Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Isadora Tribe’s much-awaited The Restoration Years: America in the Post-Bush Era jumped to the top of the best-seller lists almost immediately. The Harvard professor and I spoke in her Cambridge home about the revelations in that volume.
Bernard Weiner: Why don’t we start with the title of the book? Why “Restoration”?
Isadora Tribe: George Bush the Younger, as many may remember, was, in historical terms, a kind of usurper of the crown. Not only was he installed into power and “re-elected” by fraudulent means, but he was, how shall we say, a bit over his head in the job. He knew nothing, he didn’t want to know anything, he ignored those who did know something. In short, he surrounded himself mainly with incompetents and mean-spirited ideologues like himself, and tried to keep all his administration’s outrageous behaviors totally secret from any meaningful oversight.
The reason why Bush was adjudged widely as “the worst president ever,” even during his tenure, was a direct result of his years of unnecessary wars and chaos, bungling on a monstrous scale, the mangling of the Constitution, ideological extremism, and out-and-out corruption and larceny. In other words, he and his cronies laid waste to the institutions of our democratic republic.
When he was finally gone, nothing less than a thoroughgoing cleansing of the foul-smelling stable was in order. That was “The Restoration” era, years of undoing the great damage his administration has foisted on the country. Restoring our country’s commitment to Constitutional rule and to sanity and realism in our foreign policy — that was the Herculean job of his successors.
THE GOOD, BAD & UGLY
BW: That sounds so harsh. Don’t you have anything good to say about the man and his administration?
IS: One shouldn’t ignore the possibility that Bush sincerely believed himself to be, or at least convinced himself that he was, operating for the “good of the country.” But even if one accepts that possibility, rather than out-and-out moral corruption and hunger for power, Bush’s definitions of “good” and “country” flowed so narrowly out of such a circumscribed class-stratum, education, and limited experiences, that they bore little relevance to how almost everyone else interpreted those terms.
So the short answer to your question is no. History and his own contemporaries judged him to be so reckless and incompetent with the power at his command that he brought the United States into severe disrepute around the globe. He nearly wrecked the economy in the process, laying humongous debts on succeeding generations. Even his own party’s leaders and members of Congress deserted him in his final years in office, feeling he did great damage to the country’s vital interests. History has rendered its judgment: His administration was an ugly stain on our country’s garment of decency.
BW: I seem to recall that even in his worst times toward the end, he still maintained the support of about one out of four citizens in various polls.
IS: Yes, there was a die-hard faction of the population, mainly centered around religious fundamentalists, who stuck with him, since they believed, as did he himself, that he had been anointed by God to lead this country into righteous rule. But that means that 75% had lost faith in him and just wanted him to depart the scene as quickly and quietly as possible. They felt even more negatively about his Vice President, Dick Cheney, who presided over a shadow government within the Bush Administration.
In other words, the citizenry longed for a Restoration of the rule of law and calm, orderly, competent, open government, operating not from the extremes but from the middle outwards, sometimes more to the right, sometimes more to the left.
ALWAYS RE-LEARNING FROM HISTORY
One would have thought that the country had learned its history lesson from the lawless behavior of Richard Nixon three decades earlier, but it would take the Bush catastrophe to convince Americans never to permit a president to amass so much power and control.
Still, even with those Restoration laws in place, here we are 25 years after a disgraced Bush left office and we still have to remind ourselves that there always are demagogues who try to cut corners with the Constitution and the rule of law, and who try to frighten the population into wars of choice. The lesson is that the fight to preserve democracy inside America has to be waged every day, every generation, lest the forces of authoritarian self-righteousness once again rise to power.
And, since even the best-intentioned politicians find themselves abusing the power they possess — as Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — we must be alert to the necessity of cleaning out our political parties at regular intervals.
When appropriate, we also must be open to the founding of new alliances and parties, as happened in the final years of the Bush Administration when liberals and progressives from the Democratic and Green Parties, and traditional conservatives and business executives and military brass from the Republican Party, united to set the Restoration in motion and to return to the checks-and-balances system of government established by our founders and which had worked so well for several hundred years.
PEEKING BEHIND POWER’S CURTAIN
BW: How do you explain why true conservatives and corporate leaders and military officers deserted their leader in such great numbers?
IS: The historical record shows that there were practical reasons for doing so: While a few huge companies reaped windfall profits from CheneyBush policies, the overall economy really couldn’t return to real health with the debt-anchors dragging it down as a result of the trillions of dollars spent on unnecessary wars of choice. The troops were stretched so thin fighting all these wars of imperial aggression against native guerrillas that the military leaders rebelled in order to protect their troops and their services from more such adventuring abroad. The pre-eminent position that America had enjoyed for so long on the world stage began to deteriorate rapidly, with its negative impact on our exports, the health of the dollar, our economic stability, our lack of respect abroad, and the concomitant rise of other major countries such as China and India and the South Asia-Russia Alliance in general.
But the Restoration also can be explained this way: The powers that be in American society, those corporate and political forces that truly control the economy and parties, have freedom to carry out their agendas so powerfully because their goals and strategies are essentially hidden. But Bush and Cheney and their cronies, with their bumbling policies and their arrogant in-your-face tactics, tore away the veils and revealed all too clearly the faces of those powers-that-be and what was really going on: the corporate theft on a massive scale, the rapacious imperialism abroad, the manipulation of the mass-media in hiding the truth, the ignoring of the rule of law and the Constitution, etc. Therefore, it was to the advantage of the elites to dump this incompetent, reckless crew and replace them with the usual type of smarter, more malleable leaders.
OPPOSING POLITICAL THUGGERY
BW: Can you help us understand why it took so long for that momentum to build in the body politic?
IS: Part can be understood by the laws of inertia and entropy, part to how skillfully the CheneyBush Administration and the corporate mass-media that supported them bamboozled the public, part to how the citizenry accepted this misinformation for a long, long time, out of fear and confusion. But deeper than that, I think a key factor was that the opposition was incapable of dealing with the kind of smashmouth tactics practiced by Bush and Cheney and their politics-guru Karl Rove.
Throughout most of American political life, the various parties had fought each other long and hard but generally with a certain respect for the other side, and with a tendency to come together eventually somewhere in the middle in order to get things done. But the Roveians decided to play a different kind of politics, aimed at the utter destruction and marginalization of their opponents in order to establish permanent one-party rule from an extremist ideological position.
It was a kind of political thuggery that was more reminiscent of Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany: the Constitution was mangled, laws passed by the legislature were ignored, effective oversight of the leader was non-existent, the advice of military specialists was overridden, elections were manipulated, ideology ruled all.
Under the reign of Cheney and Bush, torture and secret prisons and “the disappearing” of perceived opponents were commonplace. Bush was given (or simply grabbed) near-dictatorial powers to rule as “commander-in-chief” in a permanent “wartime” setting, free to violate whatever laws were in force for everyone else. (This included ignoring the 600-year-old legal tradition of habeas corpus — appearing before a judge to verify that arrests are legal.) In effect, the democratic presidency had become the feudal monarchy, and for a country that had established itself in opposition to a brutal king, this contradiction in American political life could not last forever.
Most Americans, coming from a long tradition of more genteel political battles, for the longest time didn’t know how to confront this mendacious, authoritarian juggernaut that was rolling across the Constitution and distorting so many of the governmental institutions. Though the progressive blogosphere had agitated against the CheneyBush administration early on, it took a long while before the general public caught on (aided by the constant revelations of new and more reprehensible scandals) and the opposition built to critical mass. It was those new alliances that created the critical mass of opposition that led to the demise of not only the Bush Administration but the rapid decline of the ideological fanaticism and faction behind it.
The important thing I want to emphasize is that the United States under Bush and Cheney came mighty close to a totalitarian, fascist society. Had the Democrats, buoyed by public outrage, not stood up to the Bush Administration and confronted them time after time directly and with courage, there might well not have been a Restoration period in American history. Withdrawing funding for the Iraq War, and the initiation of impeachment proceedings, appear to have been the precipitating factors that fomented the essential momentum for the swift exit of Bush and Cheney from the scene. Without those moves, American democracy might well have been strangled, and even more destructive wars abroad might have been initiated.
“HARD IMPERIALISM” DAYS ARE OVER
BW: Finally, Professor Tribe, could you sum up what your historical research reveals for our own time?
IS: The forces of worldwide change were manifesting themselves before Bush and Cheney, to be sure, but their Administration hastened the slide of American power and dominance in the world by their lack of creativity in dealing with these changes. They relied on the long-discredited and ineffective “hard imperialism” that did little but reveal their technological might’s inherent weakness in dealing with the many low-tech nationalist rebellions.
Thankfully, Restoration leaders toiled intelligently and mightily to undo much of the great damage done abroad, and to right the ship of state domestically as well, returning to the type of Constitutional rule that shone as a beacon and model for many societies abroad. It took more than a decade and a half to undo most of the damage done to our political system, but most citizens would agree that it has been well worth the difficult effort and has diluted the impact of worldwide Islamist terrorism.
But even in our more enlightened times, there still are, there always are, those forces frightened by major change and determined to try to control society through more draconian, authoritarian measures. They exist in all three major parties. We all must resist that backward-looking movement with all our might, lest we return someday to a situation as bad or even worse than what history has revealed about the administration of Bush the Younger.