Nicholas Goldberg: Remember when we thought George W. Bush was the worst president ever?

20 years ago next month, President George W. Bush stood before the United Nations and warned that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a “grave and growing threat” and six months later set the stage for an invasion based on false assumptions about super-destructive weapons and Weapons based alleged links to the September 11 attacks.

The war eventually killed 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis and cost the United States $800 billion, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

I’ve been thinking about Bush’s legacy because I saw a half-priced book in a local bookstore, subtitled How the Bush Administration Brought America to Iraq, in a dumpster and realized that, frankly, no one else had it Interested. At least not in this country. Too much has happened in the past two decades.

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

Do you remember the Bush years? At the time, many considered him the most terrifying president of all time. I distinctly remember the cover of Rolling Stone in May 2006. Bush was drawn sitting on a stool with a jester’s hat and a goofy expression on his face, and the headline read, “Worst President in History?”

Democrats felt a particular revulsion for this immature scion of a legitimate political family and for the moral failings of his administration. The embrace of torture, for example. The offshore prison at Guantanamo where suspects were (and still are) held without trial. The unnecessary war with Iraq that has tarnished America’s reputation around the world.

Back then, Bush was compared to the least successful presidents in history: James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Richard Nixon.

But those times are over. It’s more common these days to say that Bush is a surprisingly talented painter, even a charming dinner companion. He’s a friend of Michelle Obama’s — “I love him more than anything,” she said — and if she likes him, why shouldn’t we? His approval ratings have recovered dramatically, going from a lethargic 33% positive when he left office to a robust 61% positive in 2018, according to a CNN poll. For a Republican, he’s beginning to look refreshingly rational and reasonable.

How did this happen?

Well, part of this is obviously due to the passage of time healing all favorability ratings. Nixon, ousted during the Watergate scandal, was more popular when he died in 1994 than when he resigned 20 years earlier. Bill Clinton rebounded from his Lewinsky lows. Americans quickly forget their history. Sufficient for the day is its evil, as the Bible says.

But the main thing that happened, I’m afraid, was that someone even worse and more frightening emerged: Donald Trump, a president who was so completely on the edge that Bush looked almost okay in the rearview mirror.

Yes, it was Bush, not Trump, who signed the Patriot Act and battered Hurricane Katrina and presided over the onset of the Great Recession and advocated for Social Security privatization. He was the dope who praised Americans who “worked hard to feed your family” and asked, “Are your children studying?” and then ventured to claim he had been “misunderstood.” His policies resulted in many more deaths than Trump’s.

But at the end of the day, I think there is a meaningful difference between the wrongs done by Bush and those that can be attributed to Trump, who really was the worst president for my money, quite possibly my life.

Trump wasn’t just any bad president.

What disqualified Trump was not his guidelines or even his beliefs, as far as he had any. It was his character. He is a dishonest, anti-democratic, twice indicted demagogue, a corrupt and irresponsible unprincipled man who could not rise above his own obsession with self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement and a place in the spotlight.

His refusal to accept the 2020 election results showed Trump’s lack of respect for American institutions and the rule of law.

Bush made many mistakes and his policies did much damage (especially if you were, say, an inmate in Abu Ghraib prison). But I never believed that he would put his own claim to power ahead of America’s best interests.

I hate having to make such terrible moral distinctions. Perhaps such exercises are better left to the philosophers.

But the differences are important.

As much as I disliked Bush and strongly disagreed with Liz Cheney, and as appalled by so many GOP positions, I look forward to the day when my political opponents are not ruthless norm-breakers or coup instigators.

I look forward to the day when we can once again argue about the issues with non-crazy, non-Trumpist Republicans.

In the meantime, the priority for now and for the foreseeable future must be to wrest control of this party from the dangerous hands of Donald Trump and prevent him and his supporters from returning to power, because that would be disastrous for the United States States, their reputation, their prosperity and its peace and security.

I’m not saying I want to bring back George W. Bush or anyone like him. I’m just saying that Donald Trump is a special case and poses a unique threat.

@Nick_Goldberg Nicholas Goldberg: Remember when we thought George W. Bush was the worst president ever?

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