Texas and its people love things large. Even their contradictions.
The splendorous new proof is the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the Southern Methodist University campus.
Embarrassment found its place among the mixed emotions that swelled the recent dedication of the controversial library. It is inescapable for the Texans who wish that GWB wasn’t a Texan. They know that, with or without the library, history will not be kind to GWB.
It’s a legacy that shows his White House was sometimes its own enemy, trapped in contradictions, even lies of its own making. It left a record for which a kind word would be inconsistency. But history is more likely to find it the most dangerous and destructive presidency the nation has seen.
But too little of it is “seen” that way in the GWB Library. It will mock the word itself, in the eyes of countless visitors.
Contradiction marked the very beginning of his administration. He struck an immediate theme that surely awakened the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt: “Compassionate conservatism.” As dubious as was his election itself, settled not by the popular vote or any recount of it but by a shaky 5-4 ruling from the Supreme Court barring any recount, that theme made a favorable first impression.
But it was soon erased by his insistence on across-the-board tax cuts that no one had asked for. He took office with the benefit of the budget surpluses that President Clinton and Congress had built in Clinton’s second term, which were a hopeful beginning at controlling the towering national debt, most of which developed under President Reagan and his neocon government.
Once enacted, the GWB tax cuts doomed any hope of “compassion” for less-advantaged people. The budget surpluses he inherited were succeeded by deficits of unprecedented size and duration, taking away President Reagan’s distinction as the only Republican president to double the national debt. It was more than doubled again in the GWB presidency. But you won’t find this feat enshrined in the new SMU library.
Giving the Supreme Court the benefit of the doubt, the justices failed to see that their 5-4 vote stopping any recount of the indecisive 2000 election and making GWB the unelected winner would put the White House in the hands of warmongers.
Even before the inauguration, the team of Bush-Cheney-Rusmfeld was drawing up the game plan to invade Iraq. They had convinced themselves that the annihilation of the notorious dictator Saddam Hussein would put every other dictator on notice that their rule was at risk.
Their strategy for getting the people and the Congress behind such a plan became obvious. Pick the most plausible big lie. One very unreliable source had provided it. But its very appearance was ample excuse. Insist that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, and send Secretary of State Powell to the United Nations to tell the world just that. Powell was in doubt, but having won rank of full general as a team player, he gave the Bush team the benefit of the doubt.
The invasion that followed was meant to how the nation the “shock and awe” that comes of being the world’s lone enduring superpower. But instead we live with the shock and awe of the longest war of our history, only to see our intervention in Afghanistan lasting even longer. Each carries a price tag of more than a trillion dollars, and still counting at both. The GWB White House never asked the nation for the sacrifices that make victory possible. Victory continues to elude us.
Such is the legacy of the GWB presidency: unsettled wars, mounting deficits and debt, a no-growth middle class incapable of taming public and private debt, a declining industrial base, a financial-world saved from its collapse by CPR from the Federal Reserve and the next administration, a boom-bust in housing that still leaves legions of mortgages “under water,” and the lingering Great Recession, whose numbers of jobless and poor far exceed the deepest of the Great Depression.
The impression that GWB bore little or no sense of responsibility for any of this may become history’s sternest indictment. The dedication of his library carried an air of forgiveness, in which the other four surviving presidents found kind words for the occasion. Any other mood would have been imprudent, since that foursome included GWB’s own father. History is almost certain to tell us soon that Bush I was a finer man and a finer president than the son.
It may well prove that both scholarship and history are better served by SMU’s acceptance of the library. Among the better private universities in the scholarly rank of its faculty, it is likely to see its faculty dig deeper and deeper over time into the weaknesses of this presidency, including its contradictions and its indifference to both justice and the general welfare. The prouder faculty are doubtless unwilling to see either their reputation or that of SMU tarnished by their silence on GWB’s impetuous and careless leadership. Hopefully, they will pull no punches on either the president or VP Cheney.
The library poses an interesting test of the ability of Texans generally to be honest with themselves about this legacy. I for one have no doubt that the GWB presidency will eventually rank as the most dangerous and destructive the nation has seen. The nation and its capitalist system of consumer economics will be sorely tested in the 21st century to recover from the Bush debachles the strength they reached in the 20th century.
Frank Mensel — May 2013