Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 13, 2009; 1:00 PM

After eight years in office, how will President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney be remembered? That's the question The Washington Post set out to answer in its series The Bush/Cheney Legacy. In it, award-winning journalists Bob Woodward and Barton Gellman discuss George W. Bush's presidency in a roundtable discussion moderated by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. The journalists delve through the issues Bush and Cheney will be remembered for most -- from the Iraq War and domestic surveillance, to the financial crisis and Hurricane Katrina.

The debate continued here, as Robinson was online Tuesday, Jan. 13 to discuss the Bush/Cheney legacy, as well as his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

Today's column: When Bush Is History.

Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. One week left 'til the inauguration. Today's column, for reference, was about President Bush's farewell press conference -- which turns out not to have been a farewell after all, since he wants to say goodbye to the nation later in the week. Isn't there a country song with the lyric, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?" Just asking.


Washington, D.C.: "But it's important to convene an investigation and learn the truth, all of it, so that no president is tempted to take such liberties again. History, both short-term and long-term, will be grateful."

When Bush came to office, the first thing he did was sign an executive order killing investigations into Clinton's policies. You really think we should investigate Bush? Why didn't we investigate Clinton, who really started rendition? Or for starting a preemptive war in the Balkans? Or for renting out the Lincoln bedroom to the highest bidder? Presidents have taken this liberties before...the media just covered them up, didn't report on them and didn't care because if was there people doing it.

Yes, three people have been water boarded...one of them resulted in the saving of tens of thousands of lives. This isn't something we should normally, and don't normally do. The rest of this "torture" is sleep deprivation, temperature and mind games...Stuff we have been doing forever, it's just the media tried to make this some horrible bush thing to scare people. I don't call this torture, and neither do most people. This is media invention of the word torture to describe normal interrogation. Abu Graib was horrible, but that isn't policy that was just people abusing others, and they have been investigated and are continuing to be prosecuted. As they should be, what went on their was horrible...but not indicative of our country and you know that, despite the things you in your article.

I guess this is one of my biggest complaints...the media thinks it has a right to dictate policy. If Obama investigated Bush, and the policies that were approved by a majority of Democrats in Congress, the next Republican president will for sure launch an investigation into the previous Democrat presidents and so on.

Of all your Bush derangement syndrome articles, this one highlights the most how far off the elitist media lives from the planet the rest of us work on every day.

Eugene Robinson: We believe that only three people were subjected to waterboarding but don't know that for sure. There is no basis that I know of to say that if we hadn't used waterboarding, somehow tens of thousands of lives would have been lost. Depriving people of sleep, subjecting them to extreme temperatures and forcing them into excruciating positions can also fit well within the civilized world's definition of torture. You're right that Abu Ghraib was a horror; my point is that only the low-ranking guards were prosecuted, but it was the higher-ups who made that abuse possible. There is no real accountability.


Minneapolis: "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"

Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Early '70s. Just answering...

Eugene Robinson: Thank you.


Atlanta: Do you also hold Lincoln in contempt for suspending habeas corpus? FDR for the internment of Japanese and his court-packing scheme? How about Wilson and the Palmer raids? Clinton and extraordinary rendition?

Methinks that your bluster and raging stems more from abject partisanship than genuine outrage. If you really were such a defender of the Constitution , you would be blasting Lincoln, FDR and Wilson.

Eugene Robinson: I cut Lincoln some slack because the Constitution allows the president to suspend habeas corpus in the case of insurrection and he was facing a true insurrection. FDR was wrong to intern Japanese-Americans and wrong to try to pack the Supreme Court. I have no problem criticizing Wilson, since among his other accomplishments was re-segregating the offices of the federal government to avoid "friction" between the races. And I don't like Clinton's use of rendition any more than I like Bush's, except that Bush did a lot more of it.


Arlington, Mass.: In a world where the very few have the ability to mete profound devastation on the very many (consider a dirty bomb detonated in the financial district of Manhattan rendering in uninhabitable for decades), do we have no sympathy at all for those charged with the duty of making real decisions in the real world and being subject to real accountability?

If such an event occurred and it might have been prevented by violating the human or civil rights of an enemy, is there no room for understanding for such a decision-maker being faced with the possibility of having to say to thousands if not millions: "I didn't do everything I could have to prevent the destruction of your lives and livelihoods, but our principles are intact and it was worth it"? Would you have that courage?

Eugene Robinson: The thing is, you always have to draw a line. Bush and Cheney could have tried to intern all Arab-Americans, to cite an extreme scenario; they didn't. Does this mean they didn't do "everything they could have" to prevent another attack? Measures have to be judged by their potential effectiveness and their accordance with our values. Measures also have to conform to the law -- or else the law has to be changed. Lines always have to be drawn, and I believe Bush and Cheney drew them in the wrong place.


Brackenridge, Pa.: I enjoyed your column today. You've always been ready to point out Bush's banal acts and fractured logic. In regards to Bush's latest attempt to spin his disastrous tenure, he points to seven years of "no terrorist attack on US soil" and you accurately point out the downside -- torture, spying on us, etc.

But there is a major point nobody ever seems to note: the bad guys didn't have to bother themselves with attacking us here -- they had 135,000 sitting ducks in Iraq to pick off without much effort. Bush's response to 9/11, where 2000-plus were killed, many more injured and billions of dollars were lost was to unjustifiably invade Iraq where twice that many were killed, five times as many injured and trillions wasted, plus tens of thousands Iraqis injured and hundreds of thousands killed.

He kept us safe for seven years? He was in control when 9/11 happened, ignoring the threat when he was warned of it! Then his cure was far worse than the initial incident! My question: which would you rather take back: 9/11 or the Iraq invasion?

Eugene Robinson: I don't think al Qaeda could have been clearer about its aim to draw U.S. forces into the Middle East. Strategically, Iraq was a gift to bin Laden.


Boodleville, Md.: Good afternoon, Gene.

Of all the mind-bendingly dumb things Bush has said in the past few days concerning his alleged legacy, I think the dumbest was this little nugget reported in Dana Milbank's column:

"The worst economy since Herbert Hoover? 'Look, I inherited a recession,' Bush replied. This problem started before my presidency.'"

Just to be wild and crazy, let's grant the premise. So OK, he inherited a sluggish economy. That means he had eight years -- pardon me while I break into all caps here, but I think you'll agree it is warranted under the circumstances -- EIGHT YEARS!!!! to do something about it.

Eight years to fix that poor economy he inherited.

And, uh, how did he do over those eight years?

The man has completely rewritten the book on "Denial." He has gone so far beyond denial that he's into psychopathology. He's the Hannibal Lecter of Denial.

washingtonpost.com: Where Some See Mistakes, He Sees Disappointments (Post, Jan. 13)

Eugene Robinson: It is a bit weird to hear the president imply that something has been wrong with the economy all along, since -- and here I, too, have to go to all caps -- HE SPENT SO LONG TELLING US THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE ECONOMY AT ALL! There. I'm over it.


Benicia, Calif.: I do not think the unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq will be the primary Bush legacy. The Mexican, Spanish-American and Vietnam wars were also all based on false premises, as well as deception, and had greater consequences. I think the main Bush legacy will be very negative economic policies, substantially adding to the national debt, unnecessary tax cuts for the rich and failing to check the housing/credit bubbles before a serious recession began. What do you think?

Eugene Robinson: I have to hope you're wrong. Because if the economy is eventually seen as bigger than 9/11, Iraq and all the other things that happened during the Bush presidency, we're in trouble indeed.


Philadelphia: Is it just me or does nobody notice that the President claims success for no additional terrorist attacks on the "homeland" (I hate that, too), but makes absolutely no concession that maybe he could have done ANYTHING to prevent 9/11?

Eugene Robinson: No, he doesn't. And yet -- and this is just me doing a little pop psychology -- I've always had the impression that he and some others in his administration have always been haunted by the idea that maybe there was something they could have done to prevent 9/11.


Hanover, Md.: Words that I associate with George Bush: 9/11, Katrina, Iraq, war, recession, "Mission Accomplished," torture, waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping, Guantanamo Bay, fear, terrorism, terrorists, terrorist attacks, terrorists next door, other iterations of the word "terror" that can be squeezed into a sentence whether appropriate or not. . .

I'm trying to think of a positive word that comes to mind when I think of George Bush. I got nothing.

Eugene Robinson: He put money and impetus behind our tut-tut policy toward AIDS in Africa, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. He had mostly admirable instincts on immigration and education, although the policies that resulted (or didn't result) were flawed. Obviously I believe the bad outweighed the good, but there are a couple of things we can point to and admire. Remember his public appearances in the first few days after 9/11? What happened to that guy?


Burke, Va.: How will I remember him? Well, I will remember him and be grateful that for seven years there have been no domestic terrorist attacks on US soil, that is something the chattering class would not have believed in the horrific wake of 9-11. And yes, even the most virulent of Bush haters who now preach "unity" have to begrudgingly credit him for that.

As for you Mr. Robinson, what will you write about now? Goodness, your favorite and only target is gone!!

Eugene Robinson: Honestly, GWB has been good to me (in the professional sense), just as he has been good to journalism in general, late-night comedy, the entire cable television industry, talk radio... I hope that somehow we will all survive.


Seattle: Bush's one major accomplishment, for which people should never stop thanking him nor ever forget, is he showed us exactly what happens when anti-government conservatives are in charge.

Eugene Robinson: That's an interesting point. When you think about it, it's not surprising that people who are contemptuous of the idea of government would turn out to be... pretty lousy at government. The classic example is what the Bush administration did with FEMA. It was just another alphabet-soup agency, who really cared, so they used it as a political plum and gave it to Michael Brown, who might have been qualified to sort out Arabian horse bloodlines but not to handle the federal response to the biggest natural disaster the country had ever faced. There are examples like that throughout the government, and it will take some time and work to find and fix them.


Nebraska: Okay, give Bush a pass on torture, rendition, maybe. But certainly let's investigate the use of the Justice Department for partisan gain -- or maybe the Republicans who don't want W investigated are OK with Obama using the Justice Department the way Bush did. Just asking.

Eugene Robinson: I'd think that Republicans would want to make sure that the Obama Justice Department wasn't run like the Bush Justice Department.

I don't give anyone a pass on torture or rendition, though. I really think there should be an investigation and a report. My concern isn't that people go to jail -- the fact is that the people likely to be most exposed to legal jeopardy are lower-ranking interrogators who were just working within guidelines established at the White House and the Pentagon. As a practical matter, Cabinet-level officials aren't going to be charged and tried. But I believe we need to know what they did, or ordered to be done, because in the end it was done in our name.


Rochester, N.Y.: Why was the elite media so interested in prosecuting Clinton for having an affair and so disinterested in prosecuting Bush officials for war crimes and misconduct at the DoJ? Can we conclude that many of you think that having an affair is worse than war crimes or using the DoJ as an arm of the Republican party?


Eugene Robinson: I so wish that we in the "elite media" got to decide who gets prosecuted and who doesn't. Sadly, they don't let us make that call.


Eugene Robinson: Well, folks, my time's up for today. I'll see you next week, when I'm going to try to host this discussion from the middle of the Inaugural festivities. Keep warm, and keep the faith.


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