I have nothing but praise for President Bush's visits to Latvia, Russia and Georgia this week and the statements he has made in each place -- especially for stating so forthrightly the truth about the postwar occupation of Eastern Europe by the Red Army -- with one exception.
Was the reference to Yalta, in Riga of all places, really necessary? An argument could be made -- not one I'm persuaded by at all, just a plausible argument -- that Roosevelt at Yalta and Truman afterward could have pressed Stalin harder, and successfully, to prevent the absorption of Poland into the Communist bloc. But the Baltic states? How exactly was Roosevelt supposed to prevent Stalin from keeping his armies in countries that far behind the lines and hundreds of miles from the nearest American army?
I dislike bad history, but frankly what bothers me more is this President's tendency to casually trash decisions made by his predecessors.
Britt's words, my italics. (Link via David Greenberg filling in for Daniel Drezner. Link to Greenberg via Jack O'Toole.) Trashing his predecessors has certainly been characteristic of George W. Bush. He's been especially keen on insulting the legacy of the guy who held the job immediately before him.
The "It's all Clinton's fault" refrain has quieted down over the last couple of years, but it's still there, and it's still driving policy. Whatever Clinton did, was wrong, an idea that has taken us to the brink of a nuclear showdown with North Korea.
I'm not sure how much of this is Bush himself and how much of it is Cheney and Rove. Bush actually seems to like Clinton when they get together. It was admirable of him to ask Bill to head the tsunami relief effort along with his father and I suspect he did it over the objections of not a few members of his own administration. But he sure is amenable to criticizing Bill and any and every other President---except Reagan---when his speechwriters give him the lines.
Of course it is politically necessarily for the Republicans to make the case that Clinton was a bad man and a bad president. Al Gore was running pretty much as Clinton II, hard as he tried to pretend he wasn't. (He pretended too hard and too well and helped make Bush's case that it was time for a change and defeated himself in the process, but that's another story.) And after four years of screwing up the economy and ending 8 years of peace in order to lose a war in Iraq Bush needed to explain why it would be worse to let another Democrat back into the White House.
And we know how much in money and votes from a riled up base Clinton-bashing is worth to the GOP.
Smarter, more gracious, and more astute Presidents have found ways to criticize their immediate predecessors without out and out insulting them and without abandoning policies that were working when they took over.
Eisenhower did it with Truman. Ike was elected on the feeling that Truman had lost us ground everywhere to the commies and then pretty much continued George Kennan's policy of containment which Truman and Dean Acheson and George Marshall had been using against the Soviets.
JFK defeated Eisenhower's vice-president but did not radically change the course Ike had set.
Nixon reined in some of the programs of LBJ's Great Society but he did not end them and he accelerated others, even earning himself a reputation among some historians as the last liberal President.
Reagan relaxed Carter's energy conservation measures and he tried his darndest to get us into a war in Central America. But elsewhere, particularly in dealing with the Soviets, he picked up where Carter left off, hardly varying Carter's rhetoric---he said things Carter said, he just said it while being six foot two, broad-shouldered, dark-haired, and looking like a movie star playing a cowboy.
Clinton defeated Bush I on the refrain, "It's the economy, stupid," but when he took office he gave up his own plans for a more traditionally liberal, free-spending approach to government, continued his predecessor's budget balancing moves---moves, like the tax increases, that had helped cost George H.W. Bush the election---and stayed the course in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and, unfortunately, Somalia.
And, I think, that helps explain George W.'s hostility to everything Clinton.
The Republicans hate Clinton, but they hate Roosevelt even more, which would be pathetic if it weren't so destructive---few of them were even alive when FDR came to office; almost all their leadership wasn't even born when World War II started, and George W. Bush was born two years after FDR died. These people are like the foolish barons at the end of the Wars of the Roses, fighting their grandparents' bitter battles, sacrificing themselves to a cause they only dimly understand.
Of course, since so many of them are Southerners, they are used to refighting ancient lost wars.
I don't think George W. has any particular animus towards Roosevelt or Clinton. I think he's temperamentally comfortable with blaming other people for things that go wrong around him and inclined to self-aggrandizement. ("I've done more for civil rights than any other President." How he'll explain that one to Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson when he gets to heaven, I don't know.) A friend of mine, a former bartender with a long and varied experience dealing with drunks, says those are character flaws typical of alcoholics that they don't lose when they give up drinking.
So I believe Bush's Clinton bashing is reflexive more than anything.
The President he really hates isn't his immediate predecessor.
Britt writes of Bush's bizarre and unnecesary tangent in his speech in Riga:
If he were going to apologize for anything a former President has done, he ought to have apologized for his father's historic loss of nerve and wretched judgment in unilaterally declaring an end to the Gulf War in 1991. So many of the problems we are having in Iraq now are traceable to what the elder Bush did then.
Britt is assuming that invading Bagdad to overthrow Saddam wouldn't have been the devil's bargain in 1991 it turned out to be in 2002. But he is also missing the fact that George W.'s misadventure in Iraq is an implicit apology for his George H.W.'s "failure" there.
Apology, hell. It's a blatant condemnation!
"You fucked up, Dad, and I'm going to make it right!"
But then everything George W. has done as President has been a slap in his father's face. It's even likely that the only reason he has for being President is to show his father up.
Bush II is on record as blaming Bush I's defeat in 1992 on his father's overall failure to advance the Reagan Revolution. That's part of why Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove chose him to be their puppet over the more intelligent and competent Jeb. Jeb Bush wasn't just more like his father in his abilities and ambitions. He was, or used to be, a true moderate and a pragmatist. If either Bush brother had the capacity to be a truly compassionate conservative, it was Jeb.
Remember that Cheney and Rumsfeld had been run out of Bush I's administration for being too hard line, on Iraq especially, but on pretty much everything else.
Rove probably didn't care beans about the Reagan Revolution. He just knew that George was the more manipulable brother.
George W. is his momma's boy. Always has been. The salient moment in his biography up until he became President was when he challenged his father to a fistfight.
George Herbert Walker Bush was far from being a great president. Nor is he a particularly good man. But he is smart and he is responsible and it cannot have been easy for him to have an eldest son who was neither. As the successful son of a successful man he was probably not prepared to love and nurture a son who did not have the talent or the temperament to follow in his and his father's footsteps. I think all fathers are surprised and baffled when one of their sons turns out not to be a chip off the old block.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that George W. grew up feeling, if not unloved by his dad, then looked down upon by him, that he grew up thinking of himself as a continual disappointment to the old man. A wiser, more generous-hearted dad would have made an effort to encourage his son to go his own way, to be himself, to make use of the talents he did have. Maybe George H.W. tried, but I think if he had, George W. wouldn't have spent all his life struggling to recreate himself in his father's image. Going to Yale, where he says he was miserable, trying to become a fighter pilot, going into the oil business, running for Congress---that's his father's resume.
People who try to be what they are not, usually fail at being what they are not. It is self-destructive to try to become another person.
I think the two Bushes love each other but uneasily.
The speech in Riga criticizing FDR can also be read as a criticism of his old man. The best moment of George H.W.'s presidency was when the Berlin Wall came down. George W. as good as said that the whole Cold War was a mistake and that the actions taken by all the Presidents who waged it, from Truman through his own father, weren't achievements but merely drudge work that continued and re-enforced the failure at Yalta.
Seen that way, the Wall's coming down wasn't a moment of joy and triumph but the sad end of a long, sad series of unnecessary, and cowardly, blunders.
Sorry, Dad, you were just carrying Roosevelt's water and it was drawn from a poisoned well.
The irony is that the more W. tries to outdo his old man, the better the old man's Presidency looks in the national memory.