"We will reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House." the 2000 Republican platform
But they never did. Eight years later, the barricades remain. It was a phony issue, of course just another stick with which to beat Bill Clinton, who closed the road at the insistence of the Secret Service. In an interview with PBS a month after Sept. 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney stated the obvious: "Pennsylvania Avenue ought to stay closed because, as a fact, if somebody were to detonate a truck bomb in front of the White House, it would probably level the White House, and that is unacceptable."
Sept. 11 is the excuse for many of the Bush Administration's failures and disappointments. It is also the basis for the one great claim made on George W. Bush's behalf: At least he has protected us from terrorism. In the seven years since that day, there has not been another foreign-terrorist attack on the American homeland. The trouble is that there were no foreign-terrorist attacks on the American homeland in the seven years before 9/11 either. The risk of another terrorist attack didn't increase on 9/11 only our awareness of the risk. The Bush Administration took office mocking the concern that someone might blow up the White House but soon enough was echoing that concern. (See pictures of the White House.)
The platform on which Bush entered the presidency eight years ago comes from a lost world, in which even the party out of power saw an America of unthreatened prosperity and security. "Yesterday's wildest dreams are today's realities, and there is no limit on the promise of tomorrow," the GOP said. The biggest foreign policy challenge America faced in 2000, according to this party document, was to avoid misusing our enormous power. "Earlier generations defended America through great trials," the platform declared. Then it quoted the Republican nominee, Bush, on the importance of showing the "modesty of true strength. The humility of real greatness." Even enthusiasts of Bush's foreign policy would not describe it as displaying the humility of true greatness. More like the pugnacity of lost greatness. All that talk of one superpower us bestriding a "unipolar" world seems as dated as Seinfeld reruns.
The measure of Bush's failure as President is not his broken promises or unmet goals. All politicians break their promises, and none achieve the goals of their soaring rhetoric. But Bush stands out for abandoning the promises and goals that got him elected, taking up the opposite ones and then failing to keep or meet those.
In 2000 Bush excoriated his predecessor for launching wars without an "exit strategy." In 2008 he leaves his successor a war that has already lasted for years longer than America's involvement in World War II, with no exit in sight. Bush got elected warning against using U.S. troops for "nation-building" meaning any goal beyond immediate military necessity. Then once in office, he promised to bring democracy to the entire Middle East and ended up destroying Iraq as a nation in the name of saving it.
Bush leaves the stage still justifying his Iraq disaster on the grounds that prewar intelligence showed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He acknowledges that this intelligence was wrong but maintains he relied on it in good faith. Who cares? What matters is whether there were WMD, not how sincerely he believed there were. WMD were how he justified the war. How do you explain to families of the war dead why a war must go on for years after even the man who started it thinks starting it was based on a mistake?
The current economic calamity was a bolt from the blue to many who should have known better, but only one of them had been in charge for the previous eight years. Only one spent much of that time bragging about how swell everything was, thanks to him. Many shared the heedless assumption that there was no limit on how much government or individuals could borrow, but only one turned record surpluses into record deficits. And only one lectured us, Reagan-style, about burdensome government and then, almost casually, expanded government's role in the economy more than any President since F.D.R.: taking over banks and bailing out the auto companies.
O.K., but didn't he do anything right? Well, he came up with serious money to treat AIDS and malaria in Africa. He used the bully pulpit to embrace Muslims in the great post-9/11 American bear hug, when there was real danger of the opposite reaction. And you could say that Bush's disastrous presidency vindicates democracy. Let's not forget that, in 2000, more people voted for the other guy.