You can't buy History's verdict

>> Sunday, March 22, 2009

I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened.

-George W. Bush on his memoirs, March 17, 2009;
as relayed via Slate's "Bushisms Of The Day" featurette.

Do I lose the internet if I go ahead and translate that as "It'll be like Mein Kampf, only with more pictures!" Yeah, yeah I do: it's totally wrong on multiple levels, because it exaggerates Bush's awfulness while minimizing real horror, and substitutes snark for real thought. But you have to admit it's a kind of funny thing to say. Isn't it? Well I made myself smirk, so screw you.

On a more serious note, the quote is kind of typical of one of the things that was wrong with the prior Administration, and more generally wrong with a lot of folks' sense of what History actually is. The quote is so typical of an Administration that infamously, according to journalist Ron Suskind, belittled the "reality-based community," claiming "We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do," that one has to assume the former President's statement isn't ripped out of any kind of context. One suspects Mr. Bush indeed believes he can write a memoir that will set forth the definitive version of his eight years, which nobody will ever be able to doubt or question (except, perhaps, partisans).

It doesn't work that way. Some historical things may be relative certainties: the day an armistice was signed, the identity of the England's monarch in 1854, the location of battle. Other "facts" that might seem objectively knowable aren't because the evidence is open to interpretation: was a death natural or murder, did this explorer really go where he said or did he lie, who acted first? And then over all of that is interpretation, speculation, inference. After all, we may agree upon the years of the Great Depression and still argue inconclusively over whether Keynesian economics prolonged the crisis or shortened it (and let's not, please: I use this as an example, not to invite lengthy bickering in the comments thread over a matter upon which I suspect most readers already have their minds made up). It's the interpretive part that makes history interesting: knowing, for instance, that the Nazis invaded Poland on August 31st, 1939 isn't as interesting as a discussion over whether appeasement was a foolish, craven policy or a desperate necessity dictated by domestic and colonial politics. Facts are frequently the boring part, which is why so many students get gulled into thinking history is "boring" (facts are, obviously, easy to test). But it's the interpretive part that's also endless, eternal, mercurial: some historical questions simply don't have an answer, only answers.

It's possible that history will look back favorably upon George W. Bush. I can't imagine it, but then that's why there's a difference between the historical and the contemporary. I lack the distance to say how the events I'm immersed in will appear in a century or more. Conversely, Mr. Bush's brief in his own defense may become a reference for future historians, but it's unlikely to define or confine their interpretations of the era.

But that certainty of Mr. Bush's, that he can define reality and offer the "authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened": I find it galling and intriguing. "Intriguing" in this context not necessarily being a good thing. Rather, I find his certainty puzzling, baffling, strange. There's a question I've been asking myself over and over again in reference to the issue of what to do about the torture of detainees during the Bush epoch: why didn't President Bush pardon anybody? Surely he knew, by the end of his term of office, that at least some people believed crimes occurred that were committed by government officials, possibly acting under the authorization and guidance of highly-placed Washington officials (including, perhaps, himself). And yet he pardoned nobody.

I keep wondering why. Is it because he is so convinced he and his did what was just and necessary--convinced of his own innocence--that the thought of a CIA officer or Secretary Of Defense or President Of The United States on trial not only doesn't cross his mind but can't cross it? Is it because he has become so used to his own immunity--he has, after all, spent a good portion of his life evading the consequences of drunk driving and draft dodging--that he doesn't think any of "his" people (by which I mean the political elite of both parties, the insider's club of professional politicians and hidden players) will ever turn on him? And never mind that President Obama seems unlikely to act on allegations of his predecessor's malfeasance--suppose a future President of either party decides in sixteen or twenty-eight years to clear the national conscience; unlikely, maybe, but possible. Does Mr. Bush perhaps want a trial--does he think he'd be vindicated, or that it would become nothing more than a partisan shit-flinging party that would ultimately benefit some sort of Rovian agenda? Did he think that pardons would be an admission of wrongdoing? Or a sign of weakness? Is he so opposed to pardons on general principle (he signed a mere 189 pardons during his entire time in office) that he thought he'd take his chances?

I honestly don't have any idea. And if pardoning oneself seemed distasteful, the thing is that he didn't pardon anybody in his administration or acting on his administration's behalf. It's not like he pardoned a gang of CIA officers and soldiers while falling on his own sword: if Mr. Bush's domino falls, it will most likely be the last one in a long chain that starts in an interrogation room and winds its way through the Justice Department before tumbling into the Oval Office.

Or, perhaps, it really is as simple as thinking he can dictate terms to history. There will be no executioner, because Mr. Bush will be his own judge and jury while he pleads his own case before a rapt and passive gallery. Is that how it is? Really?


Nathan Sunday, March 22, 2009 at 11:21:00 AM EDT  

at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened.

I love that quote. Giving Bush momentary credit for choosing his words carefully, isn't it telling that he uses the word "authoritarian" instead of "authoritative"?

Leanright,  Sunday, March 22, 2009 at 10:45:00 PM EDT  

I imagine your paragraph where you discuss the Great Depression and endless bickering was geared towards someone like me ;)

Just a hunch.

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