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E-mail is great. It offers opportunities to vote for almost everything. And win prizes! You cast your e-ballot on your favorite brand of condom or president of the United States on “youcanvoteforanything.com” or some such website. So, get promises of “thousands of dollars deposited into your account” and play video blackjack, while voting for the best and worst presidents. These votes count about as much as my November votes – but voting is fun, even virtual voting.
So, I chose George W. Bush as worst president in US history. How will the rest of America judge him? Bush dies of premature senility. Led by the media, fundamentalist clergy and political manipulators, the nation officially remembers him as the liberator of Iraq and savior of the United States from Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s threat (weapons of mass destruction and links to the terrorist Al Qaeda).
When no weapons materialized Bush petulantly told an Oak Ridge Tennessee crowd in mid July: “So I had a choice to make. Either take the word of a madman or defend America. Given that choice I will defend America.”
Historians will no doubt credit Bush for his unique forms of verbal expression, and as the economic wizard whose tax cuts magically helped the poor by giving some of their money to the rich; the moralist who tried desperately to stop gay marriages and offered cash incentives for poor heterosexuals to marry. Bush surpassed Reagan in catering to his ultra right wing constituency’s wishes. By opposing stem cell research and other useful projects, he incurred the wrath of scientists, including Nobel laureates. They complained about Bush using religious dogma to interfere with scientific research. But Bush stood up to them – despite even Nancy Reagan’s support of stem cell research.
Bush has surpassed Reagan’s anti-environmental vision. Reagan ceded to corporate wishes – don’t spend money on areas that don’t yield profits — on the environment. Bush even looked beyond earth’s environment to Mars, where he wants to launch settlements. Bush also went beyond Reagan in diminishing meaningful parts of government: public education, health, transportation.
Does Reagan deserve some credit for Bush’s “accomplishments?” When Reagan’s seemingly interminable funeral ended last month, I said to myself that the public now won’t have The Gipper to kick around until, of course, the fifth, tenth and twenty-fifth anniversaries of his death. That’s the way history gets reported in the age of TV news.
Instead of reminding the public about the impact of Reagan’s deeds on the nation, the environment and the world, pundits, politicians and preachers offered fact-less eulogies, exalting the virtues of a President who showed us how charming distortion could be as history and how elegantly idiocy could be phrased posing as fact. Who could not marvel at Reagan’s proclamation: “We stole the Panama Canal and it’s ours.” Or, “The Sandinistas are a two day march from Harlingen, Texas.” A few ill-humored residents of Harlingen didn’t laugh! One witty line, “The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” confused the finest scholars. Did Reagan not know that the Contras tortured and murdered civilians – as instructed by their CIA manuals? Or did he mean that the Founding Fathers advocated murder and torture?
Reagan also showed loyalty. “He’s getting a raw deal,” he said in 1985 of Guatemalan President, General Efrain Rios Montt, accused of having authorized the slaughter of thousands of Guatemalans, with massive evidence to support the charges. And he pardoned Iran-Contra felons from his own Administration. Well intentioned guys!
Did the memorial service speakers engage in a secret history twisting contest as they extolled the virtues of this backward-looking actor? His eight years in the White House some wag characterized as following half of Benjamin Franklin’s advice: early to bed.
I found a photo of the late President with his arms around my son and daughter. Will historians know that the smiling figure in the middle is just a cardboard cut out (we had the photo taken at an amusement park — as a joke)?
Reagan, like Bush (43), was a joker – or maybe even a joke. After all, humor is good for us. It offers release. I admit that the tumultuous sexual activities of the Clinton years made me occasionally nostalgic for the Reagan era, when sleeping with the President meant attending a Cabinet meeting. And one must credit Reagan’s pedagogy, teaching from the bully pulpit that Americans should despise government and not pay taxes to support the very agencies he headed – except for the police and military, of course, which merited full backing.
Reagan also knew how to explain the ills of our time in words we could all grasp. In his 1980 campaign, for example, he denied that the big logging and chemical companies held any responsibility for air contamination. Instead, he pointed his finger at trees for causing pollution. After all, they emitted 93 percent of nitrogen oxide.
Like those “killer trees” Reagan explained that the homeless preferred their idiosyncratic life style and, in support of cutting funds for school lunches, he labeled ketchup as a vegetable.
Bush unquestioningly follows in Reagan’s rhetorical footsteps, without of course possessing the Great Prevaricator’s poise or wit. He did come close to Reaganese oratory when he described the 9/11 fiends as terrorists who “hate our freedoms.”
How about hating the poor? Bush should run for the President who has done most to hurt the poor. Wouldn’t that be a great Internet vote? In his eight years, Reagan oversaw the increase of numbers of families living below the poverty line by one-third. Bush will have to work hard to match that figure. But he’s working at it. According to a June 29 Times-Union News story, Bush diverted more than $22 billion dollars in federal money to “homeland security.” The Bushies took $2 billion of that amount from HUD’s budget that previously helped fund both homeless shelters and housing for America’s poorest of renters and transferred the funds assets to Homeland Security.
On May 20, typical of the ungrateful citizens who don’t appreciate all that Bush has done, a crowd of Los Angeles protesters denounced proposals to diminish the federal government’s Section 8 housing program. The protestors claimed that the cuts would displace some 13,000 low-income area families. The Boston HUD office sent out 650 eviction notices to tenants, according to the April 27 Boston Globe. Other metropolitan areas suffered similar affronts to the poor.
Reagan, in his most aggressive mode, did not match such audacity. Nor will his record rival Bush’s 2001 $1.35 trillion tax cut, which has produced sighs of contentment from the excessively rich that border on the orgiastic.
Finally, Bush has outdone Reagan in his scorn for international law. Reagan began his presidency in 1981 by rejecting The Law of the Sea Treaty. His attitude toward international cooperation became even more dramatically hostile when he withdrew the United States from UNESCO in late 1983 and of course taught the UN a major lesson by cutting the US contribution to the organization.
The Reagan Administration explained that UNESCO “politicized virtually every subject it deals with, has exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.” On December 29, 1984, the State Department concluded “that continued US membership in UNESCO will not benefit the country.”
Reagan admonished Americans to uphold the law, but he didn’t recognize the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction when it ruled against Washington for mining Nicaraguan harbors.
Bush backed down from Reagan’s tough anti-UN stance when his advisers convinced him that he would temporarily need the world body in the wake of the 9/11 events.
He announced the US reentry into UNESCO on September 12, 2002, the very day he addressed the General Assembly and labeled Iraq’s government “a grave and gathering danger.”
In March 2003 Bush returned to the anti-UN line that the old Reaganites promoted, but only after US arm twisting and attempts to bribe failed to win the votes to push his “invade Iraq” resolution through the Security Council. Bush invaded anyway, heaping scorn on the UN, whose earlier resolution on Iraqi arms prohibitions he solemnly proclaimed he felt duty bound to enforce. He invaded without UN authorization and as we know found no WMDs.
Since the Iraqi war, Bush’s world stature has diminished – is that possible? But he could redeem himself by stealing a couple of lines. The next time he sees Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he could say, cameras rolling, his head tilted back, a slight twitch of emotion in his face: “Mr. Sharon! Tear Down That Wall.”
If you believe he’ll do something like that then you’ll also probably think there’s a chance that Bush will convert to socialism.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and has a new book out: THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA: HOW CONSUMERS HAVE REPLACED CITIZENS AND HOW WE CAN REVERSE THE TREND. www.saullandau.net
Mike Whitney can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org