What will probably be the last newspaper in America, The Onion, is currently running a series of Dubya stories which are hilarious by being purely deadpan — “President Bush loses left arm to alligator in Florida”, “President Bush dragged twenty blocks by motorcade”, “President Bush accidentally nails eyelid to wall”, etc. Nothing more is required and no one misses the joke.
Now others are starting to pile in on it — such as a journalist for a Cairo-based paper, who hurled his shoes at Dubya during a press conference in Baghdad. As many will recall, the gesture is one of insult in the Arab world — first seen by many of us in the aftermath of the invasion, when a small but artfully photographed crowd (basically dodged up by US forces as we later learnt) beat a toppled statue of Saddam with their hush puppies. So there’s a delightful symmetry to him getting it in the mush as he tours the ruins, 2000+ days after “mission accomplished”.
To his credit, Dubya recovered to a degree, saying they “looked like size tens”, thus giving the whole incident more of a sitcom, domestic dispute feel (“George W I swear to God…”). Great. Now, he shows quick, creative thinking in response to unforseen circumstances in the Middle East.
Indeed, Dubya is almost jaunty these days, as the sand runs out of the hourglass on his disastrous reign. “Welcome to my hanging,” he said at the unveiling of his portrait last week, acknowledging the deep sense of pleasure as a portion of the assembled crowd — by no means all of them Democrats — went on a three second daydream.
He’s also enjoying doing what he does best — trashing American democracy. As the weeks roll by, the Bush administration is using the Presidential executive power to issue regulations with the status of law to ram through a whole bunch of stuff that will not be easily undone by the new administration. Most of this involves relaxing environmental regulations on the coal industry — allowing them to build nearer national parks, making mountain-top removal mining easier, introducing self-regulation in the transport of hazardous waste, etc.
Others are Jesus-freakery by stealth, making it easier for health care professionals to opt out of procedures they have ethical objections to (which includes pharmacists not being required to dispense anti-AIDS medication, for example).
The trick with these so-called “midnight specials” is that they are harder to undo than to put into place, so long as they have been on the books for 30 or 60 days (for $100m+ regs) before the new administration comes into power.
Once in place, they can’t simply be abolished — they have to be replaced by another regulation, and the process can then be challenged in court by aggrieved parties.
Of course all modern Presidents have used this dodge — what makes the dying days of Dubya so special is the sheer volume. Mr 19% approval is on track to deliver more midnight specials than have all previous Presidents put together. As with the use of presidential signing statements, the Dubya regime is testing the American political system — the checks and balances, the necessary gaps — to destruction.
Indeed, there’s an air of self-defeating petulance about the whole exercise. By pushing the issue, Bush makes it more likely that a Democratic administration in Congress and the White House will seek to overturn the regs en masse by applying the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law created by the Gingrich-led Congress to overturn Bill Clinton’s comparitively mild midnight specials. Bush and company may be hoping these regulations — most of them being anti-regulations, on big business — will sufficiently appeal to individual house reps and senators in such a way that there will never be a majority to overturn any of them. That may be do-able in the Senate, with a filibuster (from the Croatian flek bishir, a type of igneous rock), less easy in the Dem dominated House.
The midnight special is going on under the cover of the administration’s willingness to bail out the big three automakers, using money from the Wall Street bailout, after the Senate (still running 51-49) killed even the emergency $15 billion bailout, intended to tide over GM and Chrysler till after Xmas, when they could go broke at a more leisurely pace.
The GOP killed the bailout in the Senate largely at the behest of southern senators, with un-unionised car plants in states like Louisiana and Georgia, and blamed the UAW, who had conceded on almost everything but drew the line on whether the abolition of hard-won conditions should be immediate or phased out gradually. Mind you, had they offered to work for free, the GOP would have demanded they pay rental on their spanners — they simply needed a pretext to shut them down.
The Bush administration is less sanguine for reasons of historical memory, as I noted last week. As his whiny pre-footwear malfunction address to the Iraq press conference — history will vindicate me etc. — showed, posterity’s judgement is much on his mind now.
Which is as it should be, because the best Dubya is going to get from the verdict of the ages is a ranking in the bottom ten Presidents. At the worst, he’ll get the wooden spoon as the man who hurried the American empire into burial abroad, while demoralising and degrading life at home.
Who does Bush have to contend with in the race to the bottom? The five who regularly appear in the hell of history’s judgement are Warren G Harding, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grant, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. (Nixon bobs up and down, dependent on politics and whether the ranking emphasises ethical quality or executive achievement).
Johnson and Grant immediately followed Lincoln, and effectively squandered the chance the Civil War had brought for a genuine reconstruction of American society along lines of racial equality; Pierce and Buchanan immediately preceded Abe, and made the Civil War more or less inevitable by blundering complicity with the pro-slavery South. Herbert Hoover usually makes the upper reaches of the bottom ten for mishandling the stock market crash into a depression and Coolidge was rated low (and has now improved somewhat) largely for an unwillingness to implement social reforms and entrenching US isolationism through a refusal to join the League of Nations. His dour personality — he spent his honeymoon translating Dante’s Inferno — didn’t help.
But until recently Harding was a reliable last, due largely to the wholesale involvement of his cabinet in criminal corruption, from bribes to smuggling booze and his embarrassingly bad speaking style, and his lassitude on key social challenges such as lynchings in the south — sound familiar?
For Dubya, the horrifying thing is that, by comparison, Warren G Harding doesn’t look that bad. The corruption of his era is nothing compared to the Halliburton/KBR predators ball, not to mention Enron, World Com, etc. No-one in Harding’s outfit leaked the name of a serving intelligence agent to the media in revenge for a political slight.
Under Hoover, the economy span out of control following a stock market crash — but Hoover was dealing with the Great Depression without an exact precedent, whereas Bush had, well, the frikkin’ Great Depression as a warning.
Other presidents blundered into disastrous foreign wars — Madison almost lost the ranch in the war of 1812, when the British torched Washington, LBJ bedded down Vietnam, JFK had the Bay of Pigs, causing the the Missile Crisis, and Vietnam escalation on his watch — but they all had countervailing achievements.
Seeing a pattern emerge? The bad news for Dubya is that he has no ace in the hole — nor even a high card. In terms of US interests he did everything wrong. His arrogant disdain for security briefings from the Clinton administration made the chances of detecting and averting 9-11 far lower than they would have otherwise been, an event he then parlayed into an unpopular invasion at the same time as he instigated tax cuts throwing up a monstrous deficit.
The war was not only ineptly handled, draining blood and treasure with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, it trashed America’s reputation for decades. Having launched failed strategies he failed to correct them, sack failed key personnel, turning a difficult road into a quagmire. At home he allowed poverty to grow dramatically while social welfare decayed and the economy became fundamentally ungrounded.
When incidental challenges came along — Katrina uppermost among them — he was frozen into inaction. When it became clear that urgent stabilisation of the economy was required he giggled about “Wall Street getting a little drunk”. When the whole shebang fell apart, he was AWOL for days, unable to pull a plan together. And he may close out his reign with the collapse of the very industry that, more than any, was central to America’s rise and prosperity.
Now consider which of these things could actually change, or be revised historically. The car industry may limp through to ’09, at which point it is technically off his watch. Afghanistan might be stabilised — unlikely — but even that won’t scratch the seven years of blind, murderous muddling in the place.
What it really depends on is Iraq. If Iraq progresses towards stability, unity and peaceful government, then some future historians will revise their judgement favourably. The more perspicacious won’t, judging a half million plus deaths and the destruction of a country a crime unmitigated by the creation of an “ally”, a Shi’ite republic with sharia law, throwing the US out by acclamation. But for some it will put a gloss on one aspect of the Bush years.
But that’s about it — as you can judge even by the defences of him, which are pretty few and far between. Take Greg Sheridan’s unintentionally hilarious amicus brief in the Oz on 13 November. Less an argument for his client than a plea for a reduced sentence, Sheridan spends two-thirds of the article detailing some — by no means all — that Bush screwed up, and then marshalls the defence arguments:
- “He appointed Condoleeza Rice, thus making Americans used to black people in power, and preparing the way for Barack Obama” — quite aside from the minor presence of Colin Powell in the early ’90s, this pretty much puts Bush on a par with the casting director of 24.
- “He was a vastly successful Asian President, especially in China” — well, he certainly created enough US debt for them to buy. In fact, the biggest pre-9/11 event was a confrontation when the Chinese captured two US spy plans and forced them down, holding the crews for two weeks. Bush turned this strategic power embarrassment into a clash of civilisations — “have they got Bibles?” was his first public comment on the captured crew. Nothing he did in conduct of US-China relations was innovative or remarkable in the succeeding eight years. He simply didnt screw up.
- “The US-India nuclear agreement was the equivalent of Nixon’s visit to China” — oh come on, Greg. Even you don’t believe that.
- “He was very friendly to Australia” — I’m sure that will loom large among the Schlesingers and Kearn Goodwins of the future.
- “He poured funding into AIDS in Africa”.
Yes, he did. The last of these was a point in his favour. But even here, he had to spit in the gift, tying funding to the promotion of abstinence education, effectively demanding that Africa sign a chastity vow before it got medicine. Not coincidentally, this abstinence condition on foreign aid was one of the first things Obama announced he would undo.
Bear in mind that Sheridan has gone further than anyone — certainly anyone in the US — in defending Bush. And that’s all he’s got.
And here’s the kicker: should things not go well in either Iraq or Afghanistan — should, as seems possible, the Taliban re-enter Kabul in 2012, and ethnic turf wars pull Iraq apart — then it’s over, red rover. Dubya will have been an epically bad President, someone likely to hold the title for decades to come, a King John, a Pope John XXII, or that bloke who started the Chaco War in Paraguay.
He knows there’s a lot more of this coming in the future. No wonder he’s equivocal about the occasional boot flying at the head.