Nicholas Goldberg: Remember when we thought George W. Bush was the worst president ever?


Twenty years ago next month, President George W. Bush stood before the United Nations and warned that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a “grave and gathering danger,” setting the stage for an invasion six months later based on false premises about super-destructive weapons and purported connections to the 9/11 attacks.

The war ultimately killed 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis, and cost the United States $800 billion, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

I’ve been thinking about Bush’s legacy because I saw a book in a half-price bin at a local bookstore subtitled “How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq” and I realized that, frankly, no one cares anymore. At least not in this country. Too much has happened in the intervening two decades.

Stipple-style portrait illustration of Nicholas Goldberg

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

Remember the Bush years? At the time, many people thought he was the most awful president ever. I distinctly remember the cover of Rolling Stone in May 2006. Bush was drawn sitting on a stool wearing a dunce cap and a stupid expression, and the headline asked: “The Worst President in History?”

Democrats felt a special loathing for this callow scion of an entitled political family, and for his administration’s moral failings. The embrace of torture, for instance. The offshore prison at Guantanamo where suspects were detained (and still are) without trial. The unnecessary war with Iraq that battered America’s reputation around the world.

Those were the days when Bush was being compared to the least successful presidents in history: James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Richard Nixon.

But those days are over. These days you’re more likely to hear that Bush is a surprisingly talented painter, even a charming dinner companion. He’s a friend of Michelle Obama’s — “I love him to death,” she said — and if she likes him, why shouldn’t we? His approval ratings have rebounded dramatically, climbing from a lethargic 33% favorable when he left office to a robust 61% favorable in 2018, according to a CNN poll. For a Republican, he’s starting to seem refreshingly rational and reasonable.

How did that happen?

Well, some of it obviously is due to the passage of time, which heals all favorability ratings. Nixon, who was driven out of office during the Watergate scandal, was more popular by the time he died in 1994 than when he resigned 20 years earlier. Bill Clinton climbed back from his Lewinsky lows. Americans forget their history quickly. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as the Bible says.

But the main thing that happened, I’m afraid, was that someone even worse and more terrifying came along: Donald Trump, a president so utterly transgressive that Bush began to look almost OK in the rearview mirror.

Yes, it was Bush not Trump who signed the Patriot Act into law and mishandled Hurricane Katrina and presided over the start of Great Recession and championed the privatization of Social Security. He was the doofus who extolled Americans who were “working hard to put food on your family” and asked “Is your children learning?” and then dared to insist he’d been “misunderestimated.” His policies led to a lot more deaths than Trump’s did.

But at the end of the day, there’s a meaningful distinction in my mind between the wrongs perpetrated by Bush and those attributable to Trump, who for my money really was the worst president, certainly of my lifetime.

Trump wasn’t just any old bad president.

What made Trump unfit wasn’t his policies or even his beliefs, to the extent he had any. It was his character. He’s a dishonest, anti-democratic, twice-impeached demagogue, a corrupt and irresponsible man without principles who couldn’t rise above his own obsession with self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement and a place at center stage.

His refusal to accept the 2020 election results showed that Trump has no respect for American institutions or for the rule of law.

Bush made plenty of mistakes and his policies did plenty of damage (especially if you were, say, a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison). But I never believed he would put his own ambition for power over the best interest of Americans.

I hate having to make such horrendous moral distinctions. Perhaps such exercises are better left to philosophers.

But the distinctions matter.

Much as I didn’t like Bush and disagree strongly with Liz Cheney and am horrified by so many GOP positions, I look forward to the day when my political adversaries are not reckless norm-breakers or coup-instigators.

I look forward to the day when we can get back to fighting about the issues with non-insane, non-Trumpist Republicans.

Meanwhile, the priority for now and the foreseeable future must be to wrest control of that party from Donald Trump’s dangerous hands and to deny him and his acolytes a path back to power, because that would be catastrophic for the United States, its reputation, its prosperity and its peace and security.

I’m not saying I want to bring back George W. Bush or anyone like him. I’m just saying that Donald Trump is a special case and poses a unique threat.

@Nick_Goldberg



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