01/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Bush Presidency: Shakespearean Tragedy or Cruel Farce?

As the Bush era draws to a tragicomic close -- with shoes being hurled at the American president -- it might be tempting to portray the Bush presidency in Shakespearean terms, as a tale of overarching arrogance and hubris that led to his ultimate downfall. In fact, the presidency of George Bush hardly fits the bill. Bush himself described his disastrous tenure as "joyous" and there is barely a hint of personal tragedy or even discomfort in his legacy. Most telling was Bush's response to the shoe-throwing incident, when he wondered out loud what the fellow's "cause" might be, ignoring the widespread death and destruction visited on the Iraq people in the wake of the American invasion.

Unlike earlier failed presidents like Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, Bush does not seem to acknowledge or even recognize the destruction that he has wrought. At the end of their presidencies, Hoover and Nixon were tortured individuals, trying in vain to redeem themselves from the scorn of history. Despite their obvious suffering, or perhaps because of it, this cast Hoover and Nixon as characters in an overarching tragedy on a grand scale. There is no such grandeur in the Bush exit, even though the damage and suffering that he caused is arguably greater than either Hoover or Nixon.

In part, this may because Hoover and Nixon were, in many ways, gifted and talented individuals who were undone by their own tragic flaws. In Hoover's case, it was his deep-seated belief in capitalism, while in Nixon's case, it was his own myopia and paranoia in the exercise of power. Bush, on the other hand, brought few gifts to the White House beyond aw-shucks mannerisms and powerful friends. His commitment to spreading freedom -- and even to his own religious principles -- seem in retrospect to have been convenient ex post facto rationales for his political strategems.

What is most breathtaking about the Bush presidency -- beyond its arrogance and aggressive bluster -- is the sheer incompetence and lack of vision that was endemic to the administration. A more profound misreading of the state of the world and of the global balance of power could hardly be imagined, from the incoherent, unfocused declaration of a "global war on terror," to the unprecedented, preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation and the almost criminally benign neglect of overheated financial markets. The use of torture is but one particularly repugnant example of not only the Bush administration's moral bankruptcy, but also of their sheer incompetency. While countries like Israel, England and Germany - no strangers to terrorist tactics -- had long since developed much more sophisticated, and less morally offensive, interrogation techniques, the Bush administration applied outmoded, ineffective and immoral tactics that did not, and could not, achieve results.

At the center of all this was the blindly affable Bush, profoundly and blissfully ignorant of the fiasco over which he was presiding. While a special place in outer darkness must be reserved for his own monumental failures, the blame must be shared. The first circle is clearly those policy makers who, for the sake of infamy, must be mentioned by name: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condeleezza Rice, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, George Tenet and Paul Bremer. Although perhaps not personally as culpable, though clearly complicitous, were Colin Powell, who could have taken the courageous path of resignation, or General Tommy Franks, who must have seen the folly of the Iraq invasion, yet was a key enabler.

The responsibility, unfortunately, doesn't end there. Too many members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - put their heads down and their hands up, voting for a preemptive war that was impulsive and misguided, and then never did enough to stop the ongoing fiasco. And, finally, some blame has to rest with the American people. Those who supported the war must bear responsibility for condoning a destructive and misguided course, while those who opposed it must take responsibility for not doing enough to stop the madness in its tracks.

Sadly, much of the same incompetent stewardship that was the hallmark of the Iraq war was at work in other arenas, from Katrina to the economy, as we have discovered to our dismay over the past six months. While the Bush administration and the Republican do-nothing attitude towards regulating corporate fraud may be only partly to blame for our current dire economic straits, it is clear that they were not even bothering to rearrange the deck chairs as this Titanic began to sink. Ultimately, however, the American people must do some real soul-searching in the wake of a Presidency that was profoundly destructive of much that is good about America. The tragedy is hardly Shakespearean - characters like Bush, Cheney and the rest don't merit that kind of prominence. But it is a tragedy nonetheless - for us as individuals and a nation. A tragedy that will take a long time to overcome, and that has surely rocked us to our souls.