Historical Mystery of Bush's Presidency
By Robert Parry
AFTER LITTLE MORE than two years of the Watergate scandal, Richard
Nixon resigned and his successor, Gerald Ford, famously declared, "our
long national nightmare is over." But the painful end game of Nixon's
presidency was nothing compared to the eight excruciating years of
George W. Bush.
Even on Inauguration Day 2009, as most Americans rejoice that Bush's
disastrous presidency is finally heading into the history books, there
should be reflection on how this catastrophe could have befallen the
United States – and on who else was responsible.
Indeed, it may become one of the great historical mysteries, leaving
future scholars to scratch their heads over how a leader with as few
qualifications as George W. Bush came to lead the world's most
powerful nation at the start of the 21st century.
How could a significant number of American voters have thought that an
enterprise as vast and complicated as the U.S. government could be
guided by a person who had failed at nearly every job he ever had,
whose principal qualification was that his father, George H.W. Bush,
was fondly remembered as having greater personal morality than Bill
Why did so many Americans think that a little-traveled, incurious and
inarticulate man of privilege could lead the United States in a world
of daunting challenges, shifting dangers and sharpening competition?
What had transformed American politics so much that, for many
Americans, personal trivia, like Al Gore's earth-tone sweaters,
trumped serious policy debates, like global warming, health care for
citizens, prudent fiscal policies and a responsible foreign policy?
How could George W. Bush, who was born with a shiny silver spoon in
his mouth, sell himself as a populist everyman?
Even taking into account the controversial outcome of Election 2000 –
which saw Gore win more votes than Bush – why was the margin close
enough so Bush could snatch the White House away with the help of five
Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court?
And why did the nation – after the 9/11 attacks – so willingly follow
Bush into a radical divergence from traditional U.S. foreign policy
and into violations of longstanding national principles of inalienable
rights and the rule of law?
Why did the institutions designed to protect U.S. constitutional
liberties, including the press and Congress, crumble so readily,
allowing Bush to seize so much power that he could entangle the United
States in an aggressive – and costly – war in Iraq with few questions
Perceptions of Reality
Part of the answer to this historical mystery can be found in the
complex relationship between the American people and mass media. The
multi-billion-dollar stakes involved in selling commercial products to
the world's richest market also made the American people the most
analyzed population on earth.
Controlling their perceptions of reality and eliciting their emotions
became more than just art forms; they were economic imperatives.
Just as Madison Avenue ad executives got rich selling products to
American consumers, K Street political consultants earned tidy sums
for using the false intimacy of TV to make their candidates appear
more "down-to-earth" or "authentic" and their opponents seem "weird"
By 2000, the Republicans also had pulled far ahead of the Democrats in
the machinery of political messaging, both in the technological
sophistication of the party apparatus and the emergence of an overtly
conservative media that stretched from print forms of newspapers,
magazines and books to electronic outlets of radio, TV and the
Nothing remotely as advanced existed on the liberal side of American
political life. Conservatives liked to call the mainstream news media
"liberal," but in reality, its outlook was either corporate with a
strong sympathy for many Republican positions or consciously
"centrist" with a goal of positioning the news content somewhere in
In Campaign 2000, the Republican advantages in media guaranteed a
rosier glow around George W. Bush's attributes and a harsher light on
Al Gore's shortcomings. Many voters said they found Bush a more
likeable fellow – "a regular guy" – while viewing Gore as a wonky
know-it-all, who "thinks he's smarter than we are."
That was, at least in part, a reflection of how the two candidates
were presented by the dominant news media, from Fox News to The New
York Times. [For details on this media imbalance, see our book, Neck
The talented Republican image-makers portrayed Bush as a refreshing
alternative to the endless parade of consultant-driven, poll-tested
candidates – though, in reality, Bush's image was as consultant-driven
and poll-tested as anybody's, down to his purchase of a 1,600-acre
ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 1999, just before running for the White
After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington less than nine
months into Bush's presidency, the American people immediately
invested their hopes in what the press portrayed as Bush's natural
leadership skills. The Democrats also granted Bush extraordinary
But that wasn't enough. Bush's political advisers and the right-wing
media sensed the opportunity presented by the 9/11 crisis to
strengthen their ideological hand. Karl Rove, for instance, saw the
possibility of locking in permanent Republican control of the U.S.
With the nation gripped by fear and jingoism, an enforced unity took
hold. Bush declared a "war on terror" and oversaw a fundamental
transformation of the U.S. constitutional system, asserting the
"plenary" – or unlimited – powers of Commander in Chief at a time of
war, making him what his advisers called the "unitary executive."
But the "war on terror" was unique in American history because it knew
no limits either in time or space. It was an endless conflict on a
global battlefield, including the American homeland.
So, under Bush's post-9/11 presidential theories, he could ignore laws
passed by Congress. He simply attached a "signing statement" declaring
that he would not be bound by any restrictions on his authority. As
for laws enacted before his presidency, those, too, could be cast
aside if they infringed on his view of his own power.
Bush also could override constitutional provisions that protected the
rights of citizens. He could deny the ancient right of habeas corpus
which requires some due process for a person to be locked away by the
government. All Bush had to do was designate someone an "enemy
He also could order warrantless searches and wiretaps, waiving the
Fourth Amendment's requirement for court-approved search warrants
based on "probable cause."
Bush even could authorize U.S. interrogators to abuse and torture
captives if he thought that would make them talk. He could order
assassinations of anyone he deemed a "terrorist" or somehow linked to
"terrorism." He could take the nation to war with or without
Former Vice President Gore asked in a 2006 speech: "Can it be true
that any President really has such powers under our Constitution? If
the answer is 'yes,' then under the theory by which these acts are
committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited?"
The answer to Gore's rhetorical question was clearly, "no," there were
no boundaries for Bush's "plenary" powers. In the President's opinion,
his powers were constrained only by his own judgment. Bush was "the
End of Rights
Looking at Bush's arrogation of powers, the troubling conclusion was
that the nation's treasured "unalienable rights," proclaimed in the
Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and
the Bill of Rights, no longer applied, at least not as something
guaranteed or "unalienable."
Under the Bush theories, the rights were optional. They belonged not
to each American citizen as a birthright, but to George W. Bush as
Commander in Chief who got to decide how those rights would be
The only safeguard left for American citizens – and for people around
the world – was Bush's assurance that his extraordinary authority
would be used to stop "bad guys" and to protect the homeland.
Patriotic Americans would not feel any change, he promised. They could
still go to the shopping mall or to baseball games. Only those who
were judged threats to the national security would find themselves in
trouble. That list kept growing, however, to include terrorist
"affiliates," "any person" who aids a terrorist, and government
"leakers" who divulged Bush's secret decisions.
To comfort Americans who feared that Bush was accumulating powers more
fitting a King than a President, Bush's supporters cited previous
examples of presidents suspending parts of the Constitution, as
Abraham Lincoln did with habeas corpus during the Civil War and
Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in incarcerating thousands of
Japanese-Americans after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at the start of
American involvement in World War II.
But those conflicts were traditional wars, definable in length and
with endings marked by surrenders or treaties. By contrast, the "war
on terror" was a global struggle against a tactic – terrorism – that
had been employed by armies and irregular forces throughout history.
Administration officials acknowledged that there would be no precise
moment when the struggle would be won, no clear-cut surrender ceremony
on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld called the conflict the "long war," but it could be dubbed
the "endless war," a struggle against elusive and ill-defined enemies.
At times, Bush expanded the scope of the conflict beyond defeating
terrorism to eliminating "evil."
Yet, since there was no reason to think the "war on terror" would ever
end, a logical corollary was that the American political system – as
redefined by Bush – had changed permanently.
If the war would last forever, so too would the "plenary" powers of
the Commander in Chief. With the President's emergency powers
established as routine, the de facto suspension of American
constitutional rights also would become permanent. The democratic
Republic with its constitutional checks and balances – as envisioned
by the Founders – would be no more.
But the emergence of an imperial presidency did not occur without some
resistance. Despite residual fears about another 9/11, many
rank-and-file Americans, both liberals and traditional conservatives,
grew uneasy over Bush's power grab. Their voices, however, were rarely
heard in the major media, confined mostly to Internet sites and
alternative radio outlets.
Then, in 2005, the administration's incompetence in handling Hurricane
Katrina's devastation of New Orleans awakened more Americans to the
emptiness of Bush's promises about protecting the homeland. With
Bush's Iraq War also going badly, his approval rating sank below 50
percent on its way to the 20th percentiles.
In November 2006, American voters returned control of Congress to the
opposition Democrats, and in November 2008, voters stripped the
Republican Party of the White House, too.
Barack Obama's election represented a stunning repudiation of George
W. Bush's radical concept of unlimited presidential power, but many of
the factors that enabled Bush to get as far as he did remain in place
to this day.
The major U.S. news media, which either cheered Bush on or looked the
other way, has changed little. Indeed, in the days before the
Inauguration, President-elect Obama made a point of courting the favor
of right-wing columnists, such as Bill Kristol and Charles
Krauthammer, and of the mainstream press, like the Washington Post's
Obama also has reassured the Washington Establishment that he doesn't
intend to shake things up too much. He's kept on one of the insiders'
favorites, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and has appointed other
officials to manage foreign and economic policy who have had a hand in
many of the dubious decisions implemented by the Bush administration.
The incoming President also has been paying heed to Establishment
voices urging him not to hold Bush and his subordinates accountable
for the many crimes they committed. Don't listen to those American
citizens who are demanding that the nation's laws be enforced against
high-ranking officials, Obama is being counseled.
Yet, beyond the issue of accountability for lawbreaking, there is
another even more daunting challenge, how to replace the political and
media institutions that aided and abetted the Bush administration's
assault on the nation's constitutional principles and on reason
After all, one can only solve the mystery of how George W. Bush became
President -- and inflicted so much damage -- by taking into account
the collaboration of Washington's political and media Establishments.