By William Fisher
My editors, as well as many friends around the world, have been urging me to write something about how I think about George W. Bush as 2005 ends and a new year begins.
I was reluctant because I have been reading dozens of year-enders on this subject, and wondering if I had anything to add.
What I have to add is not exactly new. Many others have expressed similar views. To which I will now add my own perspective.
As I thought about our president, I wondered: Do I hate him? Do I think he is a liar? Do I think he is a provincial and poorly informed scion of a privileged family? Do I think he embarrasses our country by mangling the English language? Do I think he has placed unnecessary and unproductive restrictions on our liberties? Do I think his promise of a more “compassionate conservatism” was merely an election-year slogan? Do I think he is an incompetent manager of our affairs of State?
The answer to all of the above is either “No” or “We don’t know yet”.
But the more I pondered the question, the stronger grew one overwhelming feeling: Profound disappointment.
I am sad for George W. Bush. The instant those planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the president was presented with an opportunity few presidents have enjoyed.
It was the opportunity to unite our country. On September 11, 2001, GWB could have asked the American people to “pay any price” – and we would have done it.
Not since Pearl Harbor has any other president held the unity of the nation in his hands.
I found myself thinking of Franklin Roosevelt in the days after Japan attacked us. The American people were asked to make real sacrifices, and we made them. We sacrificed our drafted men and women in uniform. We sacrificed our appetites to food rationing. We held scrap metal drives, rubber drives, paper drives. We bought War Bonds, though this was not by any means the most efficient way to raise money for the war effort. We even sacrificed, at least temporarily, our strong views about FDR’s ever-closer relationships to big business because they were the folks who had to build the tanks and the ammo and the planes that could win the war.
In short, FDR connected all of us to the war effort. And we all rose to the challenge.
When Lyndon Johnson failed to learn FDR’s lessons, his Vietnam project collapsed. Looking back at those days, it seems unthinkable that any American president would ever again believe he could win a war absent the support of ordinary people.
But that is what President Bush did.
He told us we were engaged in a “Global War on Terror”, but he didn’t ask us to sacrifice anything to help win it. On the contrary, our wealthiest people reaped large tax cuts while the divide between our rich and our poor became a chasm.
Still, we were all behind the president when he attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan. We thought that action was necessary and justified: They were the folks who killed almost 3,000 of us – more than we lost at Pearl Harbor – and we felt vindicated when that effort succeeded.
Yet the vast majority of ordinary Americans weren’t really connected, even to that war we all supported. The connected people were our men and women in uniform and their families. The rest of us rejoiced, but we sacrificed nothing because we were never asked.
Then came the sharp left turn into Iraq – a war promoted on dubious evidence by people who routinely denounced “nation building” and whose motivations remain murky to this day.
That’s when the president began slowly to lose popular support. What is now left of that support is crumbling. Most of us were happy when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. But some of us, even in the early days of the Iraq war, believed that war to be unwinnable. Now, most of us have come to believe that our subsequent prosecution of the war exposed the embarrassing incompetence of our military to understand that there are no military avenues to nation-building.
And today, as in the past, the American people think of the war as something we watch on our TV sets. We are not personally invested. We are increasingly disconnected. The president hasn’t really talked to his people – until his plummeting poll numbers scared the pants off his advisors. So we still have difficulty understanding why there were no weapons of mass destruction, why we were not greeted as “liberators”, and why most Iraqis want us out of their country.
The opportunity of 9/11 is gone. Missed. Bullhorn in hand, hardhat on head, standing in the ruins of Ground Zero, George W. Bush had every chance of bringing our country together – remember, even before 9/11, how he told us he would be a “uniter”? Well, he blew it.
It is much too early to write the history of the Bush years. But, regardless of how our Iraq adventure ends, my guess is that the Bush presidency will be remembered as one that left us divided, diverted, and uncertain of our country’s future and its role in the world.
It will take a generation of yet-unknown leadership to bring us together.
That’s why I’m disappointed. That’s why I feel such a deep sense of sadness and loss for our president.