14 December 2008

"So what if a guy threw his shoe at me,"

George W. Bush is, in the end, probably not a great president. He is a little too dismissive of the bully pulpit to qualify as great, a characteristic failing of his family. Supposedly, his grandmother once complained that George H.W. Bush was talking about himself too much in one of his campaigns and this reticence, odd in a family that gave us two presidents, seems to have affected W. as well. It is also, I suspect, partly how Laura likes it and partly an entirely laudable effort not to be Bill Clinton.

He has been, however, the perfect president for me. For better or worse, if I were designing a president, I'd end up with George W. Bush. And I for one will dearly miss a president who's reaction to having a shoe thrown at him is "So what?"


Harry Eagar said...

The 'so what' also applies to Iran, North Korea, financial markets, deficits etc.

A stuffed animal could have done as well, except for bumping off Saddam Hussein. If Bush is remembered for anything positive, that will be it.

I suspect, in the longer view, it won't be remembered.

erp said...

Harry, I suspect you will be wrong about this too.

David, I totally agree. Bush has kept our body and soul politic together through terribly dangerous times with grace and good humor.

It's amusing that Obama can't break the cigarette habit and gets sympathy because he's under so much strain ... yet Bush gets no credit for staying on the wagon.

I yearn for him to kick some butt before he leaves, but luckily he's a far better person than I.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those non-delusional people who recognize that Bush has been an utterly disastrous president, but even I have to admit that his reaction to this incident was pretty classy. Depicting it as "the kind of thing that happens in a free society" was exactly the right tack to take.

Brit said...

His Presidency will be remembered as a time of disasters, and therefore Bush will be remembered as a disaster, even though the biggies (9/11, Katrina, the credit crunch) were not his fault. It's too early to tell whether history will be kind to him on Iraq, but I would bet on very much not.

We all know you don't care about international reputation (yawn), but internationally he is an unbelievable disaster. To be able to not just fritter away the amount of worldwide pro-Americanism there was on 9/12, but to turn it into an unprecedented amount of anti-Americanism took some doing. He deserves credit for that.

David said...

First, why should we care? How much does Europe care what we think about them?

Second, you're being very western Eurocentric. They love him in Poland (and other parts of eastern Europe) and in India. Europe is just less important that it was when Bush took office.

Third, when I read things like this, it makes me think that Europe's opinion is not reality-based.

Fourth, and this is probably worth its own post, this is the fundamental attribution error. It's fundamentally silly to attribute the actions of the United States and the things that happen to it over eight years to the personality of any one person, even the President. Obama's fans inside and outside the US are starting to see that lots of things they thought were solely down to George W. Bush are going to keep on happening under Barack Obama.

Brit said...

I speak as what I am - a pro-American Briton. I can hardly speak as anything else. Also, I didn't say it was fair that he will go down in history as a disaster - it's largely (but not completely) unfair - only that he will.

Brit said...

Oh yeah, and you should care what the rest of the world thinks because you are the world's most important superpower and you think that God has called you to sort out the world's problems.

You can't have it both ways. Actually that might explain Dubya's international disastrousness - trying to be an isolationist imperialist.

Anonymous said...

1) I don't believe there was any more real pro-American sentiment on 9/12/01 than the day before so there was nothing to fritter.

2) How does this growing anti-American sentiment explain the gradual yet clear shift toward more pro-American governments across the world, but especially in Europe?

As far as I can tell, it's the chattering classes who don't like Bush, never did, and never would. It's like the Palin hate, which came on strong and vicious before she actually said anything. Or Reagan hate, which was described in basically the same terms back in the day as you are talking about Bush.

Looking around at the overall state of things on the international relations front, I would rate Bush as moderately good with a clear positive impact.

David said...

But how is it a "disaster?" What are the practical consequences of Bush being disliked in western Europe? If I support Bush's policies because I believe that they are best for the United States, then what countervailing cost arises from the fact that Europe doesn't like them?

Also, it's OJ who thinks that God wants us to sort out other nation's problems. George Bush and I think that God wants us to be a light unto the nations. That's why legal immigration is so central to US conservatism, properly understood. It's the trifecta: God wants us to do it; it's for the children; and it's going to get us into a war.

Finally, I don't care about fair. Life's unfair. I do care about rational, because if the European reaction is not rational, then there really isn't anything we could do (or not do) about it.

Brit said...

The cost was the goodwill of democratic allies. If you don't place any value on that then I suppose there was no cost. But you're only speaking from a certain right-wing anti-Old Europe position, which does not, contrary to your claims, represent the voice of America. There is no single voice of America - I only have to read a few different blogs to see that.

David said...

I'm certainly not claiming to be representative of America. America doesn't like George Bush much more than Europe does. Let's go at this differently: what should the United States have done differently over the last eight years so as not to alienate western Europe?

Brit said...

Not talking about 'Old Europe' out loud, for a start.

I'm wandering onto wider territory here but I'll tell you what was a big wake-up call for me: Orrin's soccer blog.

As soon as I saw that, something I'd dimly suspected became clear: that the whole caricature of the down-home, honest-to-goodness, gun-toting, anti-intellectual, Europe-hating, proud-of-his-ignorance, soccer-hating, Bible-bashing Joe the Plumber is a complete fabrication. It's used as an insult by the Dems and anti-Americans, but it's used as an equally dishonest, patronising and insulting simplification by the Right.

Bush represents a decade of division over this mythical hick. It's time we all grew up.

Brit said...

Oh yeah, and while I'm on the subject, fellas ...'chattering classes'. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but it has recently dawned on me that it's almost as bad as the hick myth.

You (we) are the chattering classes - all we do is chatter about politics on the internet. 'Chattering classes' is meant to distinguish the phoney urban leftist from the 'real' American (ie. the mythical hick) - or the 'real' British working man, or the 'real' Polish immigrant. But guess what, the art galleries and posh restaurants and dinner parties are full of conservatives as well as lefties. And what's more, the lefties are sometimes right about things.

Harry Eagar said...

When the chips are down, it certainly makes a difference what the leaders of countries think about the character of the people in other countries.

I could spend all day citing examples, but will limit myself to just one: Lady Astor refused to contemplate military conversations with the French because France was a nation of whores.

(This is a carefully chosen example. She was an MP but born in a Bible-thumpin' household in Virginia.)

On his watch, Bush was confronted with a grave external threat to the nation and he never recognized what it was. Still doesn't. Neither does Obama, as far as I can tell.

Neither do many people in Europe.

I am reading Ernest May's 'Strange Victory' this week. Europeans -- I recall Brit says he is not one -- are poorly positioned to accuse other people of frittering away goodwill.

Anonymous said...

Brit, I deeply resent the implication that I am a member of the chattering classes. I may chatter about them incessantly, but I am not of them. I am, however, more than proud to ally myself with the man in the Clapham omnibus.

David, you used to swarm me indignantly and mercilessly whenever I would raise this issue, but I didn't buy it then and I don't now. How else can you explain how important the coalition of the willing was to Bush and his supporters even though everybody knew they were militarily insignificant except the Brits? There was a time when your love for the Aussies approached the indecent even though they did very little. You get too angered by international criticism to claim you don't care. Mightn't it be more accurate to say you struggle not to care with mixed results and that you get mad when you find yourselves care in spite of yourselves? C'mon, we all know that under every rough, tough fearless macho American lies a big gooey compassionate teddy bear!

As to Bush, Brit's right about his rock-bottom popularity, even among non-American conservatives, but I think at least one reason may be he really never tried to speak to that world. Much to my frustration, I can't think of one speech he ever made that resonated internationally, unlike, say, Reagan and Kennedy and even to a lesser extent Bush Sr. There certainly were no small number of good openings. And apart from the surge, I really can't think of anything he did internationally since 2004 except coast.

That being said, the only international opinion that matters long term is Iraqi opinion. Unlike Brit, I think Bush's reputation will recover, but it may take a generation and the passing of the Boomers. However history judges Iraq, there was a lot more than that accomplished on his watch. Heard much from the UN lately? France mouthing off much these days? How's that intifada coming along?

erp said...

Peter, I don't think it'll take a generation for Bush's reputation to recover, far from it.

Just watching Obama's antics before he even gets to the White House, I especially like that he's examined himself and proclaimed himself innocent of all wrongdoing vis a vis business as usual corruption in Illinois, the next four years will be a debacle not seen in recent memory.

Maybe the world will love us then because we'll be in the same shape they are.

Was that list in the Guardian lifted from The Onion?

Brit said...

The world doesn't want to hate America - I think the world is desperate to love America. That's why it watches all America's terrible movies as well as the good ones.

If it was just plain anti-Americanism, Obama wouldn't be so instantly popular. It's anti-Bushism, which blends into a particular form of resentment.

A gloriously silly but perfect analogy springs to mind. All of Europe loves British pop music, but every year, instead of sending one of our stars to the Eurovision Song Contest, we dump some nobody on them to do some terrible Eurotrash drivel (because we don't take it seriously but they do). As a consequence, they rightly resent us for it and we come last.

I think that's the root of a lot of anti-Bushist anti-Americanism. The world looks to America for political inspiration and leadership....the most powerful man in the world with the ability to set the moral agenda for the modern, globalised but troubled planet... countless opportunities to deliver world-shaking speeches... and out of 300 million people you give us this clown? Who can't even string a sentence together? Twice?

Harry Eagar said...

Last I heard, that intifada was doing pretty well. Has absolute control of Gaza, runs Lebanon and can at least veto anything in the West Bank.

Anonymous said...

- I think the world is desperate to love America.

I don't think I believe that anymore, at least for a large part of the world, although that is certainly what most of them tell themselves. The standards the U.S. is held to are just too high for that to be credible. But I do think much of it starts with American anti-Americanism and that that is what feeds a lot of the foreign, especially European/Canadian, variety.

David said...

I've sort of lost track of what we're talking about.

I thought it was, "Isn't it cool that W. said, 'So what' about the shoe throwing."

As to what foreigners think, I don't think that their opinion of George Bush is rational. If it's not rational, then (a) I care less and (b) even if I cared, there'd be nothing we could do about it because it's not rational.

Even Brit, who's eminently rational, well-informed and favorably predisposed to us thinks that it's a big deal that Donald Rumsfeld referred to France and Germany as Old Europe at a press conference. Given that Rumsfeld was a major administration figure, if a stray comment he made at a press conference results in "disastrous" shifts in European public opinion, then there's really nothing we can do. What that says to me is that Europeans were predisposed to hate George Bush and would have seized upon any excuse to do so. Over the course of eight years, there's no way to avoid this sort of thing.

There were all sorts of French, German and even English politicians running around saying very unflattering things about us, but I bet you that no more than one American in a thousand could actually quote one of them, or raise any emotions on the subject. On the other hand, I bet "Freedom Fries" is still a big deal in Europe.

David said...

Actually, I know that Freedom Fries is a big deal, because when I was in Oxford one of the Brits there (not our Brit) made a crack about it.

Harry Eagar said...

I thought Bush's insouciance was spot on, and am mildly disgusted that it (the shoe throwing) was reported as news.

On the other hand, he has always been equally insouciant about things that matter -- the economy comes to mind -- and that hasn't been good.

jim hamlen said...

To focus on just the shoes, imagine if Gordon Brown or Chirac or De Villepin or Proda or Zapatero had been the target (for whatever reason). There would have been much huffing and puffing, and lots of victimology on display.

Not with Bush.

But the larger question of "anti-Americanism" and goodwill begs the question - do the Europeans even know what goodwill is? Ask the Bosnians, or the Darfurians, or the Israelis, or the Iraqis, or the Iranians? The term "chattering class" doesn't so much refer to people talking about politics, but to elites (academics, journalists, politicians) who do nothing but talk, when action is necessary. For someone in Darfur, words are death. A bomb dropped on Khartoum might mean life. But it is too much for "old" Europe.

Now, the "old" Europeans have decided that they will live in a quasi-international, heavily bureaucratic society. America is called primitive and cowboy because it hasn't totally followed suit. I don't really care about that. Such sophistication is empty.

Brit said...

Well we've wandered, David, we've rambled. (If you want a direct answer to the shoe thing, yes, it was a pretty cool reaction.)

I think I'm trying to analyse just why, having rationally defended him for so long, I'm so sick and fed up and annoyed at Bush, why I'm so relieved that he's (almost) gone, and why in a word association game if someone said "Dubya" I would instantly snap back "disaster" (or something ruder).

I think broadly there are two reasons.

The first is what he's failed to do. David correctly said that too much is attributed to the President, but if you're going to excuse him for the things he's not responsible for (as I have), you need to hold him to account for the things a President should do. Eg. uniting people, inspiring confidence, making people feel better in difficult times, clever diplomacy. In those areas, 'disaster' doesn't even begin to cover it. His manner is either confrontational or cringe-making. God knows he's had enough chances to deliver a mighty oration in a crisis, but his speeches are a worldwide joke. You might call these things superficial - I'd say they were a President's main raison d'etre. You could blame the media - but it's up to the President to be good at the media, or at least vaguely competent.

The second reason is the divisiveness. Because Bush is so bad at all those essential superficial things, the left-right split has got totally out of proportion, totally irrational, very nasty and very silly. Basically we've forgotten how to have an argument.

jim hamlen said...

I beg to differ, at least a little bit.

The divisiveness was there in the 1980s, when Reagan was President. I remember all the shrieks of "FASCIST" for 8 long years. When Reagan put the Pershings in Europe, he was treated as badly as Bush has been. Absent Thatcher and Schmidt and the self-evident nature of the Soviets, "old" Europe would have folded and surrendered. And the Prague Spring was only 15 years earlier.

But I suspect the real reason Bush is hated is because he was a consequential President (at least, in his first term). Clinton sat in office for 8 years, running around seeking adulation, but never really governing. When he had opportunities to do something big, something lasting, he flinched. Or he 'triangulated'.

Immediately after 9/11, there were indications that the "chattering class" resented that Clinton wasn't in office to cement his reputation. But what does that mean? Clinton had his chances with the terrorists - he gave his obligatory pressers and wagged his finger at them, and that was that. Bush approached it differently.

And Bush has certainly been a better diplomat than Clinton or his own father. In his time, the US isolated Arafat, overthrew Saddam, forced its neighbors to at least talk about North Korea, established much better relations with India, did more in Africa than any previous President, boosted Colombia out of potential collapse, helped Mexico to become more functional, boosted Eastern Europe, etc. Sure, we should have overthrown Assad, moved Russia in a different direction, and dealt better with Iran. But all in all, Bush has been a much better diplomat than anyone since Reagan.

He could have helped himself with better speeches, with better delivery, with a stronger message. But he isn't a "ME" kind of guy (like Clinton). He has stuck to his nature, and has kept his humility more than any President I can think of. And perhaps he could have done better with the media, but he never got into the gutter with them (a la Nixon or Clinton). He thought more of his office and remained quiet.

I wish he had not gone to sleep after being re-elected. I wish he could have had better Republicans in the Congressional leadership, especially in 2005. But on the whole, he did a very good job in a very tough environment.

Anonymous said...

I was going to write something similar to Mr. Hamlen, in that Bush is hated as Reagan was hated precisely because he accomplished things. That forces other people to confront moral choices and the consequences thereof. They like Obama because he's a shot of morphine after struggling with a painful disease.

I will say though that I fault Bush far more than Mr. Hamlen on Brit's complaint of ineloquence, which I think is a fair cop. The reality is that a President must lead rhetorically and failure to do so is a failure. I do have some sympathy though, as it's definitely more challenging when Old Media will not hesitate to simply distort, ignore, or flat out lie about your speeches.

Don't blame the player, blame the haters.

- Annoying Old Guy

Hey Skipper said...

In the reporting of this, I haven't read one story that completely failed to acknowledge something glaringly obvious in its absence -- like a herd of elephants stampeding by with nary a sound.

Wind the clock back five years. A reporter throws a shoe at the podium during a Saddam press conference. Okay, first of all, it would never happen. Why? Because it would have been suicidal. The hurler (who, contra OJ, had pretty good aim for a guy brought up on soccer) would have been garroted, and his family disappeared.

What happened here? On offhand comment. W should have followed that comment with something like this: "I'll bet he wouldn't have tried that five years ago."

Now, it seems to me that no matter what The World thinks of W, that distinction would have been worth mentioning. (Along with noting that nearly all the Iraqis killed since Operation Iraqi Freedom have been killed either by other Iraqis, or jihadis.)

That said, I am with Brit on this:

The world looks to America for political inspiration and leadership....the most powerful man in the world with the ability to set the moral agenda for the modern, globalised but troubled planet... countless opportunities to deliver world-shaking speeches... and out of 300 million people you give us this clown? Who can't even string a sentence together? Twice?

And more. Bush appointed political hacks to important positions. Brownie would have been at sea had he been in charge of the Household Companion Animal Administration, never mind FEMA. Bush failed to exercise leadership when we needed it -- he let go of Social Security reform with scarcely a whimper, and allowed the mortgage market meltdown to happen on his watch.

I do think the anti-Americanism thing is overplayed, though. I was in England when Reagan was in office, and remember a fair number of insults tossed my way (more so in European and Scandinavian countries, though). Given the nature of the Soviet Union, that always struck me as singularly odd behavior; but never mind that.

I travel a fair amount these days, am obviously American, and haven't been the target of even one insult, anywhere.

Including Paris.

Europe's major intellectual failure is hammering Bush on Iraq, while having actively undermined (subverting sanctions, Oil for Food) all anti-Saddam efforts, and declining to offer any meaningful alternative.

Except, of course, allowing Saddam to remain in power.

David said...


I was in England when Reagan was in office, and remember a fair number of insults tossed my way (more so in European and Scandinavian countries, though). Given the nature of the Soviet Union, that always struck me as singularly odd behavior; but never mind that.

Isn't that directly related to why the guy through his shoes at Bush rather than Saddam. First, he had access to Bush; second, Saddam would have killed him, and his family, and his cobbler.

Jim: If he had thrown his shoe at Chirac, et al., every story would have noted that shoe throwing is a sign of mischievous affection in the Arab world.

I fundamentally agree with you all about the bully pulpit and Bush's willingness to turn the other cheek and his failure to rally the world, etc.


His speech to the United Nations on Iraq was a good speech that was ignored.

Brownie did do a heckuva job. Remember that New Orleans came through the hurricane unscathed and, contrary to the press reports, things at the Superdome went pretty well. I'm told that FEMA arranged for supplies, rescue teams, National Guard troops to stage just outside the hurricane zone and did a better job of getting help to the affected areas better than in any previous emergency.

But it's too early to fight what "everyone knows" and part of Bush's failure is the failure to push back.

Harry Eagar said...

' A bomb dropped on Khartoum might mean life.'

Agreed. But how is that a defense of Bush or American policy as against Europe's?

Ali said...

The Republicans in 2008 got punished for Bush's woeful performance from 2004-6 and that is justifiably going to define memories of his presidency for a long time to come. Sure it was Iraqis who were killing other Iraqis, but there's no excuse for the lack of preparedness, executive drift and failure to get to grips with Iraq. This was a war Bush went in with both eyes open and plenty of warning from the likes of Ryan Crocker. Truman at least could plausibly claim Korea was wholly unexpected.

Bush asking what the show-thrower's beef was seems really clueless. I doubt Mr Shoe-Thrower remembered Saddam's days fondly but he he did probably enjoy some measure of security, as opposed to the years of chaos Iraq just came out of.

Still, Bush's performance from 2006 onwards was a great improvement which is why Obama is likely to continue with the same policies. And every president is made to look better in retrospect by his successor. Opinions will slowly change when America remembers the virtues of having a tongue-tied, slightly ugly jock with ineradicable faith in his beliefs as opposed to a silk-tongued GQ cover star willing to throw anything under the bus if it threatens his quest for power.

Harry Eagar said...

Let's hope he's not questing for power in foreign affairs.

I'm not quite sure where this notion that Obama is somehow more acquisitive of power than (name earlier president here) came from. True, Bush and Coolidge lusted after the power to take a nap and let things look after themselves. That may not seem as bad, but look how things turned out.

I've no idea what Obama's policy regarding Islam may be, except he doesn't seem to understand the nature of the problem. Neither did Bush.

The notion that the problem is (or resides in) Iraq is wrongheaded.

I still say, if all we wanted was to bump off Saddam, the Kurds would have done it for us, and cheap.

Barry Meislin said...

If Bush told the truth about me---truths that I was in no way, shape or form willing to hear---and moreover, expressed them with such dismal, abysmal ineloquence, heck I'd hate him, too.

(Dumb cowboy. Don't even know I don't wanna hear the truth. And he can't even talk right! And he makes me feel bad for wanting to sort of support him in the first place. Damn him. At least I don't support Obama---and that's why I'm gonna be votin' for him.)