Policy Review, October 5, 2018—George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, died today at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. He was 72. The cause of death was announced as heart failure.
Mr. Bush’s always controversial presidency left behind a changed nation and a changed world. Taking office in 2001 after a disputed election settled only by a 5-4 decision by a bitterly divided Supreme Court, and decisively reelected in 2004, President Bush led the United States into four wars, oversaw the dismantling of Social Security and Medicare, and enforced a drastic shrinking of elementary, secondary, and collegiate education. He spearheaded the transformation of President Bill Clinton’s budget surpluses of 1999 and 2000 into permanent deficits of more than a trillion dollars a year, thus profoundly reducing the amount of capital available to address the needs of the vast majority of citizens and inhibiting the creation of new jobs with any promise of advancement or financial security, while at the same time pursuing tax reductions that increased the differences between the income and assets of, in his own terminology, “owners” and “pre-owners” of “the American ownership society” to extremes almost beyond measure. When he left office, taxation of personal and corporate incomes, while still legally extant, had been effectively replaced by a new payroll tax, so that almost all investment, inheritance, and interest income was left tax-free. “Those with the greatest stake in America,” President Bush often said throughout his second term, “have the greatest stake in defending it. Thus we as a nation must do all that we can to ensure that the commitment of those with the greatest stake to the rest of us, a commitment on which our freedom and security rests, only grows greater.”
Adding to Mr. Bush’s statutory and administrative economic policies were a series of decisions by the “Bush Court,” as the Supreme Court was known after 2005, when in that year Mr. Bush replaced three retiring members with very conservative justices (a fourth was replaced in 2006), depriving government regulation of corporations and the environment of any legal basis—decisions which many analysts considered more significant than the repudiation by the Bush Court of previous decisions upholding a woman’s right to privacy in the matter of abortion and certain applications of affirmative action. Even with the Bush Court seated, however, the Republican-controlled Congress that Mr. Bush enjoyed throughout his presidency repeatedly passed legislation removing issue after issue from the purview of the state and federal courts, including questions of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to trial by jury. Despite these prohibitions of judicial review, the government, under Mr. Bush, did not press for any legislation curtailing what had previously been referred to as “First Amendment freedoms,” but simply refrained from challenging such legislation passed by many states, rather filing supportive briefs before the Supreme Court when such measures were contested. Ultimately the reversal of the series of 20th-century Supreme Court decisions subjecting the states to the Bill of Rights, long-sought by certain conservatives, was achieved not de jure but de facto. “The press is legally free,” the former New York Times columnist Frank Rich put it in 2007, writing in his online journal Thatsrichbrother.com. “It merely refrains from practicing freedom.” Some said the same of the nation as a whole; others said the country was freer than it had ever been.
Mr. Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 6, 1946, and raised in Houston and Midland, Texas, where his father, the former President George H. W. Bush, began his careers in oil and politics. Mr. Bush attended Andover Academy and graduated from Yale University in 1968. During the Vietnam War he was a member of the Texas Air National Guard, known at the time as a safe haven from combat duty; whether Mr. Bush did in fact fulfill his military obligations became a subject of dispute during his second election campaign. In 1975 Mr. Bush graduated from Harvard Business School and began careers in oil and politics in Texas; neither flourished. Though he married the former Laura Welch in 1977 and fathered twin daughters Jenna (named for Mrs. Bush’s mother) and Barbara (named for Mr. Bush’s mother) in 1981, Mr. Bush’s life through his early 40s was characterized by business failures, accusations of insider trading, reports of silent bailouts, and self-confessed “drinking.” (Mr. Bush claimed to have renounced drinking—the word alcoholism was never used—the day after his 40th birthday, as the result of divine intervention and an act of will.) He became a public figure in 1989 when, through a questioned investment, he became part of the consortium that bought the Texas Rangers baseball franchise; his title as managing partner produced an impression of competence and good humor. In 1994 Mr. Bush ran for governor of Texas and proved himself a first-rate campaigner. When he was elected, Texas was a bipartisan state; as Mr. Bush’s advisor Karl Rove once said, “He charmed Democrats into riding on his strong back as he forded the river of discord.” When Mr. Bush left office as president, the Texas government was all Republican.
Mr. Bush was a politician opponents underestimated at their peril, and throughout his career his opponents did just that. He cultivated an aura of know-nothingness, of “a fine disregard” of inconvenient facts or opinions, but he was devastating on the attack, able to present himself as an ordinary man outraged by the self-superiority of whoever might be opposing him at any time and on any issue. Even as president, before the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City, in 2001, he was not always taken seriously by political commentators or the public at large; after that event he became a heroic figure, standing in defense of the United States as if that historic responsibility were his alone.
He launched an assault against Afghanistan, where al Qaeda had its headquarters and training grounds, weeks after the 2001 attacks, leading to the immediate fall of the totalitarian Islamic regime of the Taliban, which had given al Qaeda sanctuary. Though Osama bin Laden, the leader of the worldwide Islamist movement, escaped capture, his forces were severely weakened and scattered; during Mr. Bush’s first term there was, against all expectations and predictions, no further terrorist attack on American soil. Arguing that Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq was a center of terrorist plotting and a repository of terrorist weaponry, from what turned out to be nonexistent chemical and biological arms to equally chimerical nuclear technology, Mr. Bush in 2003 led a limited international coalition into Iraq and replaced Mr. Hussein with an occupying force, which over the next year was pushed back into consistently shrinking enclaves in the face of a fierce insurgency. Following his reelection in 2004, Mr. Bush ordered the destruction of the cities where the insurgents were thought to be concentrated; though the cities were destroyed, the insurgency continued. Mr. Bush then pressed on to Iran and North Korea, which he had identified as “rogue states.”
With U.S. Armed Forces tied down in Iraq, Mr. Bush turned to what critics called a “private army subject to no law and operating at the whim of a single individual”—that is, to large numbers of private contractors employed by U. S., Serbian, Nigerian, and Saudi corporations—to launch land, sea, and air attacks meant to destroy nuclear facilities in both Iran and North Korea. While the Afghan and Iraqi armies and governments had collapsed almost at the first sign of American assault, the Iranian and North Korean invasions were beaten back by sustained resistance and, in North Korea, the use of explosives that Mr. Bush denounced as “tactical nuclear weapons,” though this was later proved not to be the case. Nonetheless Mr. Bush then ordered what he described as “pinpoint” nuclear attacks on the nuclear sites in Iran and North Korea, which, while achieving their goals, also led to the One-Day War, a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan that left Bombay and Karachi in ruins and led to the fall of the governments of both countries, and to the withdrawal of the American-led coalition forces from Iraq. The result was the series of still-continuing civil wars throughout the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent that, while involving no unconventional weapons since 2006 have, according to the United Nations, caused the deaths of 12 million people and the displacement of millions more. Mr. Bush’s claim in action if not in words that the United States retained an international monopoly on the legitimate use of force left allies such as Great Britain and alliances such as NATO crippled; it also left the United States at least formally unchallenged.
It was often said, during Mr. Bush’s first term, that he saw himself as a messianic figure, ordained by God to carry the flag of freedom (“God’s gift,” in Mr. Bush’s words, “to every individual”) to the corners of the earth, and that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, at least, were part of a crusade of transcendent significance. After Mr. Bush’s reelection, it was increasingly argued that his wars were a diversionary and obfuscatory tactic meant to raise Mr. Bush’s standing, and the power of the Republican Party both in Congress and in the states, solely for the benefit of Mr. Bush’s domestic agenda, and that, as the poet Donald Hall wrote, “it was the United States itself that was the true object of conquest.” While that is a matter for history to settle (when, as Mr. Bush himself once put it, “we’ll all be dead”), few would dispute that Mr. Bush left the United States if not conquered then irrevocably changed—and, according to the American novelist Philip Roth, who in 2008, cited by the Swedish Academy as “the voice of a lost republic,” was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, “less a nation governed by its citizenry, where each of us has one vote, than a stock exchange owned by its shareholders, according to the number of their shares.”
Mr. Bush’s Republican Party had, during his time in office, so effectively marginalized the opposition Democratic Party that it all but ceased to function in many states. After the suspension of the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate, the remaining 45 Democratic senators were unable to block any of Mr. Bush’s appointments to the federal courts or the executive branch of government. The Republicans had so successfully supported Mr. Bush as an infallible and irreplaceable leader that he came to seem, in fact, irreplaceable. There was no figure in the party who did not appear diminished as soon as his or her name was mentioned alongside of his, and the notion of any ordinary Republican actually succeeding Mr. Bush became, in the words of William Kristol, editor of the conservative journal the Daily Standard, “unthinkable.” Thus was the strategy devised to introduce a constitutional amendment to remove the requirement in Article 1 that no one could be elected president were he or she not native born, supposedly to permit the presidential candidacy of the native-born Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, the enormously popular and skillful governor of California and the one Republican other than Mr. Bush who did sometimes appear larger than life. It later transpired that the amendment was a ruse: When Democrats attempted to “poison” the amendment by proposing that all restrictions on who might become president be removed (the requirement that a president be at least 35 years old, the two-term limit), the Republicans immediately acquiesced, and as a result of the passage of the 28th Amendment in 2006 and its ratification by the states the next year, in 2008 Mr. Bush announced his candidacy for a third term. He was overwhelmingly defeated that November by former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Bush’s life after his presidency was marked by misfortune. He soon lost interest in his status as the standard-bearer of his party and its chief fundraiser; many believed he had again begun drinking, and in any case he seemed to spend most of his time at private clubs in Houston, where he established residence in 2010 after selling his property in Crawford, Texas. (“At least I won’t have to cut that f— brush again,” Mr. Bush was heard to say after his last election.) Then on May 1, 2011, Jenna and Barbara Bush were killed in a drunken driving accident in New York City, an incident that also took the lives of seven other people, four of them friends of the Bush daughters. Rumors that a Bush family friend attempted to bribe the police to report that a person other than Jenna or Barbara Bush was driving (the body of Barbara Bush was in the driver’s seat) were never confirmed. Four years later, in 2015, Laura Bush, like her father, died of Parkinson’s disease; she was 68. After a period of mourning, Mr. Bush announced that, to find his way back into “productive service” and “do God’s will,” he would welcome the opportunity to act as commissioner of baseball. But while Commissioner Bud Selig said that he would be honored to yield the position to Mr. Bush, he cautioned that the exigencies of the job would probably require him to remain in office “for another year, or maybe two,” and the question was not raised again.
Mr. Bush was preceded in death by his sister Robin Bush, his brothers John “Jeb” Bush, the former governor of Florida, Neil Bush, and Marvin Bush, and his sister Dorothy Bush Koch. He is survived by his parents.
Policy Review, October 5, 2018 (via City Pages, November 3, 2004)