Whether you like or dislike George W. Bush, chances are that by now you are sick of reading about George W. Bush. No doubt you are sick of me writing about George W. Bush. Heck, I’m sick of writing about George W. Bush, here and elsewhere. But every time I reach what I believe to be closure, George W. Bush pops up yet again on his protracted farewell tour and says something worthy of comment. Rumor has it that his tour will finally end next Tuesday, but right now this feels like the longest public farewell since Celine Dion’s string of goodbye gigs back in ’99.
Anyway, last night the president addressed us from the White House for the last time. It was basically a 15-minute cut-and-paste of his greatest hits, including this familiar theme: “I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe…America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil…our nation is safer than it was seven years ago.”
This has become the closing catechism among Bush’s defenders: He made us safer. The problem, however, is that it’s impossible for us to verify that. It’s impossible to know whether the absence of another attack (for which we are all grateful) is proof of a safer America thanks to the Bush team - or whether Islamic extremists are plotting something on their own timetable, patiently exploiting security lapses that the Bush team has failed to address.
Indeed, there is already documented proof that, contrary to Bush’s claim, he has not made America safer. It’s all spelled out in one of those important bipartisan reports that few people bother to read. This particular document – “The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism” - was released only six weeks ago, and naturally it received a lot less public attention than Madonna’s breakup with Guy Ritchie.
The bipartisan commission, chaired by former Democratic senator Bob Graham and former Republican senator Jim Talent, did not mince words. It concluded that, in the years since 9/11, the WMD threat from terrorists has actually increased, not lessened. The executive summary states: “The simple reality is that the risks that confront us today are evolving faster than our multilayered responses…in our judgment, America’s margin of safety is shrinking, not growing…Though U.S. policy and strategy have made progress, they have not kept pace with the growing risks.”
In a sense, this conclusion that we’ve actually become less safe is not surprising; back in April 2006, a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Islamic terrorists “are increasing both in number and geographical dispersion.” But the Graham-Talent report declares that the Bush team has lagged in the fight against potential nuclear and biological terror because it hasn’t sufficiently tried to win the hearts and minds of those who seek to kill us:
“The next administration needs to go much further, using the tools of ‘soft power’ to communicate effectively about American institutions, and to build grassroots social and economic institutions that will discourage radicalism and undercut the terrorists in danger spots around the world – especially in Pakistan.”
The report also said it would be a good idea to have one person at the highest level who would focus exclusively on the WMD threat – a “WMD coordinator,” as recommended four years ago by the 9/11 Commission. Congress passed a law in 2007, authorizing the creation of that job. But the Bush White House resisted the idea, and, as the Graham-Talent report dryly noted: “As of this writing, the position has remained vacant for nearly 15 months.”
All told, there’s ample reason to question Bush’s repeated claim that he has made us safer. It’s arguaby just as likely that former Navy secretary Richard Danzig was correct when he told the Graham-Talent commission, “Only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protects us.”
And on that cheery note, let’s roll back to a separate Bush remark, uttered earlier on his farewell tour, during last Monday’s final press conference: “I am disappointed by the tone in Washington, D.C. I’ve – I try to do my part by not engaging in the name-calling and – and, by the way, needless name-calling I have worked to be respectful of my opponents on different issues.”
It’s a bit rich for Bush to claim “disappointment” with the tone in Washington, D.C., considering his many contributions to the tone in Washington, D.C. – such as his complaint, in September 2002, that the Senate Democrats “were more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people.” And his September 2004 complaint that domestic critics of his Iraq policy “embolden the enemy.” And his June 2006 complaint that those selfsame critics “wave the white flag of surrender.”
And, lest we forget, a president’s tone is typically mimicked by his minions. Case in point: Bradley Schlozman.
Perhaps you missed the story this week about Schlozman, a Bush official who spent three years helping to run the Justice Department’s civil rights division. The inspector general for the Justice Department did a whole report about this guy, and released the results on Tuesday. It states that Schlozman violated federal civil service laws by hiring only right-wingers, while discriminating against all applicants and employes who didn’t fit the conservative Bush agenda.
That’s standard stuff, considering what we’ve learned these past two years about the ideological politicization of Justice. More striking were Schlozman’s creative contributions to the tone in Washington, D.C. In email and voicemail messages, Schlozman considered all non-conservatives to be “pinko” and “crazy lib” and “Politburo members” and “adherents of Mao’s Little Red Book.” By contrast, he said he was only interested in “real Americans” and “right-thinking Americans.”
So there it was, the administration’s belief system in sharp relief. Anyone who failed to embrace the Bush ideology was deemed not to be a “real American.” It’s fair to say that this pervasive attitude did much to debase the tone in Washington, D.C. these past eight years, notwithstanding Bush’s attempt to distance himself from blame.
His farewell tour is nearly over, but let’s not forget that Celine Dion came back after insisting in ’99 that she was saying goodbye. Bush can always pitch his legacy from the lecture circuit, singing his own praises. But I doubt that our hearts will go on.