When you consider the respective achievements of the folks who peopled the upper echelons of the Bush administration, I think you’ll agree that after their incompetence, ideological obsession, and general malevolence, their most impressive characteristic was, and remains, their audacity.
Think about it: George W. Bush is widely considered to be, if not America’s worst president ever, then certainly in the bottom four or five. His legacy to his successor includes: the worst economic crisis in 80years, two unsuccessful wars, a thoroughly corrupt Justice Department, the destruction of time-honored civil liberties and hard-won rights, and the widespread contempt of almost everyone on the planet who was not a committed member of the conservative Republican base. And yet not only did Bush and Co. never own up to the catastrophic consequences of their actions, they gave one another medals for it. (It’s only a rumor, however, that Bush tried to rename the Presidential Medal of Freedom the “Heckuva Job” medal.)
Unlike ex-Democratic pundits who want to prove their mettle by attacking their ex-friends, GOP talking heads keep up exactly the same shenanigans that landed this country in the screwed-up place they left it.
In a society with any kind of memory whatsoever—much less one whose public servants enjoyed a modicum of self-respect—these folks would slink off into the sunset and lay low for a decade or two before taking up new careers doing something useful—if not ministering to the poor like Jimmy Carter, then at least sticking to charity golf tournaments like Gerald Ford.
Instead they’ve become pundits. And unlike ex-Democratic pundits, who tend to want to prove their mettle as independent analysts by attacking their ex-friends using Republican talking points—demanding to know why presidential candidates do not wear flag pins and are BFFs with Louis Farrakhan and the like—they keep up exactly the same shenanigans that landed this country in the screwed-up place they left it. Admit it: It’s impressive.
Exhibit A in this category is ex-chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. Using the same kind of impeccable logic that led him to write speeches demanding that we invade a different country other than the one that attacked us on 9/11, Gerson was punished for his crimes against the English language with a regular gig in The Washington Post and Newsweek, and a fancy fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week, he took the occasion of a recent Pew poll to attack Barack Obama as “the most polarizing new president of recent times.”
“Obama has been a unifier, of sorts,” he quips. “He has united Democrats and united Republicans—against each other.”
As with so many Gerson-authored speeches for George W. Bush, the question one has to ask oneself upon hearing this is not whether the man uttering the words believes them, but whether he can even comprehend them. In Gerson’s case, he appears to understand his own audaciously dishonest claim because he undermines it a few paragraphs later. “The Pew report notes that this is the extension of a long-term trend,” he admits. Well, yes, there’s that. (The poll itself is here.)
And there are also a few obvious-to-everybody-else explanations for the tendency. As Michael Dimock, Pew’s associate director told Gerson’s Post colleague Greg Sargent, “It’s unfair to say that Obama has caused this divisiveness or to say that he is a polarizing president.” Not only is the trend one that’s been building over time, but it is driven in part by the fact that partisan divide is always stronger under Democratic presidents—Bush II being the exception—because Democrats tend to give their opponents a chance while Republicans do not. Second, two Bush terms that went about as well as a biblical flood—see above—have left the party denuded of all but its most ideologically driven elements. A party answerable to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh is going disapprove of just about anyone and anything in what during the Bush years became known as the “reality-based community” simply because, well, it’s there.
Gerson goes on, again impressively, to blame Obama for failing to get Republican votes for his budget, for increasing the deficit, and expanding our dependence on China as if the past eight years never happened.
To be fair to Gerson, he is merely following in his mentor’s footsteps. Recruited by Karl Rove in 1999 for the Bush campaign, he has learned at the feet of an audacious master. Rove, if you’ve not been paying attention, appears to be campaigning for Nobel Prize in the category of keeping a straight face while spouting bullshit—just as soon as the category is invented. This week he made the same silly argument that Gerson did, but to be honest, one could pick almost any utterance by this honored Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Newsweek columnist to make this point. Google and I just happen to stumble on one, in which, I kid you not, Karl Rove, who headed the Office of Political Affairs, the White House Office of Public Liaison, the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, etc., is shocked, shocked that the Obama White House is (allegedly) being used for political purposes. I swear I’m not making this up. Here he is, during the Limbaugh flap, complaining to Greta Van Susteren:
ROVE: They have assigned a senior aide to President Obama [who] is heading this up inside the White House, an unnamed aide. This has clearly got Carville, Begala, and Rahm Emanuel, who talk literally every day—they have an early-morning phone call. This is clearly something that they've concocted. And the question that we—there are two questions we ought to ask. First of all, is this appropriate? The idea that the White House is devoting all this time and energy and effort when we've got all this myriad problems facing the country, that they've got senior aides in the White House gaming out how they can make Rush Limbaugh the headline in the evening news seems to me to be a little petty, small, and really inappropriate.
I know my job here is to have something to say about that, but I don’t see how I can possibly improve on it.
Of all of Bush’s disaster lieutenants, the one who has most successfully reinvented himself is probably David Frum. He was the first one out the door, and bet badly on a hagiographic portrait of his boss when he was still riding high, but quickly switched gears and starting voicing misgivings. While Frum is better at it than his colleagues, his project is the same: to paint Obama and company as no different than Bush, and hence, make the implicit case that Bush wasn’t so bad after all. In a conversation with a reporter at the liberal American Prospect, he explains, “In a way…Paul Krugman is the General Shinseki of the Obama administration. The Axelrods and others are like those who fired Shinseki. They don't want to know, because it would be too inconvenient.”
Now think about that analogy for a second (which, to be honest, is 99/100ths of second more than it deserves): General Shinseki was a top-ranking career military officer under the command of his superiors who tried to warn the country, correctly it turns out, that we were being deliberately misled into a potentially disastrous military engagement by his gung-ho civilian counterparts. For this, he was fired from his job and forced to end his career in apparent ignominy, attacked ceaselessly and anonymously, by those who forced his firing. Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist who teaches at Princeton University and enjoys a sideline as America’s most influential political columnist, publishing twice weekly in The New York Times, the country’s most important newspaper. He has an intellectual disagreement with members of the administration about the size and scope of its economic-recovery policy, has been the topic of no friendly fire whatever, and yet … Actually, I can’t go on. Perhaps I’m insufficiently schooled in the ex-Bush Aide College of Audacious Analysis, but I’m as lost as Jimmy Hoffa’s body in trying to locate even a microcosm of meaning in that analogy.
Back in the real world, in polls released this week, Obama’s 66 percent approval rating is higher at this (ridiculously early) point in his presidency than it was for either Bush or Clinton. His approval rating is more than double that of his Republican opponents in Congress, and despite this moment of profound economic uncertainty and emergency, Americans are, according to a CNN poll, less pessimistic about the future than they were a year ago.
My advice, guys: Next time, blame Canada….
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.