In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Ross Douthat writes that "it's become fashionable to draw comparisons between George W. Bush's sins and those of Richard Nixon, and for good reason. Both presidents are likely to be remembered as polarizing figures who left the country more divided than they found it. Both wereaccused of wartime deceptions: both also lost their way in disastrous second terms. And both men's blunders...are the sort that could take decades to undo." I'm not sure I understand the last sentence there; it's certainly true of Bush, whose first act as president was to undo the economic gains bequeathed to him by the previous administration, and who has openly boasted that he intends to leave his misbegotten war for his successor to clean up. But the biggest and most ruinous mistakes Nixon made in office were related to his and his aides' criminal conduct, the most potentially damaging policies those related to his attempt to create an imperial presidency and destroy the system of checks and balances, all of which were immediately corrected by driving the asshole-in-chief out of office. If Nixon did anything that blighted the country for decades to come, it was establishing the Southern strategy of pandering to racist white voters which enabled Republican candidates very different in both political approach and ideological bent than himself to thrive and prosper.
Yet Douthat's point is that what Bush and Nixon really have in common is that, even in their moment of self-implosion, they can be credited with laying the groundwork for future Republican presidents who will carry forth their "legacy." I guess it all comes down to what you mean by a legacy. It's not as if Nixon and Ronald Reagan had anything much in common in terms of the direction in which they wanted to steer the country, but they did both have little "[R]"s next to their names on the voting ballots. Bush obviously has a lot more in common with the man who explained to David Frost that "if the president does it, then it's not illegal." But it's looking more and more as if this will not turn out to be a banner than anyone wants to pick up any more than it was in Nixon's day. What exactly is the Bush "legacy" that Douthat thinks other candidates will openly embrace. Well, writes Douthat, other candidates will follow Bush's lead in blathering about "fiscal restraint" without actually doing anything to keep the budget or the size of the government in check if that might cost them a vote somewhere. He probably has something there, though he's out of his mind if he thinks that this particular vein of hypocrisy was invented by Bush; Reagan ran with it like Charlie Brown trying to get a kite in the air. (The only Republican president of the past quarter-century to have actually made a public show of doing something politically risky in the name of budgetary sanity was Bush's father, and he's been pilloried for it ever since.)
Douthat also thinks that "although the Iraq War is likely to be an albatross for the Republican Party for years to come," it doesn't take anything away from "the rest of Bush's national security vision." Which is what? Refusing to negotiate with North Korea, with the result that they see no reason not to pursue their nuclear program? Making a token show of cleaning up Afghanistan on the way to the showdown with Iraq that the administration really wanted, so that years later, the army is stretched too thin to prevent the Taliban from regrouping? Never bringing Osama bin Laden to justiice? Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, torture? Using the Patriot Act to give the administration means to shore itself up politically? No, Bush's national security "vision" is the Iraq War. It was supposed to be the case for "preventive war" and the first step in boldly remaking the Middle East; it was supposed to be such a great thing, with such seismic, positive effects, that it would make little things like never capturing Bin Laden (never mind not preventing 9/11 in the first place, something that Bush and Ashcroft and company may get more of an automatic pass on than they deserve) forgivable. Take that away and all you have is the tough talk you expect from any adminstration, married to more evidence of Bush's wild-eyed power-grabbing. And you can't just not take Iraq into account; it's the huge mess that will define Bush's administration; it deserves to, because Bush did so much to insist on being defined by it back when everyone was calling it a shining success.
Like Castro, Bush really believes that "history will absolve" him--except that Castro at least used to get out of bed in the morning and do some work. In retirement, he'll sit in a big room at his ranch and surround himself with courtiers who will interview him again and again ("And then, while everybody else on Air Force One was cowering and whimpering, I swing decisively into action...") and tell him about the greatness of his legacy, just as Nixon did with professional boot-lickers such as Monica Crowley. But Bush's legacy is likely to remain that of a stupid rich layabout whose family worked to jigger him into the presidency as if it were an open slot on the board of directors of a savings and loan, a job that he wanted because it came with a really neat weekly gathering at the country club golf course. Stuck there with no mandate and a minimum of actual popular support, he was just supposed to quietly do his eight years and then retire to the speechmaking circuit, spending the rest of his life enjoying being addressed as "Mr. President." And then something happened that reminded everyone that the job actually comes with real responsibilities, and the poor fella went batshit. He was given the absolute trust of a frightened nation to do whatever it took to make people feel safe, and he--a man with no sense of other human beings in the world and no understanding of the traditions and ideals of his country or how its government was meant to work but a deep belief in his own innate greatness, the greateness of someone who doesn't have to do anything to prove it but who cannot be questioned, because it's tantamount to doubting God's wisdom in anointing him as His earthly representative--used that trust to claim unchecked power for himself, just because he should have it, and every kind of advantage for his political party, because his party is America. He knows that he can't single out every person who fails to understand all this and have them locked up, but the fact that he can't is part of what makes him look so pouty and aggrieved these days.
Who will replace him? Well, John McCain has no shot, let's get that out of the way right now. We live in a culture where attitude counts more than anything, and the fact that Bush managed to hang onto reserves of popularity for as long as he did can be credited to the fact that his stupid, belligerant arrogance looked to a lot of people like the manly impudence they associate with Hollywood Western action stars, the kind that you want to send out to scare the terrrorists, comptence be damned. McCain simply doesn't have the right attitude for a Republican presidential candidate--he doesn't do piety, and he has a sense of irony that the true believers see as snotty, too David Letterman. So the candidate who is actually closest to the culturally conservative true believers on such issues as war and abortion will never get their votes because they think that he isn't their sort. Besides, the religious right will never forgive McCain for his attacks on them, any more than the kind of people who admired him for those attacks will ever forgive him for trying to suck up to them now. The most amusing thing about Mitt Romny in this context is that, as he goes from forum to forum on his knees, whining that every potential voter tell him what they want to hear and, by God, he'll say it and believe it, he resembles nothing so much as Bush's dad, except without the resume and the money. I always assumed that without the resume and the money, Bush Senior never would have made it out the first gate; Romney has already done better than that, but, again unlike a Bush, the poor guy has actually had to get out there and work a little.
I remember that when Bush Junior was running in 2000, I heard from more than one Texas-based editor or reporter that, of course, they knew how to dismantle him in about ten seconds of air time, take apart the illusion that he had any business running for dogcatcher and leave his hopes flapping in the breeze, but nobody wanted to be the one who spoiled the state's chances for having their guy in the White House. It's one more measure of how weird New York is that, in the last few weeks, local magazines and newspapers have been lining up to publish articles expressing something like dismay at the prospect of a President Guiliani. The hot line on Guiliani lately is that his lively personal history and vulnerability on social issues where the religious right is concerned will have to hurt him. Yet he and Bush have a core resemblance to each other that might override all that in a field where the religious right has no real true believer like Bush to throw its weight behind. Guiliani made his name as a prosectuor of white collar criminals and Mafia figures, then became the mayor who liked to boast of his bare-knuckled triumph over the squeegee men and graffiti artists. The major link holding the pieces of his career together is a self-righteous satisfaction in having his boot on some miscreant's throat. In the documentary Guiliani Time, Guiliani can be seen mocking a man with Parkinson's disease who calls in to his radio show complaining that his benefits have been cut off. What's creepy and disturbing about it is the naked enjoyment Guiliani seems to take in having the power to rub the man'snose in it; he makes no attempt to ask the man about his situation and find out what's happening with him, he simply responds to anything that he perceives as a challenge with chortling contempt: I'm the big dog, so you must not matter. It calls up memories of the infamous moment when Bush told a man in a crowd, "Who cares what you think?"--and that was before 9/11 was sold as confirmation that Bush was no mere mortal man who walks humbly among us. As his history with Bernard Kerik and his firing of Police Chief William Bratton demonstrate, he also shares with Bush a preference for cronyism over competence, and even an outright opposition to competence when he feels that it's getting in his way. If Guiliani has a clear walk to the Republican nomination, it'll be at least in part because Republican voters still feel drawn to the ugly, thuggish qualities of George Bush--qualities that they mistook for personal strength--and decided that what they really want now is a smart George Bush, a loud-mouthed bully who won't overreach. I'm honestly not sure at this point whether a smart Bush--a Bush who might know how to control himself-- would be better or worse than the Bush we've had, a model programmed to autodestruct. I could be very happy never finding out for sure.
[cross-posted on The Phil Nugent Experience]