Like all such monuments that former presidents construct to edify the public, the George W. Bush Presidential Center – opened with great ceremony in Texas yesterday — is mounted from its subject’s point of view.
My own invitation to the festivities must have been lost in the mail, so I have yet to view the super-cool interactive exhibitions that reportedly allow visitors to become “the decider” on Iraq and other debacles. But the point seems to be that the 43rd president came under sustained pressure and, if he screwed up to an unprecedented degree, then he doesn’t think you or I would have done any better.
That pointless comparison would no doubt elicit Bush’s trademark smirk. He is said to feel well-satisifed with himself, no matter what the world thinks.
Still the overall tone of the remarks by President Obama, former President Clinton, and others who attended the library dedication was appropriately generous, as befits such a civic occasion in a democracy – even in honor of a man who ascended to office by trampling democratic values. Obama drew attention to the good works that Bush did to combat HIV/AIDS while in office, perhaps his single most important achievement, as did Clinton, who also generously praised Bush’s fitful effort to reform immigration and his work with Clinton in post-earthquake Haiti.
But does that mean Bush may now take for granted the verdict of historians, many of whom consider him America’s worst president? Not so fast, please: There are a few salient questions that Bush (or at least his library) ought to address before the rehabilitation begins.
Everything changed abruptly after September 11, 2001, as the Bush library depicts so dramatically – but what should have changed in the White House before that horrific day? Why did Bush and Cheney ignore the warnings about al Qaeda delivered by Bill Clinton, Richard Clarke, and other authoritative figures when he took office? What were they trying to conceal when the Bush White House first opposed and then tried to weaken the 9/11 Commission?
Why did he and Dick Cheney (barely mentioned in the Bush library, according to NBC’s David Gregory) permit Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to escape from Tora Bora after allied forces invaded Afghanistan? Was it wise to neglect the Afghan conflict while launching an invasion of Iraq?
The library portrays Bush as a dauntless advocate for “freedom” around the world. But did the invasion and occupation of Iraq establish liberty in that country and if so, for whom? Why is the authoritarian Shiite government in Baghdad now among the closest allies of the theocratic dictatorship in Iran? (And wasn’t that a predictable outcome of Bush’s Iraq policies?)
Finally, do the library’s exhibits or archives mention anywhere the hundreds of thousands of people killed, crippled, wounded, and driven from their homes as a consequence of the Iraq invasion? Is any attention devoted to the total financial cost of the war, last estimated to be approaching three trillion dollars?
Those traumas will always haunt the Bush presidency, no matter how many coats of red-blue-and-whitewash are applied in Dallas during the years ahead. And that is why Barbara Bush, his acerbic mother, sounded so wise when she said of the potential presidential candidacy of his brother Jeb, “we’ve had enough Bushes.”
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