We Don’t Need to Rehabilitate George W. Bush to Fight Trump

Politicians are pining for the days of Bush Jr. — but his presidency was a disaster in its own right

Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis/Getty

There are a million ways to criticize President Donald Trump. Why do prominent pundits and politicians find it necessary to rehabilitate the image of George W. Bush while doing so?

The latest example of this bizarre trend comes from former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, in an interview with CNN on Monday, said that he finds himself pining for the days of Bush “every day.” As Reid explained:

He and I had our differences, but no one ever questioned his patriotism. Our battles were strictly political battles.

“There’s no question in my mind that George Bush would be Babe Ruth in this league that he’s in with Donald Trump in the league. Donald Trump wouldn’t make the team,” Reid added.

It’s ironic that Reid claimed that no one ever questioned Bush’s patriotism, given that Bush and his team spent the entire presidency “questioning the patriotism” of anyone who disagreed with them, whether it be the war on terror or the myriad illegal policies that violated the Constitution.

It’s almost like people forget that it was the Bush administration who authorized the CIA’s illegal worldwide torture regime, and branded anyone who questioned such a move — despite the many statutes and treaties outlawing it — as supporting terrorists and “putting our troops in greater danger.”

The same game was played during the passage of the Patriot Act — one of the most invasive laws passed in the modern era. Bush’s Attorney General John Ashcroft said of the critics opposing the law on civil liberties grounds: “Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”

When the New York Times revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting warrantless wiretaps on Americans — again, in clear violation of the law — it was Bush’s second Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who openly contemplated prosecuting the Times reporters who broke the story for violating the Espionage Act.

Time and again, critics of the Iraq War — a disastrous decision that led to a million deaths, cost $4 trillion, and contributed to the rise of ISIS — were branded Saddam Hussein supporters and democracy haters, despite the clear dangers that were borne out exactly as the war critics predicted. Of the few public figures who opposed it, many were booed, boycotted, or fired because of the patriotic fervor stirred up by Bush and his cronies.

Is that the world we want to go back to?

It was obvious, to most Americans at the time, that the Bush presidency was historically bad. Thanks largely to an increasingly unpopular war, his negligent response to Hurricane Katrina, and a cratering economy, Bush eventually sputtered to a 25 percent approval rating — even lower than anything Trump has seen. Yet, somehow, the collective amnesia around Bush seems to have rehabilitated his image: The former president now boasts a 61 percent approval rating. (It’s common for ex-presidents to see some sort of bump in approval after leaving office, but not a total rewrite in how Americans view them.)

The Bush renaissance was buoyed by a charm offensive, wherein he yukked it up on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live without a hint of critical questioning over his decisions as president. So many of the same progressives, who once warned against falling victim to Bush’s lowbrow charms, are now the very people painting his presidency as a period of grace and decency.

John Bolton, Bush’s neoconservative UN ambassador who was once a prime target of withering condemnation from Democrats, is now Trump’s national security advisor. He has reportedly been pushing for yet more war in other countries to muted criticism — and sometimes even support! — from other Democrats in Congress. Elliott Abrams — another Bush administration veteran who was once convicted of withholding information from Congress and accused of covering up legitimate war crimes — is now leading efforts on another dubious regime change operation in Venezuela under the umbrella of “human rights.” One of the many chief architects of Bush’s CIA torture program, Gina Haspel, now leads the spy agency for Trump.

It’s not just Trump’s appointees; it’s his policy, too. The expanded surveillance powers Congress passed in 2007 and 2008 were based on those originally crafted for the Bush administration. And Trump is still leaning on the sweeping war authorization, signed by Bush in 2001, for continuing and expanding wars in the Middle East almost two decades later.

Criticize Trump all you want, but please stop pining for the return of George W. Bush. He deserves to be treated like the pariah he was — and still should be.

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation. His writing has appeared the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Intercept.

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