George W. Bush's Magic Calendar Returns
In the run-up to today's celebration at the George W. Bush Presidential Library, America's 43rd President declared that "history will ultimately judge" his tenure in the White House. And that is precisely the problem for the custodians of Bush's legacy. After all, the slaughter of 3,000 people on 9/11, the catastrophic and unnecessary war in Iraq, illicit domestic surveillance and illegal detainee torture, the worst eight-year economic performance since Herbert Hoover, a near-doubling of the national debt (thanks in large part to tax cuts that will continue to drain the U.S. Treasury for years to come), the implosion of Wall Street and the disastrously bungled response to Hurricane Katrina all occurred on George W. Bush's watch.
Unless, that is, you don't just rewrite history but redefine time itself. According to the Republicans' Magic Calendar, George W. Bush somehow "kept us safe" despite the carnage on September 11, 2001. Miraculously, it was President Bush who killed Osama Bin Laden, despite his opposition to the very kind of raid ordered by Barack Obama two years after Dubya left office. As for W's dismal economic record, his fabulists complain, Bush is wrongly getting a bad rap for recessions which should instead be blamed on Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
In December 2009, former Cheney adviser Mary Matalin spoke for all of Team Bush when she blamed all of 43's failures on someone else:
"I was there, we inherited a recession from President Clinton, and we inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation's history."
The September 11 Attacks
As a look back at the actual record shows, Matalin's finger-pointing was wrong on both counts. Beginning with her 9/11 fiction, the story starts but certainly doesn't end with two quotes from President Bush and his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice:
"I believe the title was 'Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.'"
"All right. You've covered your ass, now."
Writing in the New York Times last year, 500 Days author Kurt Eichenwald documented the Bush administration's near-total deafness to the rapidly growing threat from Osama Bin Laden in the summer of 2001. While Americans learned three years later of the famous August 6, 2001 PDB ("Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S"), Eichenwald's findings show the Bush White House pre-occupied with Saddam Hussein at best and, at worst, asleep at the wheel:
The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that "a group presently in the United States" was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be "imminent," although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible...
"The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden," the daily brief of June 29 read...And the C.I.A. repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have "dramatic consequences," including major casualties. On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but "will occur soon." Some of the briefs again reminded Mr. Bush that the attack timing was flexible, and that, despite any perceived delay, the planned assault was on track.
Those revelations represented the first details on the contents of a trove of 120 previously secret documents concerning the September 11, 2001 attacks obtained by the National Security Archive. As NSA's Barbara Elias-Sanborn concluded, "I don't think the Bush administration would want to see these released." Salon's Jordan Michael Smith explained why:
Many of the documents publicize for the first time what was first made clear in the 9/11 Commission: The White House received a truly remarkable amount of warnings that al-Qaida was trying to attack the United States. From June to September 2001, a full seven CIA Senior Intelligence Briefs detailed that attacks were imminent, an incredible amount of information from one intelligence agency. One from June called "Bin-Ladin and Associates Making Near-Term Threats" writes that "[redacted] expects Usama Bin Laden to launch multiple attacks over the coming days." The famous August brief called "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike the US" is included. "Al-Qai'da members, including some US citizens, have resided in or travelled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure here," it says.
During the entire month of August, President Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Texas -- which tied with one of Richard Nixon's as the longest vacation ever taken by a president. CIA Director George Tenet has said he didn't speak to Bush once that month, describing the president as being "on leave." Bush did not hold a Principals' meeting on terrorism until September 4, 2001, having downgraded the meetings to a deputies' meeting, which then-counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has repeatedly said slowed down anti-Bin Laden efforts "enormously, by months."
That's a far cry from the image of the President Bush, Republicans were so fond of telling Americans, who "kept us safe."
As George W. Bush was taking office in early 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission on U.S. National Security issued its report declaring "The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack" and cautioning "many thousands of American lives" are at risk. At a transition briefing in the White House situation room during the first week of January, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger warned his successor Condoleezza Rice, "I believe that the Bush Administration will spend more time on terrorism generally, and on al-Qaeda specifically, than any other subject." And on January 25, 2001, counterrorism czar Richard Clarke (who helped lead the 1996 effort to protect the Atlanta Olympics from, among other things, threats from hijacked aircraft) handed the Bush national security team the famous Delenda plan for attacking Al Qaeda.
But in the aftermath of the horrific 9/11 attacks, Condi Rice played the role of a reverse Nostradmus, detailing the myriad foreign policy and security disasters she failed to predict. Confronted by 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben Veniste about the August 6, 2001 PDB (Presidential Daily Brief) which warned of "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks," national security adviser Rice responded:
"I believe the title was 'Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.'"
For his part, the vacationing President George W. Bush responded to the CIA presenter of the infamous August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) which warned of Al Qaeda's intent to attack the U.S. homeland by declaring:
"All right. You've covered your ass, now."
On March 22, 2004, Rice took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to argue, "No al-Qaeda threat was turned over to the new administration." And in an argument she would later make repeatedly, Rice first introduced the now ubiquitous "nobody could have predicted" defense on May 16, 2002:
"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."
In early 2008, White House spokesman Tony Fratto showed that Rice's talking point still had legs. Spoon-fed last month by Fox News anchor Jon Scott's suggestion that "nobody was thinking that there'd be terrorists flying 767s into buildings at that point," Fratto reliably coughed up the laughably discredited sound bite:
"That's true. I mean, no one could have anticipated that kind of attack - or very few people."
Killing Osama Bin Laden
Of course, in May 2011 everyone could have anticipated that Team Bush would take credit for the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Condi Rice took to the airwaves to proclaim that her boss deserved the credit for "having taken the really tough decisions that put the infrastructure in place to do this." And within hours of Bin Laden's death, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reemerged to announce that President Bush had gotten his man, dead or alive:
"All of this was made possible by the relentless, sustained pressure on al Qaeda that the Bush administration initiated after 9/11 and that the Obama administration has wisely chosen to continue."
Of course, Rumsfeld's revisionist history is just untrue. More pathetic still, he knows it is untrue.
For starters, it was Donald Rumsfeld himself who cancelled the 2005 U.S. special forces operation designed to "snatch and grab" Ayman Al Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda leaders. The story, following July 2006 revelations that the CIA had previously disbanded its Bin Laden unit, gives lie to one of the central tenets of the so-called Bush Doctrine: no safe havens for terrorists. As the New York Times reported in July 2007, Rumsfeld ran roughshod over then CIA Director Porter Goss, scuttling the mission at the last moment even as the U.S. forces were boarding planes for the assault:
But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning.
Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.
In contrast, candidate Barack Obama was crystal clear that he would unilaterally strike Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan with or without permission from Islamabad.
In August 2007, as you'll recall, Senator Obama received a hellstorm of criticism for his statements regarding attacking Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan. As part of a broad - and forceful - foreign policy speech on August 1, Obama rightly took the Bush administration to task for the failure of its "no safe havens" doctrine in Pakistan. Regarding the Al Qaeda sanctuary safely nestled along the Afghan border, Obama declared:
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
But President George W. Bush would not have ordered the raid that killed Bin Laden. Americans know this not merely because Bush declared in 2002, "I truly am not that concerned about him." As it turns out, President Bush like John McCain and Mitt Romney attacked then-Senator Obama for even suggesting an operation inside Pakistan to take out Bin Laden:
"I certainly don't know what he believes in. The only foreign policy thing I remember he said was he's going to attack Pakistan."
The Two Bush Recessions
If President Bush's water-carriers claim all the credit for the killing of the Al Qaeda chieftain, all blame for Bush's miserable management of the economy goes to the Democrats who came before and after him.
Bush himself made the point during his final press conference on January 12, 2009. During a month in which Americans would only later learn that the U.S. economy shed a staggering 820,000 jobs, President Bush passed the buck forwards--and backwards:
"In terms of the economy, look, I inherited a recession, I am ending on a recession. In the meantime there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth. And I defended tax cuts when I campaigned, I helped implement tax cuts when I was President, and I will defend them after my presidency as the right course of action. And there's a fundamental philosophical debate about tax cuts. Who best can spend your money, the government or you? And I have always sided with the people on that issue."
But while that fundamental philosophical question is still the subject of heated debate, the facts should not be.
After all, Bush nearly doubled the national debt, as Republican majorities in Congress voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling during his tenure. The first modern President to cut taxes during wartime, Bush's tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were the single biggest driver of red ink during the last decade and, if made permanent, will be for the next. And the meager one million jobs created during his presidency represented what the Wall Street Journal deemed the "The Worst Track Record on Record."
Then there's Bush's claim that "I inherited a recession" from Bill Clinton. As the data show, it's not true. (He did inherit a 4.2% unemployment rate and budget surpluses.) But after ten years of perpetuation by the right-wing propaganda machine, the long-ago debunked myth has remained remarkably durable.
Back in 2001 the new Bush administration and its water carriers in the right-wing media weren't shy at all when it came to blaming the sluggish economy that spring on Bill Clinton. Unfortunately for their mythmaking, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) which officially declared the current Bush recession began in December 2007 also determined the George W. Bush's first recession actually began in March 2001. And the history of U.S. GDP shows that the old definition of recession - two straight quarters of GDP decline - was never met during either the last year of the Clinton presidency or the first of Bush's tenure.
Undeterred, the Republican Party and its echo chamber have for years continued to perpetuate the myth that President Bush "inherited a recession" from Bill Clinton. As Media Matters detailed, the sound bite was introduced before George W, Bush even took the oath of office. On December 3, 2000, Dick Cheney told Tim Russert "I think so" when asked if "we're on the front edge of a recession." Within days, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ("the Bush-Cheney administration should be planning on having inherited a recession as the farewell gift from Clinton") and House Majority Leader Dick Armey ("this new president may inherit a recession") followed suit. By August 2002, Mitch Daniels, Bush's head of the Office of Management and Budget, announced on Fox News:
"He [Bush] inherited that recession from the previous administration. Case is closed."
Predictably, the drumbeat from the Bush team was reproduced with zero distortion from the always reliable media. While Fox News' Sean Hannity made the argument during the November 2002 mid-term election "this president -- you know and I know and everybody knows -- inherited a recession," CNN made the case for him two months earlier. On September 18th, 2002, CNN's John King announced, "That's why the president, in almost every speech, tries to remind voters he inherited a recession." Five days later, his colleague Suzanne Malveaux regurgitated the same line, reporting, "[Bush] took up that very issue earlier today, saying -- reminding voters that the administration inherited the recession."
Not leaving anything to chance, Fox News host Sean Hannity literally kept up the drumbeat for years, as this small sample shows:
"Clearly, we're out of the recession that President Bush inherited." (4/2/04)
"Stop me where I'm wrong. The president inherited a recession, the economic impact of 9/11 was tremendous on the economy, correct?" (4/6/04)
"[President George W. Bush] did inherit a recession." (5/3/04)
"[W]e got [the weak U.S. economy] out of the Clinton-Gore recession." (5/18/04)
"We got out of the Clinton-Gore recession." (5/27/04)
"We got out of the Clinton-Gore recession." (6/4/04)
To be sure, the Republican propaganda effort worked its magic. In 2004, pollster Geoff Garin showed that 62% of Americans believed the demonstrably false claim that an "economic recession actually began during Bill Clinton's administration, before George W. Bush took office."
George W. Bush and his echo chamber continue to perpetuate the same myth. Echoing his boss' final press conference, faithful flack Ari Fleischer regurgitated the same talking point on March 11, 2009:
"We've never in this country had 55 straight months of job creation. We had that under President Bush before the bank failures of September...You know, I think he came in with a recession, he left with a recession."
And that second recession which nearly crippled the American economy was all Barack Obama's fault. Even if, conservatives insist, the downturn started almost a year before Obama was elected President of the United States.
The first installment of the Republicans' "previsionist" history unsurprisingly came from CNBC host and former Reagan advisor Larry Kudlow. That right-wing water carrier, who in April 2008 compared the deepening recession to an enema (calling it "an economic cleansing" and crowing that "recessions are therapeutic"), blamed a one-day 242-point drop on the Democratic Convention:
"Are the Denver Dems downing the stock market today? The Dow is off 230 points, starting right from the get-go. So-called market analysts are blaming financials and the credit crunch as they always do. But there's more.
Obama and Biden gave us plenty of class warfare in their Springfield, Ill., get together on Saturday. Tax the rich. Redistribute income and wealth. Go after all those corporate meanies. Trade protection...
...With the Denver Dems strutting their stuff, this could be a bumpy week for stocks. Did anyone say free-market capitalism is the best path to prosperity?"
With Obama's election on November 4th, that warning shot turned into a barrage. Within 48 hours, the mullahs of right-wingistan didn't merely blame Obama for two days of market declines; they traveled back in time to lay the entire Bush recession at his feet.
Echoing CNBC's Kudlow, Dick Morris claimed the markets will "continue to tank...not just because he's a radical, not just because he's a Democrat, but because he's going to raise the capital gains tax. While Fox News' Gretchen Carlson announced, "there's a lot of feeling in the market not reacting very well to the election of Barack Obama," Fred Barnes proclaimed, "There is great uncertainty out there about [Obama's] policies." And that Thursday, the always execrable Rush Limbaugh on November 6, 2008 laid it all at Obama's feet:
"The Obama recession is in full swing, ladies and gentlemen. Stocks are dying, which is a precursor of things to come. This is an Obama recession. Might turn into a depression. He hasn't done anything yet but his ideas are killing the economy. His ideas are killing Wall Street...
...The market's down today because of the jobless numbers. That's how the Drive-Bys see it. Uhhhhh, we have the largest market plunge after an election in history. Thank you, man-child Barack Obama."
As the Dow Jones continued its slide below 7,000 in March, 2009, the conservative catcalls become a chorus. CNN's Lou Dobbs, the self-proclaimed "Mr. Independent," announced on March 9, 2009, "This is now the Obama bear market." That same day, the Wall Street Journal declared, "The dismaying message here is that President Obama's policies have become part of the economy's problem." House Minority Leader John Boehner was among the Republican leaders bemoaning "the Obama economy" and insisted that since Obama's inauguration six weeks earlier, "Certainly the stock market hasn't acted very well." Later that month, the Journal's Daniel Henninger blasted Obama's "radical presidency":
"A Democratic Party that was always anti-Wall Street is becoming anti- Main Street."
The drumbeat hardly ended there. On March 8, 2009, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked an uncomfortable John McCain, "Can this now fairly be called the Obama bear market?" That propaganda only echoed the Republican talking points regurgitated two days earlier by Bloomberg in article titled, "'Obama Bear Market' Punishes Investors as Dow Slumps" and the Wall Street Journal rant, "Obama's Radicalism is Killing the Dow." On March 6th, Sean Hannity was nearly orgasmic as he trumpeted the declines on Wall Street:
And our headline this Friday night: Welcome to Day Number 46 of "Obama's Bear Market." Now, that's what some news organizations are calling it tonight as the Dow Jones industrial average actually finished up about 30 points today at the end of a disastrous week.
According to Bloomberg News, the Dow has now dropped faster during the first six weeks of the Obama administration than any other administration in at least 90 years. But is that a surprise after weeks of talking down the economy?
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Obama poor house: the stock market started its steady, upward swing. But for the conservative commentariat, of course, credit for that progress did not go to President Obama.
On April 18, 2009, Fox News displayed an on-screen caption proclaiming, "Stocks Rally as 'Tea Party' Rallies Take Nation by Storm. Host Brenda Buttner described the surge on Wall Street as "a Tea Party rally." As Media Matters recounted:
Buttner later asked Bulls & Bears commentator Gary B. Smith: "[P]art of the tea party was having voices heard. For so long, all we were hearing about was nationalizing banks and socialism and all that. Just having this out there, does that help Wall Street? Does that help the bulls?" Smith responded: "Absolutely, Brenda. You know, first of all, you heard for so many weeks and months that, you know, the whole country, you know, Obama won overwhelmingly, and it looked like, you know, we were going to go lockstep down this, you know, this socialist path." He continued: "And then we started having these tea parties," which, according to Smith, "shows that ... the normal, average American is just kind of sick of all the, you know, the tax-and-spend culture." He concluded: "So, I think it's all a good thing, and I think that it's helped the rally."
What was once the Bush recession is now the Bush recovery?
Dana Perino certainly thought so. As she put it that same week in 2009:
"You were just speaking earlier about the possibility that since we had a little bit of a better week on Wall Street does that spell a turnaround?" Perino said. "Can all the credit go specifically to President Obama? Well, I would say no. We are just going to have to take a while to let all of this settle down and let the policies that our administration and the new administration are trying to put in place have a chance to work."
As the record shows, from January 20, 2001 through the morning of January 20, 2009 very little worked well under President George W. Bush. But anything on that very long list of went wrong, Bush's defenders insist, can be attributed to Democrats thanks to the Magic Republican Calendar. Or, when all else fails, to God. Just days before leaving Washington, Dick Cheney summed up his and Bush's time in the White House. He tried to deflect blame for the calamity on Wall Street and the deepening recession by declaring, "Nobody anywhere was smart enough to figure that out" and "I don't know that anybody did." Then, Cheney magically converted failure into a virtue and ignorance into a shield in explaining away the Bush presidency:
"No, obviously, I wouldn't have predicted that. On the other hand I wouldn't have predicted 9/11, the global war on terror, the need to simultaneous run military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq or the near collapse of the financial system on a global basis, not just the U.S."