Commentary: We've only just begun to judge Bush presidency

The Miami HeraldApril 16, 2009 

US NEWS BUSH 3 MCT

President George W. Bush speaks to reporters during his final press conference at the White House in Washington, D.C.

CHUCK KENNEDY — Chuck Kennedy / MCT

So apparently, we're not allowed to talk about George W. Bush anymore.

I found this out recently after opining in this space about a newspaper report documenting the use – actually, the uselessness – of Bush-approved torture on a supposed al-Qaeda terrorist. In response came notes from a handful of Bush dead-enders that might fairly be summarized as follows:

"He's been out of office over two whole months. Stop talking about him. You're living in the past. Move on."

You had to take it with the proverbial granule of salt since, as you'll recall, those folks weren't particularly receptive to people criticizing Bush when he was in office, either. Anyway, my correspondents told me what I should be spotlighting is President Obama's recent gaffe: a deep bow before the king of Saudi Arabia that has the conservative blogosphere vibrating with rage (which is to say, normal, status quo).

To be fair, the episode offers reason for vexation if not quite apoplexy. As I understand protocol, the president of the United States doesn't bow from the waist before anyone. Nor is the White House explanation – the gangly chief executive leaned over to better shake hands with the vertically-challenged monarch – particularly convincing. No, it was just a dumb thing to do, not least because it gives fresh ammunition to conspiracy goobers still peddling the idea that Obama is a closet Muslim.

And you know what? One day soon, we will add it all up – gaffes like that one, accomplishments, scandals, controversies – and begin to construct a picture of How It Was during the Obama era.

We will sift through it all in search of such lessons as might prove valuable down the road. That is precisely the process that is going on now with regard to our 43rd president. And it also is precisely the thing some of his faithful seem determined to forestall. They say the time is past to be talking about the Bush administration. But for goodness sake, we are still debating the Reagan administration! So it is hard to see why a presidency that ended barely three months ago is somehow off limits to critical scrutiny.

More to the point: The Bush White House is widely regarded as the most secretive in history, its mania for furtiveness aided and abetted by a compliant and unquestioning Congress.

Thus shielded, Team Bush, like a futuristic virus in some science fiction movie, set out to overwrite the DNA of government in its own image: extralegal, unhindered by fact or precedence, and ideological to the bone. That combination – secrecy and misdeeds – virtually assures that damning revelations about the last administration will be dripping out for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, even as his loyalists were busy lecturing me on the irrelevance of Bush, the Justice Department was asking a judge to dismiss a corruption conviction against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Not because Stevens was innocent, but because prosecutorial misconduct under Bush's attorney general had tainted the government's case beyond repair. Worse, there is fear other cases may fall apart because of the disregard for the rules that was epidemic in the Bush years.

So yes, there is much more to come. And much more at stake, frankly, than the feelings of an unpopular president or his partisans. By which I mean that need to get the lessons of history front and center – in this case, to document the dangers of overreach, political expedience and ideological extremism. Bush has left us, unfortunately, many such lessons to learn.

The best advice I can give his partisans, then, is to settle in for a very long ex-presidency. They think it's time we stopped talking about him?

With apologies to The Carpenters, we've only just begun.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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