Hubris put George W. Bush in the White House. That same hubris is bringing him down. And while seeing Bush get his comeuppance may bring some glee to his foes, that hubris is leaving America leaderless, rudderless, politically isolated, economically paralyzed, and militarily decimated.
The essence of Bush’s brand of hubris can be summed up in one phrase: Don’t Fuck With Us. And throughout Bush’s political career, that concept has been dominant. That phrase is the essence of Karl Rove’s slash-and-burn politics. Time and again in Rove’s long career, the people who stood in his way have been gunned down. And now, the Don’t Fuck With Us ethos is coming back to haunt Bush and his cronies—most notably in the indictment of Scooter Libby, the first sitting White House staffer to be charged with a crime in 130 years.
Bush’s attitude has been evident for years. It was abundant inside the Austin Convention Center on March 7, 1999, when Bush, accompanied by a phalanx of some of Washington’s most influential power brokers—former secretary of state George Schultz, and super lobbyist (and now Mississippi governor), Haley Barbour and others—announced that he was going to run for president. At the event, Bush’s press aides passed out lists of officeholders who were supporting his presidential bid. That list included a dozen governors, half a dozen U.S. Senators, 72 members of the U.S. House, 24 former Congressmen, and hundreds of state legislators. The next day, The New York Times carried a color photo of the event on the front page, above the fold, and called it a “grand pageant of political might.” Of course, by that time, Bush had already raised about $13 million without holding a single fundraiser. The message to George W.’s would-be challengers was simple: Don’t even think about challenging us. If you do, we’ll blow you out of the water. And with a phalanx of politicos behind him, that bluster carried the day, winning him the Republican nomination.
That same bluster helped Bush prevail in the Florida Recount. On November 11, 2000, near the height of the voting mess, the Bush Family’s consigliere, James A. Baker III, declared, “The vote in Florida has been counted, and then recounted. Governor George W. Bush was the winner of the vote. He is also the winner of the recount.”
Baker was lying. The Gore campaign had asked for recounts in at least four counties. Recounts had only begun in two of them. That didn’t matter. Baker, the ultimate Washington insider, the man whose whole career has been devoted to the Bushes, had his talking point. And he repeated it over and over.
The entire case for war against Iraq—a country that did not attack the United States on September 11—reflects George W. Bush’s bravado, his absolute certainty that he is right. And woe to any opponents who disagreed. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid pointed to Bush’s penchant for retribution during a speech on November 1:
“Time and again this Administration has actively sought to attack and undercut those who dared to raise questions about its preferred course … For example, when General Shinseki indicated several hundred thousand troops would be needed in Iraq, his military career came to an end. When then OMB Director Larry Lindsay suggested the cost of this war would approach $200 billion, his career in the Administration came to an end. When U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix challenged conclusions about Saddam’s WMD capabilities, the Administration pulled out his inspectors. When Nobel Prize winner and IAEA head Mohammed el-Baridei raised questions about the Administration’s claims of Saddam’s nuclear capabilities, the Administration attempted to remove him from his post. When Joe Wilson stated that there was no attempt by Saddam to acquire uranium from Niger, the Administration launched a vicious and coordinated campaign to demean and discredit him, going so far as to expose the fact that his wife worked as a CIA agent.”
In short, Don’t Fuck With Us.
That attitude—and its corollary, “Only we know best”—works while campaigning. It’s toxic while governing. And now we’re seeing the wreckage. The most obvious example: Iraq. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their cohorts campaigned for the war against Saddam Hussein. They were going to show their toughness, regardless of the costs.
The second example: the illegal detainment program at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the use of torture against prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere.
The third example: the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When Bush’s enforcer, Joe Allbaugh, was appointed to head FEMA, he only had the campaign script. So in May 2001, after just a few weeks on the job, Allbaugh told the Senate that, “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management.” Allbaugh didn’t stick around. He left after just 26 months. He didn’t have time to do the real work of governing. He had to turn the Don’t Fuck With Us campaign into cash. His firm, The Allbaugh Company, now advises clients on getting federal contracts. One of his clients: KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton.
The most sickening part of Bush’s still-emerging legacy is that the brunt of his hubris is being felt not by Libby, Rove, or their unindicted co-conspirators, but by innocent people. The innocents include the thousands of American soldiers who have been killed or maimed in Iraq, the millions of Iraqis who have been displaced as their country has been shredded, and the tens of thousands of hurricane victims on the Gulf Coast who were left to fend for themselves because know-nothings like Allbaugh deemed FEMA “oversized.”
The Greek tragedians warned us about overbearing pride. Bush ignored them. Now we are witnessing his downfall. Alas, there is no joy in that. Bush’s excessive pride is injuring America far more gravely than al-Qaeda did on September 11. And it may be decades before our country recovers.
Robert Bryce is a contributing writer for the Observer.