The 10 most awesomely bad moments of the Bush presidency
In a lot of ways, choosing the Bush administration’s top 10 bad moments is pointless. On the other hand, history demands that we at least make the effort, especially as we are nearing the end of his second term as presdient. Narrowing down the various debacles to a mere 10 was no easy feat. But essentially, I tried to rate each Bush disaster by two main criteria: its body count and its damage to the country’s reputation. So, for example, while Bush’s awkward groping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G-8 Summit in July of 2006 may feel personally humiliating to many of us, it doesn’t have the same heft as, say, the Iraq war.
But for those of you who insist on seeing your least favorite moment get its due, here is list of every honorable mention I could come up with: warrantless wiretapping; Valerie Plame; Scooter Libby’s sentence commuted; Bush believes Rafael Palmeiro is innocent; soldiers face neglect at Walter Reed; signing statements; the Kyoto treaty ripped up; loyalty oaths; the fake turkey; a staged teleconference with troops; staged FEMA press conference; extraordinary rendition; support for junk science; endorsement of neo-creationist “intelligent design"; inaction against global warming; record oil prices; record budget deficits; record trade deficits; record number of Americans without health insurance; two recessions; no-bid contracts; bin Laden still at large; the Federal Marriage Amendment; stem-cell research vetoed; waterboarding ban vetoed; “last throes"; “old Europe"; “It’s hard work"; “Bring it on"; “Yo, Blair!"; “I’m the decider"; “I’m the commander guy"; “I’m a war president"; “This is the guy who tried to kill my dad"; “So?"; “Let the Eagle Soar"; John Bolton; Kenny Boy; Harriet Miers; John Roberts; Sam Alito; Blair talks Bush out of bombing Al Jazeera; Cheney shoots some guy in the face; the Military Commissions Act; Jóse Padilla arrested and held without charge or access to counsel; endless tax cuts for the rich; let’s waste a pile of money by sending people to Mars and let’s hire some Heritage Foundation staffers to rebuild Iraq.
And with that, let’s go onto our 10 worst moments.
10. Bush Gets Re-elected
In a way, Bush’s re-election was even more depressing than the shady shenanigans the GOP used to get him elected in 2000. See, back then Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” who promised to be a “uniter, not a divider” who would run a center-right administration like his father did. By 2004, the myth of Bush the Uniter had been demolished by his exploiting the 9/11 terror attacks for political gain, by dropping poison pills into bills to make Democrats vote against their own proposals and by supporting needless and divisive initiatives such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. On top of this, the Bush re-election crew ran one of the nastiest and most negative campaigns in recent memory. The low point in the whole affair came when administration allies and surrogates took to the airwaves to falsely accuse Democratic candidate John Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam, even claiming in one instance that he intentionally shot himself to get out of the war.
The reason for this historically negative campaign was obvious: As Paul Krugman of The New York Times deftly observed at the time, Bush had “no positive achievements to run on.” But this didn’t stop more than 59 million Americans from voting to give Bush yet another four years to build on his already-impressive resume of negative achievements.
9. Alberto Gonzales’ Congressional Testimony
One of the Bush administration’s favorite pastimes over the past eight years has been acting to topple the other two branches of government. This tendency is best exemplified by ex-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions under oath about whether a group of eight federal prosecutors had been fired for partisan reasons. Essentially, all of the attorneys in question had exemplary performance records but were targeted because they did not prosecute several so-called “voter fraud” cases to then-presidential adviser Karl Rove’s satisfaction. When the Senate Judiciary Committee called then-Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to testify about the firings, he claimed that all of them had been dismissed due to “performance-related issues.” About a month later, Gonzales penned an editorial for USA Today reiterating McNulty’s claim that the attorneys were fired for performance reasons and called the entire controversy an “overblown personnel matter.”
After it emerged that six of the fired attorneys had actually been given positive job evaluations, Gonzales rushed up to Capitol Hill to perform damage control. He said he “regretted” saying that the fired attorneys had lost his confidence, and then went on to say that he had no idea why the attorneys had been targeted for dismissal. Additionally, Gonzales said there was nothing at all improper about the firings, despite the fact that he admitted that he had “limited involvement” in the ordeal. Gonzales also responded to questions by answering “I don’t recall” a total of 64 times.
Although several GOP senators called on Gonzales to resign in the wake of his testimony, Bush said Gonzales’ performance had “increased my confidence in his ability to do the job” and that he would stay on as attorney general.
And the fun didn’t stop there. When the Senate Judiciary Committee hauled Gonzales back to testify about his frantic hospital visit to get a fresh-from-surgery John Ashcroft to approve Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, it resulted in the sort of clown show that would have put Barnum and Bailey to shame. The lowlight came during a classic debate between Gonzo and Arlen Specter over whether Ashcroft could have effectively performed his duties as attorney general while he was under heavy sedation. After Gonzales finally stepped down in August 2007, Bush stamped his feet and cried that Gonzo had had “his good name dragged through the mud.” [page]
8. North Korea Conducts a Nuclear Test
In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush stated forthrightly that “the United States will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” And to show how serious he was, Bush decided to invade Iraq, a country whose vast stockpile contained precisely zero weapons of mass destruction.
But while Bush was busy freedomizing the Iraqis, North Korea—a country best known for being home of the world’s worst government—steadily built up its nuclear capabilities and eventually conducted a nuclear test in October 2006.
While there is a great deal of dispute over whether the North Korean test was actually a successful test, it seemed clear that Bush’s strategic doctrine of ignoring our enemies until they meet every one of his demands has failed somewhat spectacularly. Naturally, Condi Rice declared that the test was actually a significant win for Bush administration policy, thus proving once again that down isn’t just up for the Bush administration, but sometimes sideways as well. Thankfully, the Bush team has softened up a bit on this score in recent weeks.
7. Colin Powell’s WMD Presentation at the U.N.
There was a time when Colin Powell was an internationally respected diplomat and military leader who was seen as the sort of rare Republican straight shooter who also had a fine sense for global sensibilities. Indeed, at the time of Powell’s appointment to the State Department, the BBC described him as Bush’s “trump card” and as “a national hero whose charismatic image bridges America’s racial divide.” But Powell’s public image as a renowned warrior-scholar would come crashing down to Earth less than four years after his appointment.
In February 2003, Powell gave a presentation before the U.N. Security Council that was instrumental in convincing both the American public and large swaths of the international community that Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that posed an immediate threat to global security. During his speech, Powell told scary tales of mobile biological-weapons labs, chemical-weapons stockpiles and aluminum tubes that could be used in a nuclear-weapons program. All of these claims turned out not only to be wrong, but based on sourcing that even Powell acknowledged later was “deliberately misleading” in some cases.
As Bob Woodward reported in his book Plan of Attack, Powell had deep doubts about an intercept between two senior members of the Iraqi Republican Guard that vaguely sortakindamaybe might have mentioned something along the lines of using vehicles for bioweapons labs. Yet despite reservations about the intel, Woodward reports that Powell “decided to use it” for his U.N. presentation anyway. Ditto for an “inferential” report on Iraqi Scud missiles that Powell acknowledged had not been seen by anyone.
Years after feeding bogus intel to the Security Council, Powell said his performance was “painful” and a “blot” on his record.
6. The Terri Schiavo Affair
In what will no doubt go down in history as one of the craziest things our federal government has ever done, the U.S. House and Senate both passed an emergency law to save the life of a woman who had been near brain-dead for more than a decade. The case of Terri Schiavo, who collapsed in her home and who later lost oxygen to her brain after her doctors misdiagnosed the cause of her collapse, was undoubtedly tragic for everyone involved; it was also undoubtedly none of the federal government’s business.
After numerous state courts had sided with then-husband and guardian Michael Schiavo and ruled that Terri’s condition was irreversible and that her feeding tube could be removed to end her life, the Christian right launched into an epic freakout the likes of which America has not seen since 17th-century Salem. After much Tasmanian devil-style screeching and hollering from the GOP base, the Republican Congress passed a bill transferring jurisdiction of the Schiavo case to federal court. Bush, who seemingly never misses an opportunity to take a naked ride on the crazy train, interrupted one of his frequent Texas vacations to sign the damn thing into law.
Ah, if only he’d been this swift and alert when Hurricane Katrina hit (see moment No. 4).
While there were several moments of sheer, unbridled lunacy throughout (Pat Buchanan calls Michael Schiavo and his supporters Nazis! Tom DeLay issues threats against judges who don’t rule how he wants them to! Peggy Noonan calls Michael Schiavo supporters part of a “culture of death!"), the craziest by far was then-Sen. Bill Frist’s declaration that Terri had been misdiagnosed after he spent an hour watching a video of her in his office.
5. Bush and Condi’s Excellent Gaza Adventure
The Bush administration can be described as a slapstick comedy with an unusually high body count: Picture the Three Stooges and the Keystone Cops duking it out with cruise missiles.
There is no better example of this than Bush and the State Department’s wild adventures in the Gaza Strip in 2006. As Vanity Fair’s David Rose reported earlier this year, the trouble began when Bush started stamping his feet and throwing a hissy fit about having elections in the Palestinian territories. Essentially, Bush’s desire to be seen as a “freedom president” meant forcing various swarthy Third Worlders to vote in elections that would presumably result in U.S.-friendly regimes around the world. After Hamas predictably defeated Fatah in the elections, Bush decided he didn’t like democracy in the Middle East so much after all, and he had Condi Rice tell Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas that “America expected him to dissolve the Haniyeh government as soon as possible and hold fresh elections.” Apparently, Condi believed that having an American-backed leader dissolve a democratically elected government would warm the Palestinians’ hearts to American aims. Long story short: The U.S. government decides to bolster Fatah by sending them a bunch of arms. Word of these shipments leaks to a Jordanian newspaper. All hell breaks loose; Hamas defeats Fatah and proceeds to use the American-supplied arms it confiscated from Fatah against Israel. The entire ordeal was an amazing illustration of the administration’s complete inability to anticipate entirely predictable outcomes. Or as Khalid Jaberi, a commander with Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, put it: “Since the takeover, we’ve been trying to enter the brains of Bush and Rice, to figure out their mentality. We can only conclude that having Hamas in control serves their overall strategy, because their policy was so crazy otherwise.”
Epic, epic fail. [page]
4. ‘Brownie, You’re Doing a Heckuva Job’
Yes, we’re getting into Bush’s real crowning achievements here. The Think Progress blog has done an admirable job of chronicling the entire affair, so I’m just going to summarize the lowlights from its timeline:
August 29: Katrina makes landfall, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael “Brownie” Brown warns Bush that the levees could overflow. Brown had previously worked as “the chief rules enforcer of the Arabian Horse Association.” He asks Cindy Taylor, FEMA’s deputy director of public affairs, if he “can quit now.”
August 30: Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff learns that the New Orleans levees had failed, looters run rampant in New Orleans, then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan says that Bush will return to his Texas ranch for one more night of vacation before returning to Washington.
August 31: Federal relief workers try to evacuate New Orleans residents in what Chertoff describes as “conditions of urban warfare.”
September 1: Bush says, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” Brownie says he’s received “no reports of unrest.”
September 2: Karl Rove begins to enact his strategy of blaming local officials for the Katrina disaster, Bush tells Brownie that he’s doing “a heckuva job” and also says he’s “satisfied with the response” of the federal government but “not satisfied with all the results,” and pledges to rebuild Trent Lott’s house.
September 4: Chertoff says that “government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur.”
And so on. While watching Katrina and the abandonment of the people of New Orleans by their own government unfold live on my television, I suddenly had the urge to sell all my belongings, purchase several firearms, move out to a remote cabin in Montana and wait for society to fall apart. Because, hey: If the entire world was going to completely collapse around me, I might as well have a wise-cracking psychic dog to keep me company.
3. Abu Ghraib
In its May 10, 2004, issue, The New Yorker magazine published an explosive report by renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh detailing the systematic torture of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Administration apologists used two distinctly different strategies to push back against the inevitable bad press that ensued: One was to condemn the guilty parties but refer to them merely as “a few bad apples” who weren’t reflective of American policy; the other was to dismiss the entire scandal as “an out-of-control fraternity prank.”
But it turned out, of course, that the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib weren’t merely the work of a few rogue soldiers. Indeed, it turns out that the tactics employed in the infamous Iraqi dungeon were first taken out for a test spin at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And what tactics did those include, you ask? Why, sleep deprivation, stress positions, sexual humiliation and a technique called waterboarding that is meant to simulate the experience of drowning. And where did they get the idea to use these techniques? Why, from senior Bush administration officials, of course! With the full approval of Bush himself! As ABC News reported earlier this year, “the high-level discussions about these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed.”
Amazingly, the Bush administration tried to justify its decisions by claiming that waterboarding was perfectly legal and did not constitute torture. Despite the fact that, you know, it was deemed illegal 40 years ago by U.S. generals in Vietnam.
This particular scandal was so bad that even the John Birch Society (!!!!) concluded that the administration and its flunkies were war criminals.
The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, was one of the most terrifying and traumatic moments in American history. Thousands of people perished that day, all due to an evil act carried out by a group of religious fanatics who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Penn. But while the loss of life on that day was indeed a major tragedy for all Americans, what happened afterward was in many ways more disturbing: In essence, the politicization of 9/11 caused us to lose our collective minds for a long period of time.
The first shot was fired by Karl Rove in a January 2002 address to the Republican National Committee in which he implored the GOP to “go to the country on [the war on terror] because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.” And sure enough, by the time the midterm elections rolled around, Bush and the GOP were milking 9/11 to get as many votes as they could. When Senate Democrats tried to extend union rights for workers in the newly created Department of Homeland Security, for instance, Bush issued a pissy veto threat, and then-spokesman Ari Fleischer described the Dems’ proposal as “a step backward, not forward, in protecting the country.”
And that’s just a mild example. Here are some other choice GOP attacks that actually, seriously accused Democrats of helping Al Qaeda:
“America sits and wonders why it is that Al Qaeda, this ragtag bunch of terrorists scattered all over the globe, can reorganize themselves. I think the difference is that Al Qaeda doesn’t have a Senate. Al Qaeda doesn’t have a Senator Daschle.”
—former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey
“As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that’s not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland voted against President Bush’s vital homeland security efforts 11 times.”
—An attack ad targeting then-U.S. Sen. Max Cleland Cleland is a veteran who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War.
“Al Qaeda terrorists. Saddam Hussein. Enemies of America. Working to obtain nuclear weapons. Now more than ever our nation must have a missile defense system to shoot down missiles fired at America. Yet Tim Johnson has voted against a missile defense system 29 different times.”
—An attack ad targeting Sen. Tim Johnson This one was particularly rich, since a missile defense shield would have done precisely nothing to stop the 9/11 attacks.
“How dare Sen. Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field?”
—former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, who freaked out because then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle sugested that we’d have to capture Osama bin Laden in order to consider the war on terror successful
“[Daschle’s] divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country.”
—Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, also attacking Daschle’s remarks Who knew that demanding the capture of our enemies was tantamount to treason?
And so on. The Republicans’ “The Democrats Want to Help Al Qaeda Kill You” gambit worked for two consecutive elections before finally running out of gas in 2006. But even so, the ability of one political party to garner votes simply by yelling about treason incessantly is incredibly depressing.
Pass me that bucket of freedom fries, will you?
1. ‘Mission Accomplished’
A lot has been written about Bush’s aircraft-carrier stunt over the past few years, and with good reason. After all, no other incident better illustrates how Bush’s presidency was built entirely on hubristic arrogance, shameless propaganda and a destructive disregard for reality. In what Noam Chomsky correctly called “the opening of the year 2004 election campaign,” George W. Bush delivered a so-called “victory speech” for the Iraq war after landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln aboard an S-3B Viking jet dressed in full flyboy gear.
Bush’s posturing as a war hero was, of course, laughable. During the Vietnam War, Bush used his family connections to obtain a gentleman draft dodger’s assignment flying planes in Alabama for the Air National Guard—a cushy assignment that he didn’t even do very well. But no matter! As long as he gave off an aura of steely resolve and as long as he wore a ridiculous outfit to emphasize his “manly characteristic,” our ever-watchful pundit corps endlessly praised him as the gin-you-wine article.
A sample of the atrocities, painstakingly compiled by Media Matters:
“(T)hat’s the president looking very much like a jet, you know, a high-flying jet star. A guy who is a jet pilot. Has been in the past when he was younger, obviously. What does that image mean to the American people, a guy who can actually get into a supersonic plane and actually fly in an unpressurized cabin like an actual jet pilot?”
—Chris Matthews, MSNBC
“A little bit of history and a lot of drama today when President Bush became the first commander in chief to make a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier. A one-time Fighter Dog himself in the Air National Guard, the president flew in the co-pilot seat with a trip to the USS Abraham Lincoln.”
—Wolf Blitzer, CNN
“And two immutable truths about the president that the Democrats can’t change: He’s a youthful guy. He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit. He is a former pilot, so it’s not a foreign art form to him. Not all presidents could have pulled this scene off today.”
—Brian Williams, NBC
And in the time since Bush performed this grotesque PR stunt, roughly 4,000 troops have been killed in action along with tens of thousands of Iraqis, with nary a WMD in sight to justify the carnage. Heckuva job, all around.