UPDATE: Victory! That's one small step for a man...
As I write this, George W. Bush is saying goodbye to the White House press corps -- it's good to know that the Bush administration has finally successfully "liberated" someone, which is Bush himself, who is giving a performance for the ages, mugging for the cameras, finally joking about his former alcoholism and his mountain-bike escapes from the pressure. There was a lot to digest. A good chunk of his time was dedicated, not surprisingly, was defending his disastrous policies. He's still hailing "52 months of economic growth" -- hey, the business cycle will cycle up even under a bad president -- despite the statistics proving that Bush's two terms were the worst for job creation for a modern presidency, with the paltry 3 million jobs that were created in eight years after that was the annual average under Bill Clinton.
You know, it's easy to sit here on Jan. 12, 2009, and say that Bush is delusional, that of course Americans will remember that he was at times the most unpopular president of at least the last century, and that the cornerstone of his catastrophic legacy is that he invaded another country without just cause.
But don't be so sure of that. In fact, there are already worrisome signs that history may again accomplish what Bush and Dick Cheney pulled off so successfully in 2002 and 2003, which is conflating the invasion of Iraq with what Donald Rumsfeld might call "things related...not" -- al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack on the United States and the subsequent military action in Afghanistan.
When I say signs, I mean that literally. The picture at the top of this post is a portrait of Bush that was recently unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington (an excellent museum that, coincidentally, I visited for the first time over the recent holiday break.) In fact, I saw the Bush portrait along with the 41 other presidents (Cleveland twice, remember?) who came before him, but didn't realize that it was the first time the gallery displayed a president while he was still in office.
More importantly, I didn't dwell on the caption alongside it. It's a good thing that other people have -- especially the people at News Corpse, who produced this excellent report over the weekend, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's on the case. The accompanying words say, in part, that Bush's presidency was:
"...marked by a series of catastrophic events," including "the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."
No, no, no, no, no! The attacks did not lead to war in Iraq -- what led to the war in Iraq was a scheme cooked up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to use the fear and the passions stirred up by a deadly attack on American soil and horribly abuse it for their own misguided geopolitical adventures. As Sanders said in explaining a letter he sent to gallery officials:
“The 9/11 attacks did not lead to the war in Iraq,” Sanders said in an interview. “What President Bush was telling us (before the war) was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was somehow in collusion with Al Qaeda. Those were misstatements of fact, as even President Bush has since acknowledged.”
No big deal, right? Some words on a museum caption. But it is a big deal -- when the misstatements and outright lies piles up over a number of years, until the lies become the accepted legend. This is what I've seen in the last year as I researched my about-to-be-published book -- "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future" (and you can join the Facebook group here), that misconceptions that seem no big deal at the time can become almost set in stone 20 years later -- with disastrous consequences.
Two quick example with Reagan: The two most iconic myths about his presidency are that his stacked-toward-the-wealthy trickle-down tax cut of 1981 is what turned the American economy around, and that he "won the Cold War." But these are neither what most experts believe now, nor what most everyday Americans believed at the time.
In fact, the American economy roared toward the highest unemployment of the post-Depression era right after the 1981 tax cut, which was partly corrected with a tax increase the following year; a boom that came in the mid-1980s was the result of the interest rate policies of Carter appointee Paul Volcker at the Fed, a worldwide oil glut (partly a result of Carter-era conservation) and -- shades of George W. Bush -- the normal business cycle. As for the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 only 14 percent of Americans and 2 percent of Germans credited Reagan; the vast majority linked it to the reform policies of the Soviet's Mikhail Gorbachev, which were more of a result of the coming implosion of the Communist economy than any feared explosion from Western missiles. That snapshot has been validated by historians, but popular history was diverted by a right-wing cabal.
What's the harm? Just look at Bush's botched tax cuts, which have contributed mightily to that staggering debt that will be faced by our children and grandchildren while largely benefiting the Bernie Madoff crowd -- accompanied by Cheney's misunderstanding of the 1980s that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter" Yet Bush is still defending them at his news conference today, and now there is a risk that too much of Obama's stimulus plan won't go to where it belongs -- rebuilding infrastructure and creating "green-collar" jobs -- because of a nod instead to the power of the Reagan tax myth.
Imagine the mistakes that a future generation of leaders might make if they do not learn the right lessons of the 2000s, that the Iraq war was not a justified defensive response but one of the worst mistakes in American history, and even worse, it was the result of the nation's trusted leaders lying to the public. It's hard to fight a war on more than one front, but to move America forward it's still necessary to dispel the myths of the 1980s even as we must stay vigilant about these alarming new ones.