(Update Added Below)
George W. Bush has been gazing toward his future reputation for a while, and loves the view.
"Some day people are going to look back at this time and day and say, 'Thank God'..." he actually insisted at a private fundraiser of Republican fat cats in San Antonio, late 2007. He continued: "You can't make profound decisions for America unless you are certain in your soul."
Bush looks awfully good, at least in his own mirror. On that note, as his last day in office nears its dawn, let's play Oddball.
The misjudgment and mendacity of the past eight years is well catalogued, and leaving office with a 27% approval rating (NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Jan. 9 thru 12) is testament enough to that. Yet it was an early structural act of presidential petulance that feasibly set the stage for wholesale incompetence.
Secretaries of State and Treasury remain, inarguably, the two most influential cabinet posts. Wars are temporary; foreign relations and economic strength are perennial. They define us. Think Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the first holders of these two august positions.
Our modern Boy King basically commenced his reign by having them beheaded!
In over two centuries of the great American experiment, he's the only candidate ever bestowed the presidency by unelected judges instead of the people. He compounded this antithetical anomaly by ignoring the crucial importance of offices like State and Treasury to the nation's health. You get what you pay for.
There lies the cornerstone of his legacy, and it is cast in solid irony: Bush family consigliere James Baker, drafted to bat cleanup for the prodigal son's ascension during the 2000 Florida interregnum, proudly held both cabinet titles in his time.
No wonder he slowly came to exhibit disdain toward W, agreeing to chair two separate bipartisan commissions whose conclusions (in 2006 and 2008) were not-so-obliquely critical of Jr.'s Iraq War.
It finally hit Baker that "The Decider" smugly considered "The Founders" clueless.
Builders of this democracy didn't design the cabinet slots as mere courtiers to a crowned head, you know. Unlike the vice president's official job description, serving at the pleasure of the boss isn't their main duty. These hires must earn approval from the 100-strong senate, and the work of their executive-branch agencies outlives any single administration. Nowhere is this more obvious than with international affairs.
Take the Cold War. It lasted half a century.
More recently, Bush the Elder's Operation Desert Storm needed less than 12 months, while Bill Clinton continued the no-fly zones that peacefully contained Saddam Hussein another eight years. The military manned the planes, but ongoing diplomacy crafted and defended the rationale, enlisting governments in the neighborhood and beyond.
The upshot? A neutered Iraq that no more caused 9/11 than Rudy Giuliani, although the former New York mayor does claim sole adoptive paternity on the day. Arms inspectors were right about nonexistent WMD, a fact largely confirmed before the invasion. Everyone saw the truth with their own eyes when Hussein was finally dragged from his rat hole.
Baghdad's bully had morphed into the mother of all empty suits, thanks to a decade-long approach by Republicans and Democrats.
One imagines a secretary of state co-piloting diplomatic missions beside the president, pursuing consensus among friend and foe. With Bush, one would be wrong. The self-proclaimed, go-it-alone "Commander Guy," short on foreign policy training, revealed little interest in such things.
We eventually learned that he never seriously pondered Colin Powell's opinion in the run-up to war. The distinguished soldier-statesman allowed his State Department to be marginalized, then used for a dog and pony show at the United Nations that sold weak intelligence on steroids. The White House and the Pentagon orchestrated much of this hocus-pocus, intentionally stoking misguided fears of an Iraqi "mushroom cloud" that was nowhere near existing.
Throughout this process, the so-called "mainstream media" spun the Bush line in abject compliance. These watchdogs of the citizenry did their best impersonation of Fox News this side of, well, Fox News.
Powell resigned at the end of the first term, having become "enormously disappointed." This made room for Bush devotee Condoleezza Rice.
Results: Long-term U.S. occupation in Arabia and increased regional instability, 32,000 soldiers wounded and killed, $800 billion spent, worldwide terrorism rising, Osama bin Laden still free.
At home, economic conditions always brew a new fiscal crisis. The 1980's delivered the Savings and Loan debacle. Today it's the sub-prime housing crunch and huge financial bailouts, not to mention medical costs and baby boomer retirement. A seasoned monetary hand at the tiller works to negotiate these rocky shoals. Robert Rubin under Bill Clinton comes quickly to mind. Somehow, career failure in the Texas oil patch taught Bush a different lesson.
His initial treasury secretary certainly got the cold shoulder. Despite impeccable credentials, Paul O'Neill was ignored for two years and then fired, apparently for excessive business acumen.
In the book The Price Of Loyalty, he recounted that when airing concerns about deficits and tax cuts for the wealthiest during war, Dick Cheney cut him off. Leaning across the desk, the veep curled his lip and said, "You know, Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. We won, and this is our due." A supine congress agreed.
O'Neill's replacements at Treasury left no footprints in the sand, and the rhythm of Bush's economic tide lifted no boats, just yachts. Now, even they have begun sinking.
Results: Record debt $9 trillion, record budget surplus - inherited - squandered in favor of record deficit, bankruptcy up 60 percent, middle class income now less than 30 years ago after inflation, richest 1 percent income up 42 percent since 2003.
Next week we celebrate the inauguration of the 44th presidency. The country long ago closed the book on the 43rd. There was simply too much water under the bridge, from "Heck of a job, Brownie" to domestic wiretapping without warrants to Geneva torture violations in our good name.
Still, my money says trouble really began with the treatment of cabinet positions built at Philadelphia in 1787. Constitutional voices meant to provide wise counsel sang alone in the dark, or in the key of submissive.
This was Bush's macro level mistake at the start. It set a terrible tone that will live in the pages of history, along with the Supreme Court ruling that legally sanctified his nature of willful disregard and the mess he leaves behind.
UPDATE: C-SPAN commissioned 65 historians to rank all presidents from George Washington through George W. Bush, and the results were released in February, 2009. They last conducted this exercise ten years ago.
The ranking is derived from a compilation of scores given in ten categories.
Overall, Bush ranked near the bottom, 36 out of 42 presidents.
(Note: Although Bush refers to himself as #43 and his father as #41, Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms; thus Obama is actually the 43rd individual to hold the office.)
Of the ten categories considered, Bush's ranking in each was embarrassing, from the mid 20's to high 30's, except for two, where he was even worse.
What were these two categories? He came in 40th in "economic management" and 41st in "international relations."
Hamilton and Jefferson rest their case.