Franklin Delano Roosevelt gained his stature as one of America's greatest presidents the old-fashioned way: he earned it. When he took office, America was in depths of the most severe economic depression it had ever experienced, and there were widespread doubts if American capitalism or democracy would survive. When he died in office 12 years later, America was the predominant world power, on the verge of winning World War II.
Ronald Reagan has recently gained somewhat similar status the newfangled-way: his wealthy supporters bought it for him. When Reagan took office, America was the world's leading creditor nation. When he left, it was the world's leading debtor nation. But he made wealthy Americans much, much wealthier, and they repaid him with a sustained propaganda campaign that has virtually eliminated all memory of his actual record, such as illegally selling arms to terrorist sponsors in Iran in order to fund terrorist death squads in Nicaragua. Reagan also reversed a 30+ year trend of reducing debt-to-GDP ratios, setting us on a course for high debt burdens that are now being blamed on everyone but the conservative Republicans actually responsible for bringing them to us.
Now, it is George W Bush's turn to try to see if he can pull Reagan con-job, too. The money is there, and the capstone is in place: on May 1, the George W Bush Library opened to the public. It was the 10th anniversary of his boastful "mission accomplished" speech, declaring an end to "major combat operations in Iraq". With timing like that, it is no surprise the library is full of lies. That has to be expected. The only real question is will they sell?
The centrepiece is what the library calls "Decision Points Theater", based on Bush's presidential memoir, Decision Points. As described by the New York Times:
As many as 24 visitors at a time are presented with one of four situations - the invasion of Iraq, the troop buildup in 2007, Hurricane Katrina or the financial crisis. Visitors have four minutes to pull up videos of actors playing White House aides, generals, lawmakers and others giving advice, then they pick one of three options.
And if you make the "wrong" choice - say by not invading Iraq - a video of Bush appears telling why you are wrong.
The pre-selected multiple-choice framework is perfectly suited to such an incurious leader. On the other hand, Reagan would have preferred just one choice, so Bush is actually looking pretty good on that score. Of course, it is set up to portray all of Bush's decisions as right, and of course that is absurd. But, then, you will notice there is no "decision point" about not paying any attention on August 6, 2001, when he received the Presidential Daily Briefing "Bin Laden determined to attack US" ([A] Take the advice seriously and prevent the worst terrorist attack in US history. [B] Say "All right. You've covered your ass, now." [C] Cover your ass and tell Cheney to take the advice seriously). So at least these are not the most absurd indefensible decisions Bush ever made. But the question remains: what is the best way to expose this ridiculous farce for what it really is?
Comedy Central's John Stewart took one approach - his trademark satirical snark, beginning with giving it a much more appropriate name: Disasterpiece Theatre, and then turning to correspondent Al Madrigal, "on assignment" in Dallas, to describe his experience.
"Decision Points Theater: amazing," Madrigal said. "I aced it by the way. Invade Iraq? Yes. Rescue New Orleans? No. Bail out Wall Street? Pass the checkbook."
When Stewart questioned him, "Why, knowing what we know now, why did you choose 'yes' on invading Iraq?" Madrigal responded, "Well, the choices were: (A) Leave a madman in power that will destroy civilisation or (B) be a little bitch."
On the other hand, MSNBC tried to take its customarily more serious approach. On her show the night the museum opened, Rachel Maddow took on perhaps the biggest whopper - the presentation of the Iraq War as a good idea. And yet, while she poked a lot of holes in it, she did not attack the whole framework of the presentation, which is really what is required if Americans want to preserve a factual foundation for understanding their own history.
The case for invading Iraq is made by presenting three options - seek a new UN resolution, "lead an international coalition" (invade) or "take no action" - and then giving you a videotaped corrective lecture by Bush if you make the "wrong" decision. Maddow did a good job pointing out the obvious bias of the setup, and poked a huge hole in the most easily punctured lie - Bush's claim of a world consensus supporting invasion versus a world map showing just how few countries actually supported it. But the problem was not any one particular lie - it was the whole mendacious ensemble. "The case to invade Iraq was not mistaken. The case to invade Iraq was cooked up. It was a hoax," Maddow said.
And she is right. But how do you most readily show that? Jon Stewart would seem to have a distinct edge. The problem is, people just do not take humour seriously enough. So there is still a need for a sober analytical approach that is more all-encompassing, perhaps one that proceeds by showing that the whole setup is fake. There are at least three different ways to do that. First is to show that the timing of some so-called "decision points" is fake. Second is to show that the options and/or the problem identified are fake. Third is to highlight the more serious problems that the "decision points" narrative is designed to hide.
The third approach was succinctly executed by Mick Brown, reviewing Decision Points for the Daily Telegraph, when he wrote:
[W]hat is conspicuously absent from this book is any acknowledgement, or even honest appraisal, of the larger failings of his presidency; the fact that on the morning after 9/11 America had the support, sympathy and goodwill of most of the world, which in a matter of a year or two he had thoroughly squandered; the disastrous economic policies that led to America's escalating debt and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
So let us now consider each of the other two approaches in turn.
Bush's decision to invade Iraq
Bush did not decide to invade Iraq in February or March 2003, with the options presented in the library. That decision was made within weeks of 9/11 - if not years even earlier than that. On September 10, 2002, USA Today got the jump on its competition with the most newsworthy summary of what had happened in the year after 9/11. The very first sentence of that story said:
President Bush's determination to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein by military force if necessary was set last fall without a formal decision-making meeting or the intelligence assessment that customarily precedes such a momentous decision.
The story went on to say that Bush "decided that Saddam must go more than 10 months ago; the debate within the administration since then has been about the means to accomplish that end". What is more, there was not even a "decision point" in October or November 2001, the story noted:
The decision to target Saddam "kind of evolved, but it's not clear and neat", a senior administration official says, calling it "policymaking by osmosis".
"There wasn't a flash moment. There's no decision meeting," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says. "But Iraq had been on the radar screen - that it was a danger and that it was something you were going to have to deal with eventually... before September 11, because we knew that this was a problem."
Thus, the entire "decision point" framework used by the Bush Library - and taken from Bush's presidential memoir - is a lie. The decision was made roughly 15 months earlier than presented, and was made by osmosis, not deliberation. There was no "decision point", just a shared sense that something must be done.
What is more, the looking glass logic that USA Today described - first the verdict, then the facts - was particularly pernicious, since many of the exaggerated fears in the weeks just after 9/11 had faded away over time, without altering the decision made in haste, fear and ignorance:
Some of the factors that figured in the decision last October - including fears that the al-Qaeda network might be close to obtaining nuclear weapons and that international terrorists might be behind the anthrax attacks - now seem to have been overblown. But the decision wasn't revisited.
The Downing Street Memos, uncovered by the British press in 2005, further supported USA Today. Most dramatically, in a July 23, 2002, meeting, Prime Minister Tony Blair was told that "military action was now seen as inevitable", inside the Bush administration "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy". Planning had already begun about how to orchestrate the beginning of hostilities. "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided."
The first Downing Street Memo was supplemented by several more, all providing copious evidence that the decision to invade Iraq was already made in the early months of 2002, if not earlier. Yet, in public, the Bush administration pretended to still be quite undecided about what to do - and quite open to hearing the views of others.
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"I promise you that I will be patient and deliberate, that we will continue to consult with Congress, and of course, we'll consult with our friends and allies," Bush said in an early-August 2002 speech quoted in several different stories. One of those, from USA Today, also quoted Dick Cheney saying, "The president has not made a decision at this point to go to war," and "the international community will have to come together in some fashion and figure out how we're going to have to deal with this growing threat."
In short, not only was the decision to invade Iraq made early on, virtually everything else that followed was a charade, intended to present its pre-determined course of action in the most favourable light - as the product of deliberation, consultation. And in doing this, administration officials publicly lied about what they were up to, saying their minds were open, when the decision to invade had already been made.
Misrepresenting the options
It would also be possible to question the options presented around invading Iraq, as well as the formulation of the underlying problem. But a much sharper example is readily available for another "decision point" - Hurricane Katrina - and Maddow's substitute host Melissa Harris-Perry (who lives in New Orleans) did an excellent job doing just that on the May 2 show.
"What is the decision point that the bush library asks you to confront when it comes to Hurricane Katrina?" Harris-Perry asked, reminding audience it was "A disaster in which nearly 2,000 Americans died, many in their own homes." Then she played the Bush Library tape:
Officials in New Orleans are overwhelmed. The President can send in troops, but those troops would serve in supporting roles and state efforts and would not have law enforcement powers unless the President invokes what's called the Insurrection Act. President Bush had to make a choice. One, rely on the national guard and local police. Two, send in federal troops in a supporting role with no law enforcement authority. Three, invoke the Insurrection Act and send in troops to restore order.
Harris-Perry then interjected incredulously:
Excuse me. Restoring order was the problem when it came to Hurricane Katrina, seriously? The main dilemma faced by President Bush when it came to the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was quelling disorder?
In a way, I suppose, it is fitting that Bush is still galactically out of touch with what happened to New Orleans on his watch, almost eight full years after it happened. Why not a "decision point" on what he should have said to FEMA Director Michael Brown? (A) "Heckuva job, Brownie!" (B) "You're fired." (C) "I want you first-born son." I would just love to see a tape of Bush explaining why (A) was the way to go.
Harris-Perry also went on to highlight another dishonest aspect of the Bush Library show, the vast disconnect between the sense of urgency that it projects and the reality of Bush's lackadaisically extended vacation. She featured a picture of Bush presenting John McCain with a birthday cake the day Katrina made landfall, a picture of Bush the next day "yukking it up with the country music star in Southern California", and a shot of him finally heading back to DC when "President Bush got an aerial view of the damage in Louisiana and Mississippi", after which, she continued, "By Friday, five days into that disaster, his aides at the White House were putting together DVDs of news coverage to convince President Bush how bad things were in New Orleans. During those five days, President Bush was not on the edge of his seat as the Bush Library would like you to believe. He was basically checked out. That's the real history."
Indeed. What Harris-Perry did here was to reveal Bush's real decision point with regard to Katrina: whether to pay attention or not. He decided not. If he had paid attention, then he might actually have done something. There might have actually been some difficult decision points for him to deal with. But he never got that far. He decided not to pay attention to Katrina. He went with the vacation thing. Because it worked so well when he was warned about al-Qaeda preparing to attack the US.
What could possibly go wrong?
That was the Bush presidency in a nutshell.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.