In watching TV news accounts of the recent American disasters – a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a fatal mine explosion in West Virginia, continuing economic fallout from Wall Street excesses, worsening fears about the impact of the massive U.S. debt – I was struck by the absence of one name: George W. Bush.
It was as if the mainstream journalists were following an unwritten rule: that is, whatever the relevance, the former President was not to be mentioned as a culprit in these catastrophes.
Even when there were references to how the problems had been getting worse for 10 years at the Mineral Management Services, the federal agency which has been rubber-stamping plans for deepwater oil rigs, it was as if no one was willing to do the math and calculate who was in charge during most of that time.
Similarly, when the nation’s $1.2 trillion budget deficit was discussed as a grave threat to the economy, it was never mentioned how the nation got to this point, how the Congressional Budget Office had been projecting $850 billion annual surpluses when Bush took over in 2001.
Back then, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was fretting about the technical complexities for the Fed to set interest rates if the U.S. government paid off its entire debt. Well, that was one “problem” that Bush solved.
The simple truth is that Bush’s policies, implemented by Republican-dominated Congresses in the first half of the last decade, set the stage for all the recent catastrophes – debt caused by massive tax cuts for the wealthy and wars paid for by credit card, hostility toward government regulation of industry (and especially the coal and oil industries), blind faith in the “magic of the market” to set things right.
Yet, the major U.S. news media behaves as if this context must be blacked-out. Bush-43 must get a pass and the blame must be dumped on President Barack Obama for having “failed” to fix these problems in the past 16 months.
And I think I have a sense why. Whenever I write a story connecting current crises with Bush’s policies, I get angry e-mails, calling me an Obama apologist who won’t stop picking on Bush. I’m sure if I get such complaints, a correspondent at CNN or another big-time outlet gets many, many more.
So, it makes sense, career-wise, to avoid the Bush-bashing accusations in the first place and simply leave Bush’s name out of the debate.
There’s also the broader pressure that has distorted the U.S. press corps over the past several decades, well-funded right-wing attack groups going after individual reporters for supposed “liberal bias” whenever they challenged pro-Republican propaganda. Many reporters, who refused to buckle before this intimidation, found themselves out of their jobs.
Since there was no effective counter-pressure from the Left – and since the Right built its own vast media infrastructure with thousands of good-paying jobs – the surviving mainstream journalists learned an important principle of self-preservation, that self-censorship was a career necessity.
Beyond those factors, there’s the ever-ready excuse that journalism must focus on today, not the past.
We saw a similar dynamic at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when almost no one in Washington – in the media or the government – cared about getting the facts straight on the questionable actions of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, especially regarding their secret policies in the Middle East.
Even though Bush-41 was implicated in that era’s major national security scandals -- known by names like Iran-Contra, Iraqgate, contra-cocaine and October Surprise -- the dominant feeling was that the departing president should be allowed to go into retirement with his reputation intact.
After all, what good would be done having nasty fights with Republicans over this history when the nation was facing so many other problems, like a painful recession, a large federal budget deficit and lost factory jobs? Didn’t it make more sense to seek bipartisanship and to follow one of Clinton’s favorite sayings, “politics is about the future”?
Of course, as it turned out, the Democratic readiness to slam the books on the Reagan-Bush-41 scandals didn’t gain Clinton any measure of bipartisanship. Republicans – sensing the growing power of the right-wing media – simply began hyping “Clinton scandals” like Whitewater, Travelgate, Troopergate, etc. to hobble the new president and to gain control of Congress.
The premature endings for the far more serious scandals of the Reagan-Bush-41 years had another unexpected consequence. By preserving George H.W. Bush’s reputation, the Democrats left open the door for the restoration of the Bush dynasty.
By 1999, the ex-president’s oldest son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, was eager to exploit Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct by making a promise to “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” According to polls, one of George W. Bush’s greatest political assets was the public perception that his parents operated with high moral standards and that one could expect the same from their son.
After getting into the White House, Bush-43’s idea of elevating presidential morality was to replace Clinton’s sexual escapades in the Oval Office pantry with sweetheart deals for the oil-and-coal industries, aggressive wars justified under false pretenses, and his top aides orchestrating the torture of naked Muslim detainees held in secret prisons.
Many of Clinton’s public policies also were reversed. Over the eight years, Bush-43 implemented massive tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy, a move that gashed back open the federal deficit. He also pushed “self-regulation” for key industries, especially his old friends in the oil business.
And, when Bush-43 bungled the pre-9/11 warnings (including advice from Clinton advisers about the danger posed by al-Qaeda), the Right responded by blaming Clinton. Posters appeared showing the burning Twin Towers over the word’s “Clinton’s Legacy.”
Much of the mainstream media also shifted the blame to Clinton. ABC-TV even produced a docu-drama with fake dialogue put in the mouths of Clinton officials to make them appear callow in their pursuit of Osama bin Laden. (By contrast, Bush was portrayed as a man of courage and resolve.)
But the Democrats seem to have learned nothing. After Bush-43 left office in 2009, they once again had no stomach for conducting investigations, or insisting on accountability, or learning any lessons from those disastrous eight years. Faced with similar – even worse – conditions than President Clinton inherited, President Obama insisted on “looking forward, not backward.”
Like Clinton, Obama also hoped for some measure of bipartisanship from the Republicans to confront the nation’s daunting problems. Again, however, the Republicans understood that it was to their political advantage to sabotage whatever Obama tried to do. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh spoke for the party in his stated hope that Obama would “fail.”
Framing the Message
The mainstream news media also sensed there was no point in criticizing Bush-43 or the Republicans. When the Republicans slapped away Obama’s hand as he tried to reach across the aisle, the media framed the story as Obama’s “failure” to live up to his promise to change the tone in Washington.
Because rank-and-file Republicans also registered a deep hatred toward Obama, he was soon labeled the “most polarizing” president in modern times.
Obama’s efforts at compromises, such as including many Republican “market” principles in his health-care plan and maintaining many of Bush’s approaches toward Islamic terrorism, had another effect: alienating much of the Democratic “base” and the relatively tiny Left media.
I started getting e-mails from leftists denouncing Obama for being “as bad as Bush” or even worse. This pattern also paralleled what happened during the Clinton years, when Clinton’s “centrism” angered many on the Left, leaving Clinton with few defenders when the Right started its scandal-mongering.
Today, the political dynamic facing Obama could almost not be worse. He is taking the brunt of the blame for the wretched economy, high unemployment, the gigantic budget deficit, BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the toxic political environment of Washington.
The President finds himself with few defenders in the mainstream media, since journalists recognize where their career bread is buttered. Since the bulk of the new media jobs are at places like Fox News and in the right-wing blogosphere, it makes no sense to offend potential future employers.
For journalists trying to hang on to their mainstream jobs, the best bet is to join the herd as it stampedes toward Obama.
Just as some journalists made their names in the 1990s by promoting the trivial Clinton “scandals,” today some seek to transform Obama non-scandals into big deals, like the clumsy White House effort to get Rep. Joe Sestak not to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania primary, a silly little controversy that CNN on Friday dubbed “a firestorm.”
And, if my reading of the under-funded Left media is correct, Obama can’t count on much help there either, certainly not the way Bush knew that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh always had his back.
So, with few lessons learned from the Bush-43 years and with political prospects for Obama and the Democrats in decline, how long will it be before someone suggests that the nation should reach out to another member of the Bush family, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to solve the nation’s problems?
After all, since Obama gets blamed for the mess the country is in – just as Clinton was to blame for getting entangled in a bunch of “scandals” – doesn’t it make sense to turn again to the Bush family to clean things up.
Granted, this idea may seem premature, given the fact that some Americans may still vaguely recall that Bush-43 contributed to today’s crises.
But, remember, there were Americans during the early Clinton years who distrusted Bush-41 for his lies and his dissembling about Iran-Contra, Iraqgate and other scandals. Yet, those memories quickly faded. If anything, America’s tendency toward historical amnesia is even more advanced today.
Who knows? In a couple of years, there might be a media-generated nostalgia for George W. Bush, much as there was for his father. Then, Jeb – the so-called “smart brother” – might stand a chance as a bridge between the far-right Republicans and the more establishment brand.
Indeed, as the American political process grows even more addle-brained, we might be seeing the start of a recurring cycle: a member of the Bush family screws things up; the Democrats eventually take control but don’t demand accountability; the media quickly shifts the blame for the problems to the Democrats; the Republicans become agents of change; and the next Bush family member becomes president to get things back on track.
One might call that prospect a truly vicious cycle.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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