Prolific blogger Marshal Zeringue, who started out with the interesting Campaign for the American Reader and has since moved in a variety of related directions, asked me recently to tell his visitors what I have been reading lately and what I most look forward to reading this summer. (You can see those choices here, and more about my near-future reading expectations in my other blog, The Rap Sheet.) Among the many volumes I mention are Al Gore’s excellent new book, The Assault on Reason, Lance Morrow’s The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948, and a pair of installments in the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “American Presidents” series of biographies, one about Richard M. Nixon, the other about Calvin Coolidge. I should have mentioned, too, that I am planning to read former Salon editor David Talbot’s Brothers, about John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, but I simply forgot about that at the time I was responding to Zerinque’s query.
And then there’s one other non-fiction book, due out next week, that I probably won’t be able to resist: constitutional lawyer and political blogger Glenn Greenwald’s A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. Greenwald, who not long ago moved his “Unclaimed Territory” column from a standalone site to Salon, offers an excerpt from A Tragic Legacy at his new editorial home today (read that here), but a couple of days ago, he delivered an extraordinary précis of his book that convinced me I could not ignore it. In it, he analyzes how George W. Bush has “fundamentally degraded” America’s moral standing and credibility in the world. Writes Greenwald:
At the heart of this process lies a binary moralistic view of the world, one which seeks to define every conflict and political challenge, both foreign and domestic, as a battle of Good versus Evil. The crux of this mindset is the continuous identification of an Enemy, one which embodies Evil and which must be stopped, typically destroyed, at all costs. No competing considerations, no rational arguments, no counter-balancing objectives, not even constraints of reality or resources, can compete with the moral imperative of this mission. The mission of destroying Evil trumps all.Greenwald goes on to say that
And the converse then also falls comfortably into place: those who seek to destroy Evil--whether it be America, or President Bush, or the right-wing political faction that has supported the Bush presidency--are, by definition, the embodiment of Good. Thus, whatever steps they take, whatever instruments they employ in service of their mission, are intrinsically justifiable because, by definition, they are employed in service of the Good.
This Manichean mentality not only drives George W. Bush personally, but it also consumes our political discourse almost entirely. It is this mindset, more than any other single cause, that has driven us to embrace extraordinary policies and truly radical beliefs that are as ill-considered and incoherent as they are destructive. This is the “moral reasoning” which led us to invade and indefinitely occupy Iraq, to vest previously unimaginable power in the President, to allow our country to become symbolized by orange-jumpsuit-clad, shackled and leashed detainees locked away and brutally maltreated in lawless prisons around the world, and which has brought us to the brink of still new wars in the Middle East, most alarmingly with Iran. It is this reasoning which has rendered our country virtually unrecognizable, and has placed us on a course which simply cannot be sustained. ...
For quite some time in America, but particularly since the 9/11 attacks, it is this Good versus Evil template which has driven our national conduct. This is the mindset that has been applied by George Bush, and in turn by our media and our country, to virtually every political challenge we have. But by its very terms, it distorts reality beyond recognition, renders rational debate impossible, and justifies even the most morally grotesque actions in the name of defending Good and annihilating Evil.
That this moral absolutism is what drives George Bush personally--steeped, for him, in the evangelical theology he embraced as a means of overcoming his alcoholism--also accounts for one of the most critical aspects of the Bush presidency. Bush’s presidency has been shaped by the ability of various factions--the garden-variety Cheney/Rumsfeld hawks who believe in the endless application of U.S. military force to enforce America’s will in the world; the right-wing Christian evangelicals who believe in the exercise of government power to fulfill theological ends; the Israel-centric neoconservatives who seek to use American resources to rule the Middle East--to induce Bush’s unyielding commitments to their agenda by depicting their desired policies in the moralistic terms which drive the President.
The agendas of these disparate political factions converge in agreement on one overarching, shared vision: ever-increasing American militarism, particularly in the Middle East, accompanied by a steady increase in governmental power domestically that is justified in the name of that militarism. That vision has been dressed up in the language of moral imperative, and justified by the core Goodness of America, of the Bush administration, and of the political movement he leads.
This agenda of militarism and domestic liberty-infringement has been fueled by the fear-invoking specter of an endless supply of new Enemies who embody pure Evil, against whom we need protection. This view of the world is protected by the claim that anyone who opposes this Battle is himself indifferent to, if not sympathetic with, the forces of Evil. And it is this moralistic certitude that has come to be the predominant theme driving our national behavior--both within the U.S. and in the world--and it fundamentally shapes the role we seek to play in the world.
Judged from a historical perspective, there is really nothing that can compare to the collapse of the Bush presidency. Certainly no modern president has been so deeply and irredeemably unpopular for such a sustained duration. While the Vietnam War rendered Lyndon Johnson so unpopular that he was precluded from seeking a second term, Johnson--unlike Bush--had a string of lasting domestic achievements to offset his failure as a war president. And whereas Johnson’s refusal to seek a second term limited the impact of his presidency, Bush will govern America for eight highly consequential years. Never has a president been so isolated and unpopular for so long. In terms of presidential failures, the Bush presidency is sui generis.While this doesn’t sound like a particularly optimistic book (don’t go reading it if your meds aren’t working at the peak of their efficiency), it certainly sounds like one that should be read, in order to understand how the United States has reached the disastrous juncture it now inhabits--if not how to put the country back on an even and sane course, or stop Bush acolytes from reaching the Oval Office in the future.
George W. Bush will leave the political stage forever on January 20, 2009. But the right-wing political movement which embraced and sustained him--and which cheered on the damage he has wrought on this country--is not going anywhere. They are, of course, actively seeking his replacement--someone who will be cosmetically different but who will be a loyal and unyielding adherent to the core, defining principles of the Manichean worldview that drove the Bush presidency. Indeed, they are seeking a replacement who will be even more zealously devoted to America’s militaristic and imperial role in the world and the domestic liberty-infringing policies it ensures.
READ MORE: “Notes on A Tragic Legacy,” by Glenn Greenwald (Salon); “Beyond Bush,” by Fareed Zakaria (Newsweek).