It's Personal, Presidential

Fails and Our Fathers

Bush 41 opens up on Bush 43. (Meanwhile, Clinton 42 says, Are you ready for Clinton 45?)

As a millennial (if I might have the honor of calling myself as such), I have to say the first decade of this century in this country was incredibly stressful and confusing. It was a strange mix of national distress over 9/11, middle school awkwardness, the Iraq War, increasingly invasive security measures from the airport to the internet, the teenage years, and the complex mess that was the financial crisis and resulting economy. As it came to a close, people were calling it the worst decade in a while; five years later, they still are. Imagine growing up in it.

Which is why any new light shed on the decade–and the years before it–is particularly valuable to someone from this generation. The decade in the U.S. was in large part shaped by the administration by one George W. Bush, who, near the end of Barack Obama’s tenure as president, seems mostly forgotten along with his dancing skills amongst his new-found love of painting. And of all people, his father and former president George H.W. Bush in his biography has come out with a criticism or two of his son’s administration. Frankly, it’s a little refreshing. Jeb(!) Bush has defended his brother’s performance–at the very least a terrible political move for a presidential candidate–and I was getting worried that no one close to the man would try to give it an open, objective reading. See below for some snippets the NYT summarized:

“I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there — some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “Hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the diplomatic problem.”

Asked for specifics, Mr. Bush cited his son’s State of the Union address in 2002, when he described an “axis of evil” that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea. “You go back to the ‘axis of evil’ and these things and I think that might be historically proved to be not benefiting anything,” he said. …

“[Dick Cheney] had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer,” Mr. Bush said. “It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The president should not have that worry.” He said he thought Mr. Cheney had changed since serving in his cabinet. “He just became very hardline and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with,” Mr. Bush said. He attributed that to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”

He was even harsher about Mr. Rumsfeld, who had been a rival of his since the 1970s, when both served in Gerald R. Ford’s administration. “I think he served the president badly,” Mr. Bush said. “I don’t like what he did, and I think it hurt the president having his iron-ass view of everything. I’ve never been that close to him anyway. There’s a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks. He’s more kick ass and take names, take numbers. I think he paid a price for that.” He added, “Rumsfeld was an arrogant fellow and self-assured, swagger.”

Of course, Bush 41 hasn’t gone as far as to say the war to topple Saddam was a mistake. He also said his son ultimately bears the blame for what happened in his administration–“The buck stops [at the president].” It was hard enough for millions of adults to understand what our country was doing during the ’00s; when the millennials paid attention, we were even more confused. Why were we in Iraq? Why do these guys–Rumsfeld, Cheney, etc.–keep their talk so aggressive? Is the problem with the world or with us? And now why is the economy messed up?

I think all these questions and struggles with what we ultimately had to inherit have been cleared up somewhat by growing up and understanding the problems a little better, and also now having some agency–by means of voting, participating in the economy, and speaking up. And maybe the country and world have gotten better, but that’s hard to say. (All the liberals in the crowd cry resoundingly: “YES!”)

I don’t call Bush 41’s review objective, of course. It’s highly personal. In pushing the narrative that “my son was just surrounded by bad people,” he perhaps overemphasizes the role of administration officials and doesn’t cast enough blame on the president himself. It’s an entirely familiar narrative: my dad does the same with me. If he thinks poorly of an idea I have, his first reaction: “Where did you get that idea?” It must have come from somewhere, from someone else. Or he’ll frequently cast me or my brother in an innocent light: “He’s a good boy. They’re taking advantage of him.”

But at a certain point you can’t remove agency from the star of the show. Looking back, I’m willing to give W some credit as an individual, but if you’re managing people, you must take responsibility for what you allow those people to do. When reviewing these events that impacted so many lives and defined a generation, we have to be, to use the Bush patriarch’s word, iron-ass.

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