Spidey Bush

Here’s another retrospective analysis of the George W. Bush years that I have come across, this time from one of the foremost USA-experts within the Danish journalist ranks. I refer here to Martin Burcharth, correspondent in America since 1996 for the Danish weekly commentary newspaper Information; his piece is entitled An obsessed Bush read each morning about new terror threats.

The key element of Burcharth’s analysis here, as he assesses the two Bush presidential terms, is the radical change brought to the course of that presidency by the attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s probably not the most original point, but it might still be instructive to contemplate – if we can remember back that far – how things were shaping up for the Bush presidency before that historic day. A minor crisis with China over the capture of an American spy-plane (remember that?) had been resolved peaceably after all; Bush had “looked into [Vladimir Putin’s] soul” – right after hosting his visit in order to notify him that the United States no longer intended to take seriously the ABM Treaty – and had concluded that this Putin was a regular guy with whom one could do business. Burcharth’s verdict here is that it was mostly looking like Bush was getting ready to govern in the same moderate, fairly-inclusive style that had marked his previous tenure as Texas governor; only European displeasure over his repudiation of the Kyoto climate-change accords (which Bill Clinton had in any case killed by refusing to submit them to Congressional ratification) and the heavy tax-cuts he had managed to push through for the rich investor class gave any inklings of further trouble ahead.

But then came the attacks in New York and Washington, and (as Burcharth quotes Prof. Gordon Adams of American University), “at that moment Bush washed the slate clean.” Moderate influences among his circle of advisors (Powell, Rice) lost influence that was gained instead by Rove, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. What then followed (after the attack into Afghanistan, which was widely sanctioned by intenational opinion) is a fairly well-known, and depressing, story: Iraq (which vitiated the anti-Taleban and anti-Al Qaeda effort in Afghanistan), Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, the PATRIOT Act, the Department of Homeland Security, widespread (and illegal) domestic wiretapping and other monitoring, etc.

Bush also permanently lost support from broad European public opinion – from the European street – from at least that historical February Saturday in 2003 when untold thousands demonstrated in cities across the European continent against the approaching war in Iraq. Interestingly, though, in Burcharth’s view the elite European political classes eventually came back to Bush, especially during his second term in office, because they could not find or even imagine any other Western leadership than that which the US could provide, and because over time Bush became somewhat less arrogant and dismissive of them – at least to some point, one imagines, where they could hold their noses and work with together him on things like dissuading Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.


This same cooperative stage was never reached, unfortunately, when it came to the Democrats in Congress. Bush in any event was able to paint them as the “Defeatocrats” and so reduce their numbers considerably in the 2002 mid-term elections, and from then on he was content to ignore them. This did have the infelicitous effect that he was thenceforth unable to get major legislation passed – e.g. no immigration reform, no Social Security reform, the sole exception being an immensely-expensive expansion in Medicare entitlements whose passage through Congress was oiled by outright misinformation as to its potential future costs. But, in Burcharth’s depiction of the Bush White House, that was OK: the single emphasis was anyway on defeating terrorism and making sure that no sort of attack would hit America again. (That’s where the “obsessed Bush” in the title comes from, and Burcharth apparently means it. It’s a rather interesting picture when you contrast it with Bush greeting his August, 2001, vacation intelligence briefing – “Osama Determined to Strike in US” – with nothing more than the remark to his CIA briefer, “Well, you’ve covered your ass.” How does Burcharth resolve this seeming contradiction?) And indeed, one of the thin reeds the departing president has been able to cling to in his “farewell” tour of interviews, speeches, and press conferences is his statement that America has not been attacked since September 11, 2001.

Strangely, then (especially coming from a Danish journalist), in Burcharth’s account here George W. Bush comes across as something very close to the nation’s unappreciated guardian, laboring mightily and continuously to ensure that his nation does not have to face the horrors of any more terrorist attacks again. Yes, he talks about George W. Bush’s many failures in office, but it is that picture that predominates. It’s even there in the article’s lede: “[Bush] neither wished to nor was able to put the tragedy [Sept. 11] behind him. In the meantime ordinary Americans turned back to a normal existence . . .” – yes, these silly, shallow citizens who are so quick to forget the grave threats to our civilization posed by the terrorists. But the nation’s presidential night-watchman was always there, in the Situation Room (or wherever), haunted throughout the rest of his term in office by the great failing that he had allowed on his watch – just like Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman, is haunted by how he allowed his beloved Uncle Ben to be murdered by the thief he could not be troubled to apprehend, is it like that, Mr. Burcharth? – spending the rest of his days at the White House in a lonely vigil to protect the Homeland.

It’s a remarkable tableau, to be sure, and we are indebted to Burcharth for presenting it. I personally don’t really recall things happening like that, though. And far too many of us out there – including many eminent historians – are content simply to regard George W. Bush instead as the worst president in American history.

UPDATE: I like to at least e-mail journalists to notify them when I discuss their articles on this weblog, and Martin Burcharth was kind enough to go read the above entry and then to respond. According to him, the “Spidey Bush” interpretation I presented of George W. Bush carrying out an obsessive, lonely vigil to make sure the terrorists never strike his country again was a misinterpretation of what he wrote. He takes pains to emphasize to me that he had no intention of praising Bush, and there is certainly enough in the rest of his piece that is directly critical of Bush’s tenure as US president to make that believable. Rather, what he was writing about was Bush’s “pathological obsession with the terrorist threat,” and at the same time how Bush found in that threat “a paradigm for his presidency” – namely (if I understand him correctly) something that provided him with justification to govern as he desired. That terrorist threat enabled him to be the sort of all-powerful president he was looking to be, clearly superior among the three branches of the American federal government, with plenty of money budgeted for defense and a clear enemy to rally the people against.

CORRECTION: George Bush got “a sense of [Vladimir Putin’s] soul” not in the US, but rather when meeting him in Slovenia in June, 2001, while on his first European tour.

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