A first historical assessment of one of the most controversial presidencies
The Presidency of George W. Bush brings together some of today’s top American historians to offer the first in-depth look at one of the most controversial U.S. presidencies. Emotions surrounding the Bush presidency continue to run high – conservatives steadfastly defend its achievements, liberals call it a disgrace. This book examines the successes as well as the failures, covering every major aspect of Bush’s two terms in office. It puts issues in broad historical context to reveal the forces that shaped and constrained Bush’s presidency – and the ways his presidency reshaped the nation.
The Presidency of George W. Bush features contributions by Mary L. Dudziak, Gary Gerstle, David Greenberg, Meg Jacobs, Michael Kazin, Kevin M. Kruse, Nelson Lichtenstein, Fredrik Logevall, Timothy Naftali, James T. Patterson, and the book’s editor, Julian E. Zelizer. Each chapter tackles some important aspect of Bush’s administration – such as presidential power, law, the war on terror, the Iraq invasion, economic policy, and religion – and helps readers understand why Bush made the decisions he did.
Taking readers behind the headlines of momentous events, the contributors show how the quandaries of the Bush presidency were essentially those of conservatism itself, which was confronted by the hard realities of governance. They demonstrate how in fact Bush frequently disappointed the Right, and how Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory cast the very tenets of conservatism in doubt.
History will be the ultimate judge of Bush's legacy, and the assessment begins with this book.
Editor Julian Zelizer offers a good introduction to the volume, which touches on all the issues to be discussed in the book, before offering a quick historical account of, to borrow the chapter’s title, “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Presidential Power”. This chapter offers a quick and readable historical account of the evolution of conservative opinions of presidential power – from opposition to, specifically under Nixon, whole-hearted support. “The Bush administration formed in direct conversation with the 1970s”, when many high-ranking members came of professional age during Nixon’s and Ford’s administrations – most notably, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. Zelizer explains the liberal-conservative fight over the scope of presidential power, and how conservatives fought against any and all attempts to limit presidential power – in part spurred by an article by William F Buckley that called for all conservatives to recognise the importance of the presidency to streamline and push policy making. Establishment conservatives clearly accepted his premise, and have rarely (if ever) looked back. During the Clinton years, GOP opposition to presidential power was more ideological and “pragmatic”, simply because they did not have control over the White House (Zelizer points out that much of the opposition to Clinton’s policies were more due to a dislike of the president, rather than the policies themselves).
“The war on terrorism has highlighted the reality that presidential power is integral, rather than aberrational, to modern conservatism. The relationship is more than simply a product of political pragmatism under conditions of divided government.”
Conservative elements of American political landscape have been just as culpable, if not more so, than liberals for the expansion of government power and size: “Since the 1960s, the Right, rather than the Left, has been a much more vociferous champion of an all-powerful White House.”
Mary Dudziak’s chapter takes a look at a broad range of legal issues that the Bush administration was faced with – from the Supreme Court’s involvement in resolving the 2000 election crisis, to Guantanamo Bay and issues of habeus corpus, and also the financial crisis. Each section is clearly laid out and cleanly argued and explained. It’s a good chapter, but not one that particularly fired my interest.
Timothy Naftali’s chapter on the War on Terrorism is interesting, although it suffers from being on a subject that has been written about to almost exhaustion. That being said, he discusses the differences between Bush’s first and second terms in office, after Condoleezza Rice’s move to the Department of State (which saw an “emergence of a more flexible approach” to foreign policy in general). While describing in brief the successes in South East Asia, Naftali also points out that,
“in its zeal to reorder the international system, the Bush administration created a Petri dish for massive amounts of terrorism in Iraq between 2003 and 2007, with immeasurable damage to U.S. soft power in the Muslim world.”
In his second term, Naftali explains, there was a “quiet rebellion” throughout the government, as opponents to a neoconservative/assertive-nationalist foreign policy found their voices and receptive ears. This rebellion also exhibited the US government’s self-corrective nature, as a more realistic foreign policy began to replace the more assertive unilateralism of the first term.
Frederick Logevall tackles the causes of the Iraq invasion. “How the United States got into Iraq is one of the great foreign policy questions of our time,” the author begins. “Iraq was a war of choice, not necessity, and that it was understood as such by top officials in Washington.” Like Naftali’s offering, much of this has appeared or been discussed in innumerable other volumes. Logevall recognises this, and explains how what emerges from the plethora of memoirs and journalistic accounts is “the story of an administration that decided early for military action and then manipulated the truth to make its case.” Aiding this manipulation was the political environment at the time:
“It is also a story about a permissive decision-making environment in which Congress, the press, and the American public were mostly content to go along, unwilling to raise the tough questions that might have halted or slowed the rush to war.”
A good chapter, and one lucidly and clearly written and argued, Logevall finishes on a grim note:
“regardless of the ultimate outcome in Iraq, the damage done by this unnecessary and reckless war has been enormous in terms of lives lost and resources squandered, in terms of America’s standing in the region and the world, in terms of the impact on the broader struggle against terrorism.”
James T. Patterson explains, in a very good chapter, George W. Bush’s tax and stimulus policies. It is clear that Patterson does not approve of Bush’s vehement belief in supply-side economics (which, Patterson argues and shows with plenty of data, were impractical and ultimately completely wrong – in other words, he argues George H.W. Bush’s opinion that it was ‘voodoo economics’).
“Well before George W. Bush left office in 2009, he had succeeded in securing major cuts in federal taxes that contributed over time to mounting deficits and rising income inequality. This dramatic turn in fiscal policy was the most significant domestic legacy of his presidency.”
In addition, in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street collapse, Bush’s stimulus and bailout packages “promised to have large and long-run consequences” for America’s future fiscal health. Bush’s tax policy was assured long before he started running for president – a “tax-cutting zealotry” within the GOP still defined much of the conservative approach to fiscal matters, and in the George W Bush years, “paved the way for passage of legislation that Ronald Reagan would have envied”. In order to ensure Bush didn’t fall foul of his father’s fate (“Read my lips: no new taxes”), the administration was bull-headed about and insistent on internal unity on taxes – “Bush brushed aside serious internal debate over economic matters”, which in some ways explains Paul O’Neill’s quick exit from his post as Treasury Secretary. Patterson acknowledges the long-term structural issues that exacerbated the negative impact of Bush’s policies, and offers a good summary of the various opposition arguments that were levelled at Bush’s policies throughout his term (especially those following the invasion of Iraq, and the president’s ignoring rising unemployment figures to focus on further tax cuts). Patterson finishes with a warning about extending the Bush tax cuts:
“If Congress were to extend or increase the Bush-era tax reductions, it would enshrine a supply-side revolution that had erected the boldest monument of Bush’s domestic agenda.”
Meg Jacobs takes a look at Bush’s energy policy, placing it in an historical perspective, in “Wreaking Havoc from Within”. Jacobs argues that Bush’s priority on the environment was to “reverse thirty years of environmental and energy policy, specifically through deregulation, tax reform, and the opening up of new lands to exploration and drilling” – to do this, he set up the much-criticised National Energy Policy Development Group, which was chaired by Dick Cheney and staffed by energy industry supporters, lobbyists and former-employees. Bush’s policy was nothing new, the author argues, as it adhered to tired and constant conservative opposition to regulation. What was new, however, and therefore what prevented Bush from fulfilling all his goals, was the growth in support for environmentalism in Congress. Jacobs offers an explanation of the roots of conservative energy policy, from the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-4, through Carter’s and Reagan’s presidency – for example, attempts to reduce the dependence on foreign oil (and the resultant desire to open up ANWR for exploration and drilling).
“Understanding the Bush energy policy is not as simple as saying that this was an administration run by two oilmen, though that certainly matters. Nor can the administration’s policies be explained as crude payback for political backers, though again, energy industry contributions were not insignificant.”
Nelson Lichtenstein’s chapter takes a look at ideology and interest in social policy at home. Put blunty, “Ideology and interest structured the domestic social policy over which George W Bush presided”. Lichtenstein argues that ideology and interests were integral to almost all Bush social policies – consistently conservative in the former, and complex but also considerable in the latter, incorporating many corporate and business interests in decision-making and policy implementation – favouring business interests over labour and worker interests at almost every turn. From Bush’s Social Security and Medicare policies, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (a particularly interesting section), Lichtenstein offers some illuminating treatments of how Bush’s policies conformed to what he calls the “Bush-Cato” social policy approach.
In David Greenberg’s chapter, we get an analysis of the Bush administration’s expertise at navigating an increasingly polarised society and political environment. Specifically, the chapter refers to the difference between Bush administration officials’ contempt for “reality-based” liberals – this refers to a much-cited passage from Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, when he was told that the US was powerful enough to make its own reality.
“Although the taunts of Bush’s critics frequently descended into glibness, the president’s denigration of independent expertise was real, and it marked one of the more significant and all-encompassing features of his administration.”
The Bush administration made ‘science’ and ‘expertise’ derogatory terms, in an attempt to control the discussion – on everything – to adhere to their own narrow, ideological agenda and world-view.
“As never before, administration officials and their allies in politics and the news media openly disregarded the empirically grounded evidence, open-minded inquiry, and expert authority that had long underpinned governmental policymaking.”
Greenberg explains how conservative control of the White House and both Houses of Congress during much of Bush’s administration helped give rise to this assault on expertise – especially when coupled with the media’s changing role (be it Fox News’ flagrant disregard for facts and balance, or the Mainstream Media’s insistence on giving both sides of an argument attention – be it ridiculous or grounded in something concrete). This disregard for expertise and the denigration of those with “book learning” is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the most dangerous legacy of the Bush years – it is a root cause of almost every damaging and dangerous policy that came out of the Bush administration (in both the short- and long-term). Sadly, during the first two years of Obama’s administration, political and media conversations show no evidence of realignment towards sensible, informed decision-making or debate.
President Bush wore his religion and beliefs on his sleeve, so a chapter discussing Religion in Bush’s America was a must. The task is taken up by Kevin Kruse. After a couple of decades in the wilderness, the Religious Right was politically adrift – unable to unseat Clinton, and experiencing few (if any) victories on the Culture War issues that fired up its grassroots followers and organisations, they were struggling to remain relevant. Enter George W. Bush who, on all issues dear to the Religious Right, “dutifully took his place on the right” and fought to bring them victories they had long sort. In some ways, he was successful (stem cells, for example). Kruse offers a quick summary of Bush’s religion and how it played in the election, followed by an explanation of purpose and formation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In his memoir, Bush would say his faith-based initiatives were some of his favourite achievements of his administration. Kruse also explains how, with the onset of the War on Terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, faith-based initiatives receded from importance; equally, the author explains how the “old guard” of the religious community have been supplanted by a more moderate generation, which aims to focus on its values, rather than the political issues it opposes. This is a welcome development, and might allow the debate to advance in a more mature manner. Despite his wish to transcend the political partisanship over faith, Bush’s policies were dashed by White House indifference and partisanship on Capitol Hill – his one success was his expansion of AIDS support and aid in Africa (something few will be able to fault or condemn).
Gary Gerstle takes a look at Bush’s success at expanding the multicultural make-up of the GOP’s support-base. Mile removed from Pat Buchanan, Bush offered real possibility for expanding the Republican Tent. Bush appointed more minorities to high government office than any previous administration, and multiculturalism was enshrined in his signature piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind – which required schools across the nation to conform to certain standards in core subjects, which was hoped to level the playing field sooner for minorities. Gerstle offers an interesting comparison with the McKinley administration (a favourite of Karl Rove’s, apparently), which created a thirty-year Republican majority, only to be brought low by nativist, anti-immigration forces within. This weakness is once again raising its ugly head in the wake of the Bush administration, as Tea Party forces gobble up more and more media-time and Republican seats in Congress and the Senate.
In the final chapter of the book, Michael Kazin takes a look at Bush’s relationship with the Conservative Movement. The author offers a summary of its evolution, and charts Bush’s relationship with it and the issues that matter most to it. The first term of Bush’s presidency is considered the best of times by movement conservatives as the new president promised to fulfil their wishes and chart a properly conservative path in office (only on immigration did the president break with his base). Ultimately, Kazin argues, the Bush presidency was a disappointment for movement conservatives, as the president slowly but surely jettisoned the fierce adherence to conservative political issues and tropes, as evidenced in Bush’s expansion of government and also his administration’s part in the massive economic bailouts in 2008 – this is quite a hypocritical about-turn, as many of its leaders were members of Reagan’s administration, which implemented many of the same ‘heresies’ (particularly in terms of government expansion). The conservative movement’s insistence on ‘ideological purity’ has proven self-defeating many times (certainly during Bush’s first term and its hiring policies).
The focus on Bush and his administration’s decision-making processes is very helpful, and makes this volume far more in-depth and revealing than George W. Bush’s own memoir, ostensibly about his decision-making processes. The authors who produced chapters for The Presidency of George W. Bush offer many insights into the inner-workings of the Bush Administration and those who helped steer, implement or influence certain policies.
I only have three minor criticisms of this book. Firstly, there’s not a whole lot of new material included in its pages. This, to be fair, is unavoidable as large portions of official documents will remain classified for years and decades to come (this is something Zelizer admits early on in the book). I can’t help thinking this book should have waited a few more years before publication, but that might have led to a completely different book. Secondly, Zelizer claims that the chapters do not attempt to answer the question about whether or not Bush was a ‘bad’ or ‘good’, or one of the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ president, and yet these chapters (particularly the foreign and economic policy chapters) have an overall negative and critical bias – thankfully backed up by plenty of evidence – but it doesn’t suggest a historians’ detachment. The freshness of the events of Bush’s presidency do, of course, mean that tempers and passions are still excited and inflamed by discussion of his administration, so this was unavoidable. My final criticism is that a couple of these chapters are a little dry, and not as accessible as others.
An excellent, single-volume account of the various aspects of George W. Bush’s presidency, I think this volume is very valuable and useful companion for anyone studying the presidency, US foreign policy, and contemporary issues of American politics, society and foreign policy. Indeed, it may be the most useful single-volume, broad-focus book on George W Bush currently in print, and a perfect starting place for study.
Also try: Julian E. Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy (2010); James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (2005); Timothy Naftali, George H.W. Bush (2008); Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Imperial Presidency (2004); Charlie Savage, The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2007); George W. Bush, Decision Points (2010); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004); Matt Taibbi, Griftopia (2010); Lou & Carl M. Cannon, Reagan’s Disciple: George W Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy (2008); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism (2010); Matt Latimer, Speech-Less (2009); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)