PRESIDENT Bush has spent the last couple of weeks attempting to put a final sheen on the wreck of his eight years in the White House. To historians who in years hence will judge this era, we offer this note from the present to instruct the future.
Mark this: These were years of national decline to most of us who suffered through them.
These were years when America's moral standing shrank and its leadership among the community of nations came to be doubted, years of lost opportunity at home and abroad.
These were years when ideology, greed, and fear charted the course of the nation, years when the Constitution itself was abused in the name of national security, years when the basic competency of government could not be assumed.
Mr. Bush bears the prime responsibility - the buck should stop with him. While he came to power in a miscarriage of democracy, he promised to be a uniter, not a divider. The American people, used to economic good times, were complacent enough to believe him.
As the new President, Mr. Bush inherited a nation that faced challenges from aboard, including terrorism, but was nevertheless the sole, unchallenged superpower.
Just before the start of the millennium America had experienced an economic boom and deficits had been converted to budget surpluses. The homeland was at such peace that it had the luxury of thinking that a president's sordid infidelity was a momentous affair of state.
That was America then, prior to George W. Bush. The America that he hands over to Barack Obama is a sadder, more reduced place. It is fighting a global war on terror that it shows no sign of winning and the situation in Afghanistan, at the center of the web, is especially perilous. China grows stronger; Russia flexes its muscle.
More immediately troubling, America is worse than broke - its very foundations shake and quiver under a mountain of debt. Jobs are being shed across the economy, and with them disappear the hopes of tens of thousands of ordinary Americans. Mr. Bush admits that his own advisers have raised the specter of another great depression.
To be sure, Mr. Bush can't be blamed for the existence of the small band of fanatical Islamist terrorists who attacked America on 9/11 - an atrocity that became the pivotal event of his administration. But he can be faulted for not doing more to anticipate the attacks.
Those who think that Mr. Bush's presidency succeeded because he kept America safe for more than seven years conveniently give him a pass for the day of horror that unfolded on his watch.
Mr. Bush also bears huge responsibility for what came after - not the invasion of the devil's lair of Afghanistan, that had to be done, but the invasion of Iraq on what came to be revealed as false pretenses. Saddam Hussein, after all, was not complicit in 9/11. This foolish diversion in the war on terror has cost America dearly, with more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen dead, thousands more wounded, and a staggering cost to the treasury.
The Bush years echo with the sorrow of what-might-have-beens. When the President stood on the pile of rubble amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, the whole country - indeed, much of the world - was with him. That extraordinary good will was squandered one arrogant and unthinking act at a time.
What might have been - had Mr. Bush not authorized illegal wiretaps, had not allowed Vice President Dick Cheney to pursue a theory of imperial presidential power, had not permitted torture and set up a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay that became America's shame?
What might have been - had the Bush White House America taken global warming seriously and saw to it that the nation's oil addiction was broken, with the effect of reducing the power of those who bankroll the terrorists?
What might have been - had Mr. Bush vigorously pursued Middle East peace from the start instead of leaving the effort to his last term? He promised a peace pact before he left office; instead, the region is counting its dead.
On the home front, Mr. Bush's accomplishments were meager. He cut taxes in the midst of war and the deficit soared; he championed the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law.
He also populated government departments with true ideological believers who didn't like regulation and favored narrow interests, not the public interest. He offered a flawed reform for Social Security (thank goodness, unsuccessfully); he did little about the millions without medical insurance.
Indeed, what might have been?
Conservatives blame the news media for Mr. Bush's poor reputation but the mass of the American people know that he reaped what he sowed. This is what happens when the highest office in the land is occupied by someone who is superficial and uncomprehending.
Historians will note well what happened on Mr. Bush's watch. No amount of image rubbing can remove the rust that came to cover its missed opportunities, no amount of polish can hide the word "disgrace" scrawled large.
When he takes the oath of office tomorrow, Barack Obama won't do so as a savior but as the heir to enormous problems. After all this, the real hope of America is that the nation can only rise, fulfilling the ancient promise of a new birth of freedom.
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