Reasonable people can disagree about which of George W. Bush's disastrous decisions will prove to have damaged the American people most.
After all, he is the president who decided to invade Iraq for reasons that all proved to be false and then proceeded to mismanage that war horribly. With the help of a Republican Congress he proceeded to take the country from a budget surplus to a multi-trillion dollar deficit which our children and grandchildren will have to deal with. He shredded the Constitution as he eliminated the rights of habeas corpus and gave himself the right to spy on American citizens in unprecedented ways for any or no reason at all. In addition, he destroyed our reputation and credibility in the world by presiding over agencies that use torture and treat prisoners in ways that Americans never have in the past. Before Bush, we could rightfully claim to be a moral country that refused to torture and demean people in the same ways as those countries we have criticized in the past. No more.
A strong case could be made for each of these damaging missteps to be designated as the worst.
But my vote has to go to the way in which Mr. Bush has twisted the meaning of "patriotism" and turned a powerful important concept into an empty and meaningless slogan.
Since the Iraq war began more than five years ago, Bush has repeatedly referred to the great sacrifices that are being made by patriotic Americans. The truth, of course, is that more than 99% of all Americans have never even been asked to make any sacrifice at all.
The cost of the war is closing in on $1 trillion and yet there has never even been a conversation about how our country is going to pay for it. The vast majority of Americans have been given a tax cut as the bills our children and grandchildren will have to pay balloon into the stratosphere.
The actual fighting has been done by a large number of Hispanics seeking a fast track to U.S. citizenship (which they often receive posthumously) and a disproportionate number of men and women from rural communities whose economic opportunities are limited and who may be attracted by the $100,000 enlistment bonuses and $500,000 death benefit available to our soldiers. A small fraction of our soldiers are well educated or have chosen service to their country over attractive employment options.
No one in Washington ever called for a draft or mandatory government service of any kind during this war. Bush himself has never even suggested that it would be a patriotic act for a young man or woman to enlist.
In an unforgettable July 4th speech two years ago, Bush called on patriotic Americans to pray for our troops and to write a letter to a soldier serving in Iraq. He never mentioned volunteering to serve our country or suggested that anyone do so.
At a news conference three months later, Bush suggested that the most patriotic thing Americans could do to help the war effort was to "keep shopping" to support the economy. It was the same request he made during the week after 9/11 when Americans were shaken by the attack and looking for way to serve their country.
The people who seem most proud of their patriotism today show it by displaying a decal declaring their support for our troops (whatever that means) on their cars and by calling talk radio shows to castigate Democrats and liberals who don't understand that we are facing an evil enemy. The "patriots" I know personally have no interest in paying for this war or in having their children or grandchildren fight in it. But under Bush's definition they are patriots all.
On July 4th I attended a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival where former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp, Stanford history professor David Kennedy, and Harvard government professor Michael Sandel discussed "Patriotism and the Presidency in 2008." The entire discussion focused on the history of the word "patriot." Each of the panelists defined patriotism as the feeling one gets when we hear the national anthem or seeing gargantuan American flags that are made big enough to completely cover football fields.
At no time during the discussion was "shared sacrifice" ever mentioned. It showed the extent to which Bush has succeeded in redefining a once proud term.
I believe that when historians and the rest of us look back on The Bush Years, the phrase "Keep shopping" will stand along side Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake." Each quote captured the arrogance of leaders who were steeped in a sense of privilege and entitlement and were completely out of touch with and indifferent to the suffering and challenges their decisions created for millions of common people who paid the price for their selfish and misguided decisions.