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The first and final draft of history?

September 11th, 2007

A while back, I observed in a footnote

Bush isn’t stupid. He’s shown himself to be quite sharp in the pursuit of his own short term interests and those of his backers. But he’s ignorant, narrow-minded, intellectually lazy and unwilling to learn from experience, a combination that produces reliably stupid policy decisions.

Google finds quite a few similar judgements, suggesting that the BlogGeist is in tune. Now Salon’s write-off for an interview with Bush’s biographer says “Bush has a surprising intellect but is incapable of curiosity and owning up to mistakes.”

I’m guessing this initial judgement will be confirmed by a historical verdict that will rank Bush among the worst of US Presidents, if not the absolute worst (Among other candidates for this dubious honour, Nixon had many positive achievements, Harding did no real harm, Andrew Johnson was at least trying for reconciliation and Buchanan’s big failure came after his successor had been elected). Harding’s case in particular shows that amiable stupidity is less dangerous than other intellectual flaws.

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  1. September 12th, 2007 at 06:44 | #1

    nixon is likely to remain my 1st choice baddie, mass murder on a grand scale for no visible goal was his long suit.

    but i’ve gotten over the ‘devil’ theory. if you let individuals have this power to kill, they will use it.

    america’s history, from the trail of tears to mylai, was a demonstration of imperial arrogance in action. when opportunity arose to expand, the president of the day took it. when resistance was resolute, greater aggression was ‘justified’.

    bush’s only real claim to distinction is being in power when america’s pretense to democracy was exposed: the patriot act couldn’t have been passed without the co-operation of the political elite in restricting civil rights. bush was the first to refer to ‘my government’ rather than ‘my administration’.

    now that things aren’t going well, he has reverted to ‘my administration’, but the patriot act remains.

  2. conrad
    September 12th, 2007 at 07:51 | #2

    What percentage of politicans own up to their own mistakes, excluding those that don’t matter? I don’t think he’s exactly alone.

  3. jquiggin
    September 12th, 2007 at 08:59 | #3

    Conrad, on this point what matters is not so much owning up to your mistakes as learning from experience. Bush has done neither.

  4. mugwump
    September 12th, 2007 at 09:31 | #4

    Al loomis, the patriot act was passed in a post-9/11 climate of fear. The political elite had no particular interest in restricting civil rights, just a great interest in preventing a second 9/11. Most of its provisions have sunset clauses. Some of them are also being overturned as unconstitutional by the courts.

    In contrast, Australians have almost no constitutionally protected civil rights.

  5. conrad
    September 12th, 2007 at 10:59 | #5

    I think there is a three way distinction between not learning from experience, having some sort of consistent political ideology, and making poor decisions. For example, if you are crazy war mongering idiot (and you were voted in for being so), then you might think that a change of tactics like having a troop-surge is a good thing to do, even if it has no hope of working. The problem here isn’t not learning from experience (you did, the previous strategy didn’t work) — its poor evaluation of alternatives.

  6. snuh
    September 12th, 2007 at 11:46 | #6

    bush, a graduate of harvard and yale, and from a well-known north-eastern elite family, somehow managed to acquire a reputation as a stupid, illbred texan. maybe this misapprehension continues because it’s in neither party’s interests to kill it (the republicans wanting to promote bush as the unintellectual folksy good old boy you’d want to have a beer with (even though he doesn’t drink) and democrats wanting to caricature their opponent as a southern country bumpkin).

    it will be interesting to see if historians avoid this trap.

  7. September 12th, 2007 at 13:56 | #7

    the patriot act may be extended, simply because no pollie dares say “the danger is over”.

    as for the lack of constitutional protection of civil rights in the oz constitution, i am continually reminding people on this site that only citizens of a democracy have civil rights. people in oz merely have privileges, extended and curtailed at the pleasure of the ruling party. lately that has led to regulations appropriate to the later days of the weimar republic.

    finally, i have no personal knowledge of dubya’s capabilities, but reagan thought him useless, and his degrees are suspect since his family has put significant sums of money into the harvard corporation.

  8. snuh
    September 12th, 2007 at 15:18 | #8

    since his family has put significant sums of money into the harvard corporation

    actually his father and grandfather are yalies. george hw bush has living children, all of whom attended university. notwithstanding this, bush is the only one who attended yale (or indeed any ivy league institution), which suggests against family connections being sufficient on their own for admission. also, from a couple of minutes of googling, it’s not obvious to me that bush had any family connections with harvard.

    civil rights are generally thought of as a mechanism by which individuals and minority groups can protect themselves against against democratic (“majoritarian”) infringement against them. typically rights are therefore thought to conflict with democracy. so i’m not sure what exactly the word “democracy” means when you say “only citizens of a democracy have civil rights”.

  9. swio
    September 12th, 2007 at 21:02 | #9

    I think to call Bush the worst ever president is still a very premature call. The cost of his mistakes in terms that mean anything is still not very high. A few thousand soldiers is not much by historical standards, and even the damage done to Iraq and its people is not overwhelmingly larger than alot of ugly civil conflicts over the 20th century.

    Bush looks like an idiot mainly because of the size opportunity costs of his mistakes, not the actual costs. America could have done whatever it wanted with the good will it had on September 12th 2001 but ended up wasting it on a pointless war that did not make any sense. And it must be remembered that America’s current mess is as much a product of their now generally nutcase right and ridiculously timid left. Imagine how bad Nixon if the congress he faced was as weak as the current one.

    There is still time for Bush though. If he attacks Iran and ends up using nuclear weapons he will be the worst ever.

  10. September 12th, 2007 at 23:34 | #10

    I’m thinking along the same lines as swio.

    My pick for worst US President is Harry Truman. I base this on the number of people killed at his direction: almost five million. (Mostly Koreans but a large number of Japanese.) I realise that bodycount is a fairly bald metric for ‘badness’ – it avoids the question “Were the millions killed in a good cause?” – yet it is still a measure that I find compelling. Subsequent presidents like Johnson and Nixon only killed a million each and GWB, with a few hundred thousand under his belt, is a potential Peace Prize laureate in comparison.

  11. conrad
    September 13th, 2007 at 09:00 | #11

    I think if the comparitive dominance of the US in world affairs (military and otherwise) keeps on going down, then he’ll be seen as the worst ever.

  12. September 15th, 2007 at 00:13 | #12

    The American Presidential style of electioneering, where the heavily airbrushed image of the ‘leader’ is all that is on show, all paid for with corporate donations. It has produced George W Bush, the worst President ever elected in that country. Many good Americans are deeply concerned about the parlous state of their democratic institutions and want to see him impeached or tried for war crimes.

    Here in Australia we too have strayed into this superficial style of electioneering.This PR system has produced John Howard and Kevin Rudd, with both major parties offering a totally confected product. Neither of these people will do what really needs to be done about climate change or other urgent problems.

    Will Australians please wake up from these eleven squandered ‘dreamy’ years?

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