George W. Bush: the Anti-‘Sully'

After taking eight weeks off from the spotlight, former President George W. Bush is set to give his first paid speech Tuesday in Calgary, Canada. Meanwhile, in television and print interviews, former aides have been out dusting off the old talking points about the Bush presidency’s accomplishments.

Who am I to begrudge the president’s making more than a few bucks on the paid speaking circuit? Like the requests surely coming in for U.S. Airways hero pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to speak, offering top dollar to hear from someone who played a pivotal role in current affairs is quite commonplace.

However, it will be interesting to see who will line up to put money in Bush’s pockets for an hour or so of his time. After all, Bush is a kind of anti-Sully. Instead of having avoided a crash, he bears much of the responsibility for one. Unlike the story of King Midas, everything Bush touched turned to coal.

The nation’s bankers, normally a seemingly eager audience for a former Republican president, have fallen on hard times due to the near-collapse of the nation’s financial services industry, abetted by the lax oversight of Bush administration federal regulators. And many bankers would not want to have to answer questions from the Democrats who now run the Treasury Department and the congressional banking committees about spending so much on a Bush speech while taking so much money from the taxpayers to keep the lights on.

The small-government, fiscal conservative types would surely be a good audience for a former Republican president — if not for Bush’s responsibility for the greatest spending increases in 30 years while simultaneously cutting taxes for the wealthy. Chris Edwards at the libertarian CATO Institute points out that “in nondefense discretionary spending, Bush II is the biggest spender since Ford.” On MSNBC’s “Hardball” last week, Chris Matthews reminded us that all of that spending helped take our national debt from $5.7 trillion to $10.6 trillion before the bailouts. Imagine how much easier it would be to handle this crisis if the federal government had $5 trillion less in debt.

Nonetheless, there are apparently still groups in the United States willing to pay to listen to the former president. On June 17, Bush will speak to the Manufacturer & Business Association in Erie, Pa. What might he say? What profound lessons will he draw from his experiences? Will he apologize for his mistakes?

Beyond the other failings that contributed to our current economic crisis, Bush’s responses to the two major disasters we faced on his watch that are still his presidency’s most egregious errors. After the horrific terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were ready to follow their president down a course of sacrifice and service for their country, Bush told us to head to Disney World and to go shopping. Americans listened — tapping credit cards and home equity loans to shop away.

Then, after five years and billions of dollars in preparation for another disaster, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and the Bush administration sat for days while Americans suffered from dehydration, hunger and isolation in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the nation watched as the president slapped his emergency management director on the back and told him, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

After a president leaves office, the things we dislike about him tend to fade in memory. George H.W. Bush seemed stiff and out of touch as president. Now we think of him as a gentleman who made the right call not going to Baghdad during the first Gulf War. Bill Clinton had the words “impeachment” and “scandal-plagued” mentioned in most articles just after he left office. Now we think of him as more of a roguish sage whose opinion is among the most sought-after on any issue facing the country or the world.

Not everything George W. Bush did as president was bad, but will we eventually reach that kind of sanguine view of him? I hope not. From the current global financial mess to the ill-conceived war in Iraq that weakened our security and strengthened our opponents, the country is in a ditch we will spend years climbing out of. And Bush is the one who put it there.

Jamal Simmons was a Clinton administration political appointee and an adviser to the Democratic National Committee and the Obama-Biden campaign in 2008.

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