See all the coverage of Slate’s farewell to Bush.
Yes, yes, I was on the downtown streets of Washington bright and early, mingling with the bright-eyed and the wide-eyed. Yes, by all means I was there on the Mall Sunday afternoon, feeling no more moist than the next person but not much less moist, either (and getting a strange lump in the throat at the rendition of—funny how these things work—“American Pie”). And yes, that was me at the ball given by The Root, making a mild fool of myself as I boogied chubbily on down to the strains of Biz Markie, DJ to the capital’s black elite.
I wouldn’t reconsider my vote for Barack Hussein Obama, in other words, and when he takes the oath, I hope to have a ringside seat. I already know something about “the speech” and its Lincolnian tropes. (If you want your own understated preview, take a look at what he said to the crowd in Baltimore Saturday, as his whistle-stop train made its way from Philadelphia to D.C.’s Union Station.) But, on the last day of his presidency, I want to say why I still do not wish that Al Gore had beaten George W. Bush in 2000 or that John Kerry had emerged the victor in 2004.
In Oliver Stone’s not very good but surprisingly well-received film W., there is an unnoticed omission, or rather there is an event that does not occur on-screen. The crashing of two airliners into two large skyscrapers isn’t shown (and is only once and very indirectly referred to). This cannot be because it wouldn’t have been of any help in making Bush look bad; it’s pretty generally agreed that he acted erratically that day and made the worst speech of his presidency in the evening, and why would Stone miss the chance of restaging My Pet Goat?
The answer, I am reasonably certain, is that it is the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that explain the transformation of George Bush from a rather lazy small-government conservative into an interventionist, in almost every sense, politician. The unfortunate thing about this analysis, from the liberal point of view, is that it leaves such little room for speculation about his Oedipal relationship with his father, his thwarted revenge fantasies about Saddam Hussein, his dry-drunk alcoholism, and all the rest of it. (And, since Laura Bush in the film is even more desirable than the lovely first lady in person, we are left yet again to wonder how such a dolt was able to woo and to win such a honey.)
We are never invited to ask ourselves what would have happened if the Democrats had been in power that fall. But it might be worth speculating for a second. The Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorism Act, rushed through both Houses by Bill Clinton after the relative pin prick of the Oklahoma City bombing, was correctly described by the American Civil Liberties Union as the worst possible setback for the cause of citizens’ rights. Given that precedent and multiplying it for the sake of proportion, I think we can be pretty sure that wiretapping and water-boarding would have become household words, perhaps even more quickly than they did, and that we might even have heard a few more liberal defenses of the practice. I don’t know if Gore-Lieberman would have thought of using Guantanamo Bay, but that, of course, raises the interesting question—now to be faced by a new administration—of where exactly you do keep such actually or potentially dangerous customers, especially since you are not supposed to “rendition” them. There would have been a nasty prison somewhere or a lot of prisoners un-taken on the battlefield, you can depend on that.
We might have avoided the Iraq war, even though both Bill Clinton and Al Gore had repeatedly and publicly said that another and conclusive round with Saddam Hussein was, given his flagrant defiance of all the relevant U.N. resolutions, unavoidably in our future. And the inconvenient downside to avoiding the Iraq intervention is that a choke point of the world economy would still be controlled by a psychopathic crime family that kept a staff of WMD experts on hand and that paid for jihadist suicide bombers around the region. In his farewell interviews, President Bush hasn’t been able to find much to say for himself on this point, but I think it’s a certainty that historians will not conclude that the removal of Saddam Hussein was something that the international community ought to have postponed any further. (Indeed, if there is a disgrace, it is that previous administrations left the responsibility undischarged.)
The obvious failures—in particular the increasing arrogance and insanity of the dictatorships of Iran and North Korea—are at least failures in their own terms: failure to live up to the original rhetoric and failure to mesh human rights imperatives with geo-strategic and security ones. Again, it’s not clear to me how any alternative administration would have behaved. And the collapse of our financial system has its roots in a long-ago attempt, not disgraceful in and of itself, to put home ownership within reach even of the least affluent. So the old question “compared to what?” does not allow too much glibness.
Inescapable as it is, “compared to what?” isn’t much of a defense. And nor has this column been intended exactly as a defense, either. It’s just that there’s an element of hubris in all this current hope-mongering and that I am beginning to be a little bit afraid to think of what Wednesday morning will feel like.