road that assure this kind of crisis doesn't occur again? Have we created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves? Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care and expanding coverage? Have we begun what will probably be a decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? Have we begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our public-school systems so we can compete in the 21st century? That's on the domestic front.

"On foreign policy, have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution? Have we rebuilt alliances around the world effectively? Have I drawn down U.S. troops out of Iraq, and have we strengthened our approach in Afghanistan -- not just militarily but also diplomatically and in terms of development? And have we been able to reinvigorate international institutions to deal with transnational threats, like climate change, that we can't solve on our own?

"And outside of specific policy measures, two years from now, I want the American people to be able to say, 'Government's not perfect; there are some things Obama does that get on my nerves. But you know what? I feel like the government's working for me. I feel like it's accountable. I feel like it's transparent. I feel that I am well informed about what government actions are being taken. I feel that this is a President and an Administration that admits when it makes mistakes and adapts itself to new information, that believes in making decisions based on facts and on science as opposed to what is politically expedient.' Those are some of the intangibles that I hope people two years from now can claim."

David Von Drehle writes for Time: "For having the confidence to sketch that kind of future in this gloomy hour and for showing the competence that makes Americans hopeful that he will pull it off, Barack Obama is Time's Person of the Year for 2008."

Golf Watch

Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin write in the D.C. Examiner: "Even though President Bush declared in May that he was putting his golf game on hold while the Iraq war goes on . . . he's likely to pick it up after he leaves the White House.

"During Tuesday's White House holiday party for journalists, a Yeas & Nays spy asked Bush whether he was looking forward to 'guilt-free golf' after his presidency.

"The golfer in chief acknowledged as much with a chuckle and a smile, but added that, even though he's liberated to return to the links after January, there are some problems with playing golf post-presidency.

"'But no strokes!' joked Bush, referring to the all-too-common practice of presidents being granted excessive mulligans by those lucky enough to golf 18 holes with the commander in chief."

Live Online

My Live Online discussion today will be slightly delayed -- until 3 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation!

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes, Bruce Beattie, Walt Handelsman, Mike Keefe, Bob Englehart, Rex Babin, Ed Gamble, David Horsey, Pat Bagley, and Keith Knight on the shoes.

And Gene Weingarten is soliciting suggestions for how Garry Trudeau should iconize the next guy.

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