5 Myths about George W. Bush

Sunday, November 7, 2010

George W. Bush was an uninformed Texas cowboy.

1 Nobody loved this myth more than Bush himself. During his 2000 campaign against Vice President Al Gore, then-Gov. Bush went to great lengths to depict himself as a down-home Texan whom voters could relate to. Even on a weekend when he was considering as momentous a choice as his running mate, reporters watched as Bush climbed into his SUV and drove down the dirt roads of his Crawford ranch.

But that image was at odds with his upbringing. Bush was born in New Haven, Conn., and his family moved to West Texas seeking to establish an economic beachhead in the region's oil industry. With a grandfather who served as a U.S. senator from Connecticut and a father who worked as an oil executive before leading the CIA and eventually becoming president, Bush had plenty of blue in his blood. (The Andover-Yale-Harvard trifecta didn't hurt, either.)

Again in 2004, Republicans deployed the president's folksy image and manner of speech, contrasting Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (the elitist who windsurfs off Nantucket) with Bush (the guy you'd rather have a beer with - even if he doesn't drink).

Bush's image backfired later, of course. As the administration stumbled in crises from Katrina to Iraq, the reputation that had helped Bush win office turned into a huge liability as Americans increasingly questioned his competence.

"Compassionate conservatism" was just a campaign slogan.

2 Many critics dismiss Bush's talk about "compassionate conservatism" as nothing more than a cynical ploy to win over moderate voters in 2000. Liberals never believed that Bush truly wanted to bring racial and ethnic diversity to the Republican Party or that he accepted the need for the federal government to deal with entrenched social problems. The administration's bungled response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, along with regressive fiscal policies that disproportionately benefited wealthier Americans, also seemed to contradict the promise of compassion.

Yet, as Vanderbilt University historian Gary Gerstle has shown, Bush was personally invested in compassionate conservatism. While growing up in Texas and later serving as governor, Bush constantly befriended and worked with members of his state's Hispanic community and fought for the rights of immigrants. "Once children are in Texas," he said in 1995, "Texans know it is in our best interest and their interest to educate them, regardless of the nationality of their parents." In his gubernatorial reelection victory in 1998, Bush won 49 percent of the Hispanic vote and 27 percent of the black vote - a strong showing for a Republican in Texas. (It is unsurprising that, in his memoir, Bush reportedly describes the accusations of racism he experienced in the aftermath of Katrina as "the worst moment of my presidency.")

Bush's experience as a born-again Christian led him to empathize with individuals' personal struggles and to respect the role of religion in civic life. As president, he insisted that the war on terrorism must not become a war against Muslims. And his signature legislative accomplishments included expansive domestic programs, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (a huge extension of the federal government into primary education) and the Medicare prescription drug benefit (the biggest expansion of the system since its creation 40 years earlier).

Compassionate conservatism struggled not because Bush lacked conviction but because the GOP turned against it. Hard-line congressional Republicans stifled his efforts to liberalize immigration policy, for example. By 2006 and 2007, with his political capital rapidly diminishing because of the war in Iraq, Bush had little ability to fight back.

Bush committed America to nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.

3 After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush appeared to commit the United States to remaking enemy nations into pro-Western democracies. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States destroyed the governments in power and touted an ambitious "freedom agenda" far exceeding anything even Woodrow Wilson ever conceived. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said in November 2003.

Yet in many ways, Bush's commitment to nation-building was primarily a rhetorical tool to build domestic support for military operations. In the minds of key foreign policy players on Bush's team, regime change, not rebuilding civil societies, was the real goal. Memories of the fall of the Soviet Union made officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney optimistic that such transformations were possible on the cheap. This lack of commitment became clear when U.S. resources were hastily diverted from Afghanistan toward Iraq, and when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emphasized in the spring of 2002 that the Afghan people would have to handle most of the reconstruction themselves.

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