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Bush Revisionism Is Back: Why You Should Not Fall for this Lame and Dangerous Ploy

Don't let the pundits fool you. "W" was just as bad as his rep.

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Tens of thousands of people are dead today because of George W. Bush’s choices, but he’s quick to get misty-eyed when thinking of the maimed bodies and shattered lives he left in his wake. Isn’t that what really matters?

In response to this flimsy defense, it’d be understandable if one concluded, as  some on Twitter have, that Bai is simply a crypto-Republican who is ready to play his part in the epic quest to rewrite the legacy of the 43rd president. It turns out, however, that Bai’s argument is much more expansive — and destructive — than that. It’s not a mere defense of Bush but rather a condemnation of the way we treat our leaders, how we abuse and ridicule them because “[t]here’s a lot of money to be made writing quickie books and giving speeches about the utter depravity of a president.” Bush’s father, Clinton and Obama, too; all are described by Bai as fundamentally good and likable people. (Carter, curiously, goes unmentioned, despite having an average  post-presidential approval ratingas of 2013 of 56.) Writing of Obama, but implicitly of both Bushes and Clinton as well, Bai claims “we should all be able to grant that he’s at least a good American.”

I’m not sure what being a “good American” quite means — is it better or worse than being a good Frenchwoman or Nigerian or Swede? — but I get the gist of Bai’s piece, and I think it’s terribly mistaken. For one thing, this is an argument already made  relatively recently by National Journal’s  Ron Fournier and, as a rule, if your article is a rehash of a Fournier troll-job, you’re probably making a huge mistake. More seriously, this view of what makes a person “good” or “bad” is almost shockingly juvenile on its own, and becomes nearly toxic when used to assess politicians. Ignoring my temptation to break Godwin’s Law, I’ll simply note that Richard Nixon and Francisco Franco, two men few of us would consider exemplars of humanity at its best, also sincerely believed that their actions were for the greater good. For that matter, so did Jefferson Davis and the leaders of the Confederacy. Vanishingly few of us deliberately act in an immoral fashion; we’re all the heroes of our own stories.

The need to focus on consequences rather than intentions is all the more pronounced when it comes to politics, the realm in which a person’s decisions, and their consequences, are the only rational metric the rest of us can use in order to judge their suitability. Particularly in America, where the political spectrum is quite constrained, with no real far left and an often marginalized extreme right, and where some of the most heated debates are ostensibly about how best to achieve mutually agreed upon goals, it’s vital that we focus on results. To take an example less fraught than torture or war, if you were someone who believed everyone should have a good-paying job and health insurance, but you were only allowed to consider what each party says it wants to occur, you’d have no way of choosing between Republicans and Democrats, who both say a wealthy and healthy middle class is their ultimate goal. 

Or, to return to my initial example, anyone who followed Bai’s advice would have a real tough time reaching a conclusion about George Wallace that the rest of us wouldn’t find obscene and bizarre. What matters more, the fact that George Wallace stoked racial resentment at a time when it was a force powerful and dangerous enough to  murder innocent children; or the fact that, while he did so, he went to bed every night knowing that he was not only a beneficiary of hatred but a charlatan to boot? What matters more, the time George W. Bush wrote Ron Fournier a nice  thank you card, or the millions of lives that would be better if he had not decided more than 10 years ago to destabilize the world with a war of choice? If we were talking about people whose professional decisions weren’t literally matters of life and death, Bai’s focus on people skills would be defensible. But we’re not, and it isn’t.