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george w. bush

4 february 2016

George W. Bush's was a painful and ultimately disastrous Presidency. As James Mann studies it for the Times Book series, the 2001-09 administration seems incoherent, and not just because it's recent and thus hard to put into perspective. The younger Bush was both conservative and liberal (and hence reviled by both wings of polarized American politics). In that, he resembles LBJ and Nixon, other deeply unpopular leaders who ultimately failed to thrive during times of crisis and war. Time will have to tell whether 43 left behind any accomplishments to rival the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, or detente and the opening to China.

Mann, in fact, sees Bush's greatest legacy as being PEPFAR, which I freely admit I'd never heard of before I read George W. Bush. The PEPFAR program, a massive foreign-aid intervention to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa, is the kind of thing you'd assume would come out of a Democratic administration – but which, as Bill Clinton noted, no Democrat could have gotten through a Republican Congress; perhaps not even a Democratic Congress. In fact, one can only imagine what luck a President of African ancestry would have had in proposing a transfer of billions of dollars of medical assistance to Africa, including, as Mann notes, the largest giveaway of condoms in history. Luckily, the program was sponsored by a stone conservative white Texan, and remains so uncontroversial that you can easily never hear about it: Democrats can't claim credit for it and one imagines, though cynically, that Republicans don't want to draw attention to it.

But I'll add PEPFAR to my own personal short list of things I liked about the Bush 43 presidency: a (failed) attempt to create a pathway to citizenship for "illegal" immigrants (so many of whom committed no crime except following their parents here) and the creation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument (now Papahānaumokuākea). That was about it, actually, till I read Mann's book. Mann himself presents two other Bush accomplishments as at least arguably progressive: Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind. The Medicare drug benefit is certainly a big social entitlement reminiscent of the Great Society, and though it initially presented seniors with the weird "donut hole" cost structure, it certainly has led to more manageable healthcare costs for retirees, and I'll be neutral on it (probably till I retire myself, when I'll love it or hate it).

No Child Left Behind, though, proved impractical and, though a bipartisan effort couched in the most melioristic terms, is at heart a fairly reactionary initiative. The assumption is that we can identify weak schools via simple testing metrics, and then, instead of reforming those schools and preserving them as gateways to opportunity, we should give parents the means to abandon them. Bush never won approval for his system of vouchers that would enable parents to opt out of the public-school system with public tax support. But it was inherent in his vision: some schools are irredeemably corrupt, possibly because of the inherent corruption of public services, possibly because of the inherent corruption of their communities. (Bush never mentioned race, and indeed doesn't personally seem racist or xenophobic; but under all such rhetoric is an American distaste for public education that is equal but not separate.)

Mann also paints a vivid picture of Bush resolving to be the FDR, not the Herbert Hoover, of the 2008 crash. In this instance, his policies were of a piece with those of Barack Obama – and both Presidents were slammed from the right and the left for the largess they showed to failed institutions of capitalism.

That's the good side of the Bush ledger, and it's a short one. The debit side is long and deep, and Mann shows no mercy to the Bush record. Steep tax cuts led to huge deficits. The Iraq War was an unqualified disaster whose longterm effects continue to deepen and worsen. The Patriot Act and other post-9/11 measures led to all kinds of dubious violations of human rights. Katrina. The attempt to privatize Social Security. We're not even getting to arguably partisan territory here; most of these moves are bipartisanly regrettable.

Did Bush know what he was doing? Mann sees W as smarter than his public image, which isn't a high bar. Bush, like Ronald Reagan, was incurious, often ignorant. If he has native brainpower (and he seems to be an inventive painter and at least to have entrusted his memoirs to thoughtful ghosts), he rarely seems to have exerted it as President. He assembled a team of advisors who fought among themselves and he usually let the worst of them steer the ship of state.

Would Bush be nice to meet? He lives not far from me, but I am unlikely to run into him at the Whole Foods. I have seen him at many a Texas Rangers game. Baseball was his one distinct business success and he remains a loyal fan, though he doesn't come out as much as he used to when Nolan Ryan ran the club. Bush is often described as someone you'd like to have a beer with, awkwardly enough since he stopped drinking 30 years ago. But I don't even think I'd like to have coffee with him. His patented smirk may be just a tic or a shtick, but his deliberate tendency to mock condemned prisoners would get me up and walking away from my espresso in short order.

Mann, James. George W. Bush. New York: Times Books [Henry Holt], 2015.