As historian Sean Wilentz opined earlier this month in an excellent Rolling Stone essay titled “The Worst President in History?”:
No previous president appears to have squandered the public’s trust more than Bush has. In the 1840s, President James Polk gained a reputation for deviousness over his alleged manufacturing of the war with Mexico and his supposedly covert pro-slavery views. Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois congressman, virtually labeled Polk a liar when he called him, from the floor of the House, “a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man” and denounced the war as “from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” But the swift American victory in the war, Polk’s decision to stick by his pledge to serve only one term and his sudden death shortly after leaving office spared him the ignominy over slavery that befell his successors in the 1850s. With more than two years to go in Bush’s second term and no swift victory [in Iraq] in sight, Bush’s reputation will probably have no such reprieve.Of course, the prez made the bed that he’s now forced to occupy. Determined long before 9/11 to invade Iraq and drive Saddam Hussein from power, Bush--goaded on by his neoconservative cronies--used public fear of further terrorist attacks, hyped-up intelligence about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, and some two dozen other rationales to convince Congress that Iraq was a major player in the so-called war on terror, and that he needed the authority to begin carpet-bombing Baghdad at a moment’s notice. As we know now, at the time the war began, Saddam possessed no WMD stockpiles--a fact that’s done nothing to improve the public’s low perception of Bush’s capacity for candor, much less his popularity. (Polls show that 50 percent of Americans think the prez should be impeached if he lied in order to take the United States to war against Iraq in 2003.) Further contributing to Bush’s lack of credibility has been his Polyanna-ish representation of the situation in Iraq, even as the deaths of U.S. soldiers there increase in number (the count is currently up to 2,463) and insurgent violence makes the concept of “security” a joke. It’s because of the no-end-in-sight disaster in Iraq that 54 percent of people polled by the Los Angeles Times recently said they now don’t trust Bush to “make the right decision about whether we should go to war with Iran.”
The problems besetting Bush are of a more modern kind than Polk’s, suited to the television age--a crisis both in confidence and credibility. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam travails gave birth to the phrase “credibility gap,” meaning the distance between a president’s professions and the public’s perceptions of reality. It took more than two years for Johnson’s disapproval rating in the Gallup Poll to reach fifty-two percent in March 1968--a figure Bush long ago surpassed, but that was sufficient to persuade the proud LBJ not to seek re-election. Yet recently, just short of three years after Bush buoyantly declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, his disapproval ratings have been running considerably higher than Johnson’s, at about sixty percent. More than half the country now considers Bush dishonest and untrustworthy, and a decisive plurality consider him less trustworthy than his predecessor, Bill Clinton--a figure still attacked by conservative zealots as “Slick Willie.”
Beyond all of that, there are abundant domestic reasons for Dubya’s drop in trustworthiness. He makes speeches about the evils of government spending and talks tough about vetoing spending bills, but then approves tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, signs legislation that escalates the nation’s already record-setting debt, and balks at actually vetoing even one bill that crosses his desk. He delivers a prime-time televised speech in which he pledges to rebuild Katrina-thrashed New Orleans in “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen”; yet almost nine months after that hurricane flooded much of the Crescent City, the place still looks like a wreck. Then he denounces the media for revealing leaked information about the existence of his warrantless domestic spying operations (“a shameful act ... in a time of war”), only to subsequently have it disclosed by the press that Bush himself authorized the leaking of classified intelligence information concerning prewar Iraq’s armaments to a New York Times reporter in 2003. (Can you say “hypocrite”?) It didn’t help, either, that as the Jack Abramoff influence-buying scandal heated up, then-White House spokesperson “Stonewall Scotty” McClellan tried to distance the prez from the disgraced Republican lobbyist by saying, dismissively, that the closest Abramoff had ever gotten to Bush was when he attended a couple of crowded holiday receptions and a few insignificant “staff-level meetings.” (“The President does not know him, nor does the President recall ever meeting him,” McClellan said.) Not long afterward, The Washingtonian and Time magazines reported that they’d seen photographs of the two men in much closer and more chummy contact. Contributing further to the sense Americans have that Bush is more prone to mislead than lead: his tone-deaf defense of the dubious Dubai ports deal; his right-wing sop of an assertion that “The Star-Spangled Banner” ought only to be sung in English (despite the fact that Bush himself used to sing it in Spanish on the campaign trail); and, probably, the continuing CIA leak scandal investigation, which threatens to pull Dick Cheney into court. It might even be hurting Bush, that he denies the science behind global warming at the same time as An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s new documentary about that very subject, receives glowing reviews and gears up for showing nationwide.
In the same way that it wasn’t any individual element of the Watergate scandal, but rather an accumulation of criminal and mendacious acts, that ultimately brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an ignominious end, so it is a gathering storm of shaved truths and politically driven deceptions that are sending Bush’s trustworthiness ratings into the crapper and making it harder for him to govern effectively. I’m reminded of something that Jimmy Carter said, back when he was running for the White House in 1976: “[I]f I’m elected, at the end of four or eight years, I hope people will say, ‘You know, Jimmy Carter made a lot of mistakes, but he never told me a lie.’” At the end of his own eight years in the Oval Office, Bush can only expect people to say that he made a lot of mistakes.
(Artwork from the Pinocchio! Web site.)
READ MORE: “What President Bush Has Done for Us,” by Joseph Hughes (Hughes for America); “The Bush Stops Here,” by Marty Kaplan (The Huffington Post); “Iraq: Bush’s Plan for Victory Is Really a Plan for Politics” (AMERICAblog).