History extends to national administrations confronted by war or national emergency a certain presumption that transgressions against constitutional democracy will be temporary. Anxiety about these trespasses normally fades, with some belated apology, as the crisis itself passes. The examples range from the Federalist Alien and Sedition Act and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus to Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans and the excesses of both Johnson and Nixon during the war in Indochina.
The administration of George W. Bush was granted that favorable presumption in the year or two after the September 11 attacks for reasons easy to understand: first, the uniqueness of the attacks and second, the not unnatural belief that policies so wrapped in flag-drenched rhetoric and religious profusion were heartfelt and well intended. Unfortunately, the growing weight of evidence since 2003-writ large in the escalation of secrecy, the dimensions of homeland security as a lobbyists’ trough, the misuse of war against Saddam as a deceptive alternative to the global anti-terror emphasis that should have had priority, and the emergence of the Iraq occupation as a military bungle and a gross international embarrassment-all suggest that the post-9/11 presumption in favor of the Bush administration was mistaken. Our initial acquiescence has now become a drag on serious national debate and understanding.
There is a troubling broader context to the elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000. First, it was a mistake to bring to the White House this not-very-competent son, just eight years after his not particularly competent father had left office. Presidential dynasties are innately dangerous in a republic-all the more when they harbor malignant biases that are consistent and not easily brought to light. And we are only beginning to learn the weakness of the Bush family’s commitment to democracy and to democratic processes over its quarter-century in high national office. The discouraging record starts with George H.W. Bush’s possible participation in, and likely knowledge of, attempts to secure the 1980 presidential election by negotiating with Iran to delay the return of hostages. It came into clearer view in the Supreme Court’s five-to-four decision to abort the Florida recount in the 2000 election and empower George W. Bush as president. Further back in the Bush family history (stretching now to a fourth generation) lies the penchant for covert operations, extra-legal arms deals, and wrongly advertised wars. Most recently, the two Bush wars in the Middle East have shown the preference of both presidents to tell the public less than the truth, and sometimes to lie about what they are doing and why.
I have dealt with this family evolution and predilection at great length in American Dynasty, and there has been room here only to suggest some of the findings of that book. Suffice ...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.