Conservatives will probably dismiss what I have to say here on the grounds that it’s only another harangue by a “Bush hater,” but they’ll be wrong. I have never hated Bush, even though I’ve criticized virtually everything he’s done and said for the past eight years.
He’s not worth hating. He is — and so far as I can tell, he has always been — such a sorry excuse for a human being, so altogether pathetic in every way, that he simply does not rise to the level of hateable material. You can’t honestly hate a maggot; it’s simply the creature’s nature to be a maggot; it cannot be anything else; and although it may be disgusting to behold, it still has a useful function to perform in the natural order. Likewise, you can’t honestly hate Bush; it’s simply his nature to be an intellectual and moral cipher; and although he may be disgusting to behold, he still has a useful function to perform in the political order.
That function, it would appear, is to serve as the warm body the ruling elites prop up to pretend to be the rightful lord and master of the known universe. Americans want somebody to serve this function. They stoutly insist on such a display of divinely ordained power — when did you last hear anyone complain about the imperial presidency, as opposed to demanding that the all-powerful president set right everything from cholera outbreaks in Africa to the value of a middle-class worker’s 401(k). Americans demand that the president tame the business cycle, cure cancer, reverse global warming, and keep the heathen from raging. No one can carry out these tasks, of course, but the people demand that the president promise to carry them out and, once in office, make believe he is doing so. Failures can be conveniently blamed on the opposing party’s obstructions or on al-Qaeda.
The mere fact that the president cannot do what the people demand of him does not imply, of course, that he has no power at all. Without a doubt, his mere word can send armadas across the seven seas and loose atomic lightening on a sinful world. Although he has little or no power to do anything good or beautiful or honest, he has considerable power to inflict evil, as even so contemptible a fool as Bush has amply demonstrated. A president can order the armed forces to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq; he can keep the troops there for years on end, eating through hundreds of billions of dollars that might otherwise have been put to worthwhile uses; and he can ensure that human misery is pushed near its maximum for the unfortunate societies on the receiving end of his less than compassionate conservatism.
A president need not have much intelligence to cause these great harms, and Bush, though manifestly a man of staggeringly limited intellectual gifts, has been smart enough to declare “bring ’em on” and thereby cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, most of them no more deserving of this punishment than the average jaywalker.
When he had to stand up in public and present a justification for his actions, however, Bush was invariably at sea. One could see him straining to recall the talking points his handlers had tried to instill in his mind. His wretched explanations were typically befogged by his misty incapacity to utter a simple, correct English sentence or to put two thoughts back to back in a logically connected way. The press and the public have often given him a pass because everybody suspected that he suffered from dyslexia and, some claimed, from the lingering effects of excessive use of cocaine, and so, strange to say, people felt sorry for the most powerful man on earth.
Nevertheless, as the duly elected warm body, Bush has occasionally had to speak to journalists, who have sometimes been so unkind as to ask him about current events or government policies, two subjects in which he has never shown much interest or aptitude. In a recent interview, when asked about the recession and his administration’s unwarranted, panic-stricken, and rapidly changing responses to it, he said: “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system. . . . I am sorry we’re having to do it. . . . I feel a sense of obligation to my successor to make sure there is not a, you know, a huge economic crisis. Look, we’re in a crisis now. I mean, this is — we’re in a huge recession, but I don’t want to make it even worse.”
Careful historians will place this statement in the same file with statements that Roosevelt “saved capitalism” and that the U.S. army destroyed a Vietnamese town (Ben Tre) “in order to save it,” along with an indefinitely large number of statements by despots the world over who explained that they had been forced to seize extraordinary powers because “we’re in a crisis.” With a modest amount of search in pet shops, Bush’s handlers might have found a parrot capable of giving the same explanation more articulately than the president.
Yet, the gist was clear enough: free-market principles are wholly unsuited to tough economic times; massive government interventions are required, even though massive government interventions caused the problem in the first place, and no sentient being has a sound reason to suppose that giving the patient additional doses of the same poison (especially the same artificially cheap loans) will restore him to robust health.
Commentators continue to treat Bush’s repellent ideological renunciation as if it marked a clear departure from a previous adherence to free-market principles, yet anyone who has paid the slightest attention to his administration’s actions knows full well that payment of lip service was the closest this gang ever came to the free market. From dubious beginning to disastrous end, the Bush regime has dedicated itself to a violent, reckless foreign policy and a thoroughly interventionist domestic policy. Bush could not have “abandoned free-market principles,” as he now claims to have done, because he had none to abandon. Indeed, one doubts that his intellect has the capacity to encompass allegiance to any sort of principles, as opposed to certain brute instincts.