The thought arose because I read two excellent essays back-to-back. The first was the recent Rolling Stone article by the fine historian Sean Wilentz considering whether Bush really is the worst president in U.S. history. His answer, it will probably surprise few to learn, is yes. Or, more precisely:
No historian can responsibly predict the future with absolute certainty. There are too many imponderables still to come in the two and a half years left in Bush's presidency to know exactly how it will look in 2009, let alone in 2059. There have been presidents -- Harry Truman was one -- who have left office in seeming disgrace, only to rebound in the estimates of later scholars. But so far the facts are not shaping up propitiously for George W. Bush.
I think a fair summary of his arguments might be that while the race is far from over, at the moment Bush is well ahead with no obstacles between him and the finish line. If any conservatives wish to object, they should at least consider Wilentz's considered argument and explain why they don't agree. He has a lot of evidence on his side. He's very persuasive. He persuaded me. (Although admittedly I already thought so.)
So why might history be kind to Bush? The answer, I think, lies in the two types of problems we face at the moment.
Now, I say "two types", but -- of course, of course -- there really are not two types, but a whole spectrum ranging from one extreme to another, quite possibly a multi-dimensional spectrum at that, one with wormholes by which problems on one side can leap instantly to the other and bridges which draw seemingly separated problems into a single whole. Granted. But of course the whole point of simplifications is to help us think through ungraspable complexities, and I think there's some use to this one, so bear with me.
The first sort are problems which we either would not have had had Al Gore ascended to the presidency which he had rightfully won or -- shading out on the spectrum -- which we might have made progress on with democrats in charge. The war in Iraq, the disastrous deficit, the erosion of long-held civil liberties and most of the other nearly-uncountable damages of the Bush administration fall in the first half of this category. The long-term issue of Jihadism, the issue of basic civil rights for our gay and lesbian citizens and the health-care crisis are (although this is category is harder to speak with confidence about) in the second half -- problems which Gore would at the least have quite clearly been better on, and problems which, had mainstream liberal thinking been pursued (respectively: 1) Get Osama without getting sidetracked, work on locking down nukes and other dangerous weapons, court rather than inflame moderate Muslim opinion; 2) just give them equal rights damnit; 3) single-payer) might well have been more-or-less solved. Of course the political Gore was a cowardly creature, hardly the courageous figure that emerged after his loss, and of course he would have had a hard-right Republican congress (and VP) to deal with, all of which would have limited his options. But there would have been hope.
And, frankly, on these issues there still is a great deal of hope. Iraq is likely going to be a horror for a generation to come, blood which will forever saturate Bush's hands, but America might well extract itself from that situation soon after Bush's term -- little consolation to the people of Iraq, but some to us. As for all the other problems, I have high hopes that the present full-scale meltdown of the all-conservative government might just possibly lead to a resurgence of muscular American liberalism, which might actually make some progress on them. So on these issues we can, at least, hope -- and fight to make hopes real.
But then there are the second set of problems -- problems which no mainstream American political thinking has any reasonable answers for. Problems which even when given lip service by the left, there is little chance of achieving anything on in the foreseeable future. These are the problems that make me think that we are living in the period of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire -- if not of our civilization. I am, I know, a pessimist, and given to apocalyptic thinking. Nevertheless, the words of Hari Seldon often ring in my ears:
The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had. The storm blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking.
What problems are these? Well, there are many, and detailing them is more than I can do here and now. So let's just take one: global warming.
Global warming, Noble Reader, is a serious !@#$%ing problem. Scientists are increasingly convinced that we may hit a "tipping point" at which beyond efforts to mitigate it will be, frankly, too late. Al Gore is reportedly saying in his new movie that we may have only a decade to act before reaching that point. Some scientists are saying we may not even have that long -- that we might already have reached it. (You won't hear too much of that, because people tend to want to inspire action -- since, after all, we can't be sure that it's too late. But the whispers are there, if you listen.)
This is where the second essay which I read comes in. It's a blog post by Brad Plumer (via), who talks about what would be needed, practically, to slow global warming -- and how, while it might well be technically possible, is currently beyond the political pale -- "the goal looks attainable in theory, but in practice may be far out of reach," in his words. Simply because of the level of change in our society -- and in every society, worldwide -- which would be required.
And the actual results could be disastrous. -- I haven't the heart, right now, to go into the details. But this could be an epoch-making change in human history -- even apart from fears of peak oil, or any of the other large-scale problems that seem to bear down on us.
It seems likely -- or, as Dr. Wilentz might put it, "there are too many imponderables still to come... to know exactly... but so far the facts are not shaping up propitiously" -- that our era will seem in retrospect to be one long, slow-motion disaster, where ecological damage accumulated, and we collectively fiddled as our planet burned.
In which case Bush might actually get off easily. After all, while the Democrats would clearly be better on Iraq, on terrorism, on the economy, on health care, on civil liberties -- on a whole host of issues -- it seems unlikely that the corporate-beholden party could have done enough on global warming to make a real difference. Oh, they might well have pushed forward with Kyoto -- if the Republican congress would have let them. But even Kyoto was just a start: and it seems unlikely that they would have done more.
(Maybe -- maybe -- Al Gore, who has cared about this issue more and longer than almost any politician of national reputation, would have made it the defining issue of his presidency, had he secured it, as he has of his non-presidency. But he certainly didn't run on it. And, now, we'll almost certainly never know.)
In this case, Bush is likely to be remembered as simply one more disastrous leader who failed to lead. Oh, sure, worst than most -- probably worst than all. But who remembers which of the late Roman emperors was the worse? It is the vast rush of decline, not the short-term problems of any particular rule, that we recall. The Iraq war will be seen as simply one of the more egregious examples of the global tribulation that energy problems caused; the U.S. budget deficit will be seen as the almost-inevitable consequence of a global empire of military bases; signs of theocracy will be seen as the expected reaction to a declining civilization. Bush will fade into the background of horror -- a large figure in it, but still simply another one.
Bush, in short, might be saved from being damned by history because we might all be judged, collectively, so harshly that any individual looks small in the overall picture. Bush might be saved because the genuine disasters of his rule might fade into the background of larger and more permanent disasters.
But not to worry. If we assume Bush is, at this point, shooting the moon (as in the game of hearts), and -- figuring he can't possibly be good, at least trying for first-place in the worst-ever sweepstakes -- there is hope for him yet. At this point Bush looks like he might simply fade into the background of general waste and destruction. But if he goes ahead with his rumored plans to start an unprovoked, aggressive nuclear war against Iran, I suspect the consequences will be dire enough that they will stick out even amongst the general problems that future historians will see. Or if his utterly reckless disregard of actual U.S. security, combined with his active pissing off of the entire world, particularly of the Muslim world, lead to another devastating terrorist attack -- even, to fixate on one of my most serious and longest-running nightmares, a nuclear terrorist attack -- then that, too, will vault him over the top of the genuinely awful. So there is -- after a fashion -- hope for Bush yet.
For the rest of us, I'm not so sure.