Saturday, January 17, 2009

Goodbye, 43

Perhaps the single greatest moment of his presidency: Bush rallies rescue workers in downtown Manhattan, September 14, 2001 [above].

On Tuesday, of course, the nation marks the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States - and the first African American to hold the office. It is normal, after eight years of looking at the same guy, to grow weary of a president. By the time his two terms are up, you pretty much want him to go away. This was true of Ronald Reagan by late-1988. The American public had been 'Gippered Out' and what had seemed like charming aloofness in 1983 now looked like a senile mentally unbalanced astrology-nut. Same with Bill Clinton. By late-2000, America had had enough of the lying, the blurring of truth vs bullshit, and the shit-eating grin that told you, "Yep. Got away with that one, too."

So now we have one of the most unpopular presidents leaving office next week. George W. Bush is suffering from Reaganitis/Clintonitis to the nth power. Watching him give his farewell address on Thursday night, it was hard not to notice that it seems that Bush has finally begun to grasp just how unpopular he really is. He made some good points on Thursday. The most poignant - and one that too many people forget - is that 9/11 changed everything. That there has been no terrorist attack on U.S. soil since then, and that it is largely because of that fact that we're even having this debate about how bad Bush really was. For, had there been another attack or attacks after 9/11, no one would be worried about waterboarding, Guantanamo, Iraq or Katrina.

This is not a blog to absolve Bush of anything. I didn't vote for the man in 2000, but I have to admit I grudgingly liked him. I thought he'd be a great guy to have a beer with and shoot the shit, but not a great president. I wasn't all that enamored with his opponent, Al Gore, either. Gore was a victim of Clintonitis and that 2000 election should never have been that close to begin with. Had Gore not had to deal with America's disgust with eight years of Clinton, the Supreme Court would never have had a chance to steal the presidency away from him.

By Inauguration Day 2001, I was just anxious to get a president in there. I never got as worked up as others had over the 'stolen' election. I knew about similar elections in 1876 - when essentially Rutherford Hayes was declared the winner in return for Republicans agreeing to end Reconstruction. Or in 1888 when President Grover Cleveland secured more votes than his opponent but lost in the Electoral College to Benjamin Harrison. Not to mention the election of 1824, where Andrew Jackson clearly was the popular choice but John Quincy Adams secured the office when the outcome fell to the House of Representatives to decide.

No, to me 2000 was another one of those quirky things we get in a representative democracy - deal with it. For the first few months of Bush's tenure, I rooted for him if for no other reason than he was the only president we had. My feelings about him, though, were ambivalent.

That changed on 9/11. The first week after that tragedy was some of the finest leadership ever demonstrated in the White House. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, no other president has ever had to deal with what George W. Bush did. Lincoln and Roosevelt didn't have CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, Al Jazeera, the Internet, and all the other wonders of information transmission, either. Had there been a CNN in 1864, Lincoln would never have been reelected, for example.

But the way Bush handled himself and the crisis in that first week was amazing. He took a great deal of grief for continuing to read to those schoolchildren in that Florida classroom after Chief of Staff Andrew Card informed him of the two planes hitting the Twin Towers. The Left painted him as some bumbling idiot who didn't realize we were at war; who was too stupid to fully understand the magnitude of what was happening. In fact, to me Bush did exactly what he should have done. With a room full of children - and a bank of television cameras filming - an abrupt departure from the scene would have been wrong. Rather than demonstrating the severity of what had happened, Bush was determined to finish what the children had expected him to do, and then to calmly excuse himself early from the room, where he could begin the painful assessment of what happened.

From that moment through the quintessential picture of his presidency - standing with rescue workers in New York shouting into a bullhorn, "I hear you! And pretty soon, the whole world is gonna hear from you as well!" Many tried to paint it as a contrived scene, created specifically for cameras. On the contrary, it was a real-life, genuine reaction captured for millions to see: a man who at the age of nearly 40 was an alcoholic ne'er do-well son of a soon-to-be-president, who spent the next 15 years transforming himself into a political operative for his father, to Texas governor, to President of the United States, who now shouldered the responsibility of an attack on American soil - something only James Madison, Lincoln and FDR had ever experienced - was expressing his genuine feelings to a nation that was wounded. It was truly an amazing moment.

After that, of course, things didn't go quite as well. While the initial war in Afghanistan was successful, and the war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction looked - in 20/20 hindsight - to be a mistake, and Katrina, and any of the myriad of other mistakes largely wiped out any good feelings Bush had generated.

But it's important to remember what the world was like on September 12, 2001. How scared we all were. If I had told you on that day that - through January 16, 2009 - that there would be no other single attack on U.S. soil, would you have believed me? I wouldn't have believed me either. It was in that environment of fear that the U.S. Senate passed the Patriot Act by the razor-thin margin of 98-1 It was in that environment that Bush decided that he would do whatever it took - including questionably legal methods - to prevent such an attack.

It is easy now to cast a negative judgement on those decisions. But it is important that we never forget the environment in which those decisions were made. And it fell to Bush to make them - a burden unlike any but a few presidents have ever had to deal with.

I think his handling of Katrina was borderline criminal. His rape and pillaging of the English language abominable. And his smug, I-know-better-than-you-do tone, body language and facial expressions were maddening. But even with all of that, I will never forget the way George W. Bush handled 9/11 , and the reassurance he gave the country. And neither should his other detractors.

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