OPINION: Reassessing Bush as America Falls

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | I was relieved to hear in Bush's State of the Union address that we had Al Qaeda on the run in Iraq, the economy was fine, even if, just a little teensy bit, for the moment, uncertain. And above all that, “from expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we have made good progress.”

The speech was almost pure fantasy for a president with a 29-percent approval rating, and 81 percent of an electorate thinking the country is on the wrong track. But to be fair, I suspect that the next president, faced with having made minimal progress on the same intractable fronts, will deliver the same kind of pie-in-the-sky pronouncements.

Even stiff-upper-lip Britain rarely produces a Churchill who started off one famous speech with the simple declaration, “The news from France is very bad.” And it was. France had just fallen to the Germans and the Brits were left alone in Europe.

America, the land of the most gung-ho people in the world, is never going to warm to a president from any party admitting we face an uphill battle managing a tanking economy, a Middle East quagmire, and faltering super powers. No, what we demand from our leaders is hope. A shining new Kennedy or Reagan.

We should remember that this trafficking in perpetual optimism that characterizes America, especially post-Baby Boom, is largely why Bush was elected in the first place. He had a charismatic sense of destiny and wore the greatness of this country in his heroic Texas swagger. Along with a few lies about WMDs, our willing wardrobe of rose-colored glasses was why he could so easily drag us into Iraq with feeble promises of a quick victory.

That same degenerate optimism is also at the root of the banking crisis. The hubris of Bush deregulating everything with the convenient credo that the market always takes care of itself was matched only by all those delusional borrowers who now want to be absolved for grabbing every dollar on offer instead of leaving a little cautious cushion for disasters, job loss, and downturns in investment.

It was a symbiosis – the guys running the shell game, and the marks that hand over their hard-earned money hoping to make a quick buck. They're feeling lucky.

When did modesty become a dirty word? And, in that light, should we immodestly blame all our messes on George W. Bush? I'm starting to reconsider.

Even George Soros, who's no Bush-lover, wrote recently in the Financial Times that while the administration played its part, “The current crisis is the culmination of a super-boom that has lasted for more than 60 years.”

Likewise, our diminishing role in the world is not only the result of Bush's tendency for preemptive and unilateral action plus nose-thumbing at the international community, but the consolidation and growth of the European Union and the rise of China as a third pole, analyzed in depth by Parag Khanna in the New York Times last week.

As we get a peek behind the curtain, what we're beginning to see is that in many ways Bush merely pushed some of the dominoes that were already aligned to fall. Just not so far so fast. Which means the news from France is very bad. Because if seven years of Bush is not largely responsible for America's current crisis, it's not enough for a president of either party just to be a hopeful anti-Bush. The situation is much more profound, and it would be great if we had a politician willing to break the news, if they've noticed at all.

Americans aren't known for their interest in international affairs, the big picture. Or even big maps. (Just where is Uzbekistan?) And much of the current slump in American confidence is due to good old dollars and cents, plus a little intuition.

We leave historical trends for academics. Even though the latest ones affect us beyond our identity as a super power with X-ray vision. I'm not sure the downward slide is all bad. What is America anyway? Are we the land of the free? Or only the land of the super-sized fries, lending empires, and international conglomerates all on their way out?

Freedom is something we do have control over. And while Bush can't be blamed for everything, the erosion of civil liberties in the US can certainly be laid at his feet, along with the Congresses that aided and abetted him. Even now, our newly Democratic Congress is anything but democratic.

And then there are all the times that we Americans could have taken to the streets and didn't, preferring to sit on our metaphorical front porches and complain. Forget baseball and football. The blame game is the real American pastime, our favorite recourse when false hope fails.