Friday, May 18, 2007

Jules Witcover: Who’s Worse, Nixon or Bush?

WASHINGTON — A favorite pastime of political scientists and pollsters is compiling lists of the best presidents. The results vary widely, as the judgments of history conflict with contemporary sentiments. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and F.D.R. always finish high on the lists, with more controversial choices like Truman and Reagan often thrown in.

Currently, however, we’re seeing an outbreak of consensus on the worst: George W. Bush. The Internet is awash with academic tomes, blogs and partisan rants, the condemnation coming often from liberal Democrats but also from such varied figures as that eminent historian, Donald Trump.

Having been in Washington for only 53 years, I cannot from personal exposure espouse the view that the current president is the worst in American history. I have observed only 10 of them since reaching the age of reason, so I can judge only that he is the worst in my adult lifetime.

From World War II to date, there is in my mind and experience only one serious and obvious competitor: Richard Nixon. I say that not simply because he was the first president to resign from office in scandal and disgrace. Well before the Watergate affair that eventually was his undoing, he had compiled a long record of deception, deceit and duplicity.

But the crimes and constitutional breaches of Watergate and Nixon’s obsessive efforts to cover them up went a long way toward immobilizing the executive branch of the government at the critical time when there was a war in Vietnam and great domestic unrest. His successor and ultimate benefactor, Gerald Ford, rightly called the period “our long national nightmare.”

Nixon’s sins basically grew from an unquenchable lust for power. He was determined to hold on to what he had and to get more and more of it, contrived through secrecy and an anything-goes political ethic that in time poisoned much of his five-and-a-half-year presidency.

In the end, the damage done to the nation was arrested by a change in the Oval Office with the elevation of Ford, a man of limited imagination and talents but a sense of good will. The adaptability of the American political system, demonstrated in the orderly transference of presidential power, saw Ford and the country through until the people were able to express their preference for a leader in 1976. Importantly, the Watergate nightmare essentially shook America domestically without more than temporarily impairing her relations with the world.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, who ran in 2000 as a unthreatening “compassionate conservative,” soon encountered a crisis and a fateful opportunity that put him on a different mission. He seized on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to segue from domestic affairs and a legitimate self-defense invasion of Afghanistan to a radical foreign policy of supposedly preventive war in Iraq.

As the Republican presidential nominee in 2000, Bush had vowed in a debate with Democratic nominee Al Gore that he had no interest in seeing America become the world’s policeman, or engaging in nation-building. But now he had suddenly turned into the cop on the beat in Iraq and, soon after, the master builder of democracy in the Middle East.

In a bold display of opportunism, Bush anointed himself as a “war president” who capitalized on a combination of American patriotism and fear to set the nation on its current course. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser in the Carter administration, has written, Bush’s use of the phrase “war on terror” was “a classic self-inflicted wound” that intentionally created “a culture of fear in America,” enabling him to mobilize the public behind his military actions.

This almost overnight plunge into foreign-policy unilateralism, transparently masquerading as a “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, dealt a severe blow to this country’s reputation and support in the international community, effectively built over the previous half century of cooperation and Cold War containment.

The whole adventure, compromised by the faulty intelligence used to sell the United Nations and the American people on the invasion of Iraq, was marked by an inept assessment of and inadequate response to the long-term challenge on the ground.

Like Nixon in 1972 winning re-election by feeding off unrest and violence in the streets, Bush in 2004 tapped into post-9/11 fears and appeals to patriotism to gain a second term. Although there is not yet any domestic scandal of Watergate dimensions hanging over him, an odor of incompetence in the management of the war, in the care provided to returning wounded, and in the disarray of his Justice Department stifles the atmosphere for his remaining time in the White House.

With less than two years to go, the incumbent is pressing on with his stay-the-course strategy peddled as something else — a tactical “surge” that he hopes will stave off the growing pressure from the now-Democratic Congress to alter and ultimately end the American involvement in Iraq.

While Bush continues to have the power of the veto with which to combat the Democratic challenge, he is staggering toward the finish line of his presidency. Whatever happens in Iraq, there seems little chance that history will accord him any positive legacy for his eight years of over-reaching in foreign policy and abuse of civil liberties at home.

Nixon’s fall from grace in 1974 cast a heavy shadow over some historic achievements, most notably his opening to China. But his sins, deplorable as they were, mostly concerned domestic matters. They did not leave his party in the hole that Bush’s radical adventurism abroad has dug for the Republicans, and for the country he has so catastrophically led, without any compensating accomplishments akin to Nixon’s, domestic or foreign.

During the Nixon years, I never thought I would see another president who would almost make me wish we had him back. Almost. Thankfully, 21 months from now the voters will have other choices, whatever they turn out be.

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