“His was no ordinary failure”

I take the quote in the title from an otherwise forgettable article by Jacob Weisberg on the failures of the Bush presidency. I’ll come back to it in a bit. First I want to skip to Frank Rich’s column, “Eight Years of Madoffs.”

THREE days after the world learned that $50 billion may have disappeared in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, The Times led its front page of Dec. 14 with the revelation of another $50 billion rip-off. This time the vanished loot belonged to American taxpayers. That was our collective contribution to the $117 billion spent (as of mid-2008) on Iraq reconstruction — a sinkhole of corruption, cronyism, incompetence and outright theft that epitomized Bush management at home and abroad.

Rich goes on from there to walk us through the outrages of the past eight years. As he says, after awhile there was no much outrage it rendered one catatonic. Then he writes,

While our new president indeed must move on and address the urgent crises that cannot wait, Bush administration malfeasance can’t be merely forgotten or finessed. A new Justice Department must enforce the law; Congress must press outstanding subpoenas to smoke out potential criminal activity; every legal effort must be made to stop what seems like a wholesale effort by the outgoing White House to withhold, hide and possibly destroy huge chunks of its electronic and paper trail. …

…But I would add that we need full disclosure of the more prosaic governmental corruption of the Bush years, too, for pragmatic domestic reasons. To make the policy decisions ahead of us in the economic meltdown, we must know what went wrong along the way in the executive and legislative branches alike.


Jacob Weisberg wants to know what went wrong also, although his interest seems more theoretical than practical. And as Scott Lemieux says, wondering whether Bush himself was incompetent, or whether he surrounded himself with incompetent people and took their advice, is a distinction without a difference.

This paragraph made me want to smack Weisberg in the head:

Why, after governing as a successful moderate in Texas, did he adopt such an ideological and polarizing style as president? Why did he politicize the fight against terrorism? Why did he choose to permit the torture of American detainees? Why did he wait so long to revise a failing strategy in Iraq?

The truth is, there is plenty of evidence the “successful moderate” enabled plenty of corruption and mishandling of funds while he was governor of Texas. Back in 2002 I cataloged much of it, although what I wrote in this article was only the tip of the iceberg. After listing several ways in which Bush had looted Texas, I wrote (IN AUGUST 2002!) “we must not permit the Bush Regime to continue to loot the wealth of America to benefit Bush’s friends.”

Most of the really bad corruption and incompetence hadn’t happened yet. I saw it in 2002. Weisberg hasn’t yet caught on.

Torture? You want to talk about Bush’s eagerness to execute people? His childhood delight in putting lighted firecrackers in frogs? I still get cold chills when I remember how he giggled when someone — I think it was Wolf Blitzer — asked him a question about executions during the 2000 campaign.

Weisberg still hasn’t caught on. He still hasn’t admitted to the fact that the American political system somehow put a sociopath into the Oval Office.

26 thoughts on ““His was no ordinary failure”

  1. Boy, ain’t that the truth. Good post, Maha. I agree with all of it. I also believe that it is in the best interests of the country to have investigations into what happened to all that taxpayer money in the past 8 years. This is important so that we can demand from the obstructionist Republicans when they try to prevent Obama from putting America right that they justify their actions in that past that caused this 8-year robbery.

  2. Sammy — no, I wasn’t thinking about his smirking over Karla Fay Tucker. There was a television interview, possibly part of one of the campaign debates, in which one of the journalists asking questions asked him something about Texas’s rates of execution, and for a second Bush actually giggled. It was clear he thought concern for treatment of prisoners was some kind of joke. No one in media commented on it after. It was as if they didn’t want to acknowledge that they saw what they saw.

  3. I remember the answer to one pre-election question about convicts (I don’t remember the question or context). Bush totally smirked while saying, “You know what we do with them in Texas? We kill ’em!” He looked proud of himself. My jaw hit the floor.

  4. “Weisberg still hasn’t caught on. He still hasn’t admitted to the fact that the American political system somehow put a sociopath into the Oval Office.”

    Until the 2000 election I was a Republican. I had ignored the “dog whistle” racism (stupidity is my best defence) because I thought that the party was sincere about their devotion to “Chicago School” type economics (yes more stupidity).

    However even I, as deluded as I was, could see that GW was going to be a disaster. He had run away from any job he didn’t totally screw up, until he found his only success as a figurehead for the Texas Rangers. At to that the sadism, and government corruption mentioned above and it was almost treason to have voted for GW in 2000.

  5. On a different point, the title: “Eight Years of Madoffs” is intended less to indict Bush, but rather to generate support for a bailout of the Madoff investors.

  6. Mike —

    On a different point, the title: “Eight Years of Madoffs” is intended less to indict Bush, but rather to generate support for a bailout of the Madoff investors.

    No, it is not. I went back and re-read the article, and that isn’t even close to the point Rich is making.

  7. “It’s a proprietary strategy. I can’t go into it in great detail”. – Bernard Madoff

  8. “I went back and re-read the article, and that isn’t even close to the point Rich is making.”

    Re-read what I said, “the title”, not the fine article. What does the title mean if not Bush=Madoff, but also that Madoff=Bush.

    And, I re-read the following, and yes I have to admit that Cheney didn’t say that Iraq attacked us on 9/11.

    “We will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who’ve had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.”

    Here is a compilation of times in which Bush and Cheney _did not_ say that Iraq attacked us on 9/11.

    Also in today’s NYT Magazine Roger Lowenstein asks: “Perhaps Madoff’s investors lost a greater percentage of their money, and lost it more suddenly, than the rest of us. But beyond these mere matters of degree, is there really any difference.”

    We have seen this game before.

    9/11, Iraq; 9/11, Iraq; 9/11, Iraq; 9/11, Iraq; 9/11, Iraq; 9/11, Iraq
    With the desired result that 70% of the American people thought that Sadam had attacked us.

    Followed years later by, “Well I never exactly said that Iraq attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

    Today’s version:
    Madoff=Bush, Madoff=innocent stock market losses.
    With the desired results that Madoff investors, unlike the investors in any other Ponzi scheme will be made whole by the US government.

  9. Mike — my understanding is that the columnists write their own headlines at the New York Times, so the headline was not written by the editors, or the copydesk, but by Frank Rich. And you missed Rich’s point by several miles.

    Don’t project. Not everything is part of a dark conspiracy. Frank Rich is not part of the Washington government establishment and said nothing about bailouts in his article. He was not writing about bailouts, but about corruption. The tie between Madoff and Bush was that they are both corrupt, as are a lot of other people, and they were able to get away with it because the Establishment protected them.

  10. It is not a “dark conspiracy.” Maybe just sloppy thinking?

    Here is Frank Rich again:

    “There are more black boxes still to be pried open, whether at private outfits like Madoff’s or at publicly traded companies like General Electric”
    NYT 20Dec08

    There is a concerted effort to as they say “define down” the deviency of Bernard Madoff by trying to make it seem like “par for the course.”

    It was not.

    Madoff does not equal Bush
    Madoff does not equal Lehman

    Closer to your original topic, Bush was not protected by the “Establishment” he was elected twice by voters who clearly should have known better. And they re-elected him with full knowledge of what he was doing, because he was doing it, not in spite of the fact.

    What was obvious to you and I in 2000, was clear to the rest of the country by 2004.

    The 2004 election was like investing in Madoff today.

  11. Perhaps out of an instinctive denial, or wish to avoid admitting that we’d elected a sociopath, NPR this morning had a segment talking about what a great guy Bush is to ‘hang out with’, on a personal level. It was bizarre. On-air statements from long-time friends and associates about what a nice guy he is, and stories of how unpretentious and how he doesn’t like fancy dress-up state dinners, but really likes his mountain biking. There was mention of his devotion to a rigid schedule that has him in bed by 9:30 if possible, with the suggestion that it helped him keep a sense of normality in his life as President.

    I myself read it a sign of a dangerously inflexible personality, instead, and thought someone might have said something about how he prefers simple physical competition (biking) to social events where he is expected to behave as an adult, and share the spotlight with others, to whom he might have to show polite respect.

    For some reason, there were no voices describing Bush being rude to them, much less a mention of the inappropriate snickering and giggling over life and death matters. Nope, just another repetition of the “if every American got to be up close with him, they’d know” meme. It was really as if NPR really WANTS people to remember the epithet Nice Polite Republicans.

  12. I was very pleased to read Frank Rich.

    But I take issue with the whole idea of Bush’s supposed incompetence. Yes, he’s a very limited man with a limited intellect and a twisted and stunted view of things. He is someone who’s perfectly suited for being a front-man for some very powerful interests in this country. It’s not for nothing that the great Billmon refers to these last eight years as the Cheney Administration.

    Stepping back from Bush however – who is just the window dressing if you will – the last eight years have been a rousing success for the people who installed him. Regulations gutted, treasury looted, middle class plundered, plutocracy enhanced, democracy diminished here at home. The energy interests have a stronger foothold in the Middle East, after killing hundreds of thousands to obtain it. It’s been a bonanza for the arms industry.

    And so the kind of thinking Rich is finally laying out is nice and necessary, but it doesn’t begin to touch the ugly larger truth that Bush II is almost everything the plutocrats wanted. Weisberg is dead wrong about Bush being a failure. The only way that Bush could be seen a failure is that 1) he wasn’t able to go as far as the neocons wanted in the Middle East, and 2) the far right’s Rovian dream of a permanent Republican majority fell short. So they didn’t get the full loaf, yet.

    Tocqueville expounds on this theme at DKos.

  13. Moonbat, don’t forget his administration openly moving $350 billion or so to the money people, apparently without accounting or visible strings, in his last months. They really have “accomplished” quite a bit, when you look it it from a warped perspective.

  14. Weisburg gives new meaning to the word “understated.” Describing what the Bush administration is leaving behind as “an unholy mess” really lends to the problem itself. Our failure to pursue every coarse available to root out as much evidence as is necessary to fine , expose or indite every official found guilty of maleficence in that administration will only encourage more Bush like regimes. When the press minimizes those acts of maleficence it helps to lower the bar for standards of decency. The power of the publicly held office will only attract more sociopaths to it. We may well find ourselves living in a sociopathocracy. Wouldn’t life be miserable then?

  15. wondering whether Bush himself was incompetent, or whether he surrounded himself with incompetent people and took their advice, is a distinction without a difference.

    You’re assuming that the Repig psychopaths’ goal was competent, functional government that serves the population’s general interests; on that basis they were staggeringly, inexplicably incompetent. If you look at their goal as exploiting government power to enrich their cronies, they weren’t incompetent at all and it makes more sense.

    These sacks of criminal garbage need to go down hard if we are to arrest this country’s slippery descent into kleptocratic, corrupt banana republic(an) status. Letting it slide after Watergate and Iran-Contra just allowed these monsters to breed in more virulent forms.

    And none of this ‘we have to look forward blahblahblah bipartisan blahblahblah so let it go’ rubbish. The government can do more than one thing at a time. It’s not as if Obama will have to spend hours a day to pursue this and can’t spare the time from more pressing matters like the economy.

  16. “Mike — you are reading Rich’s column backwards. Go outside and get some fresh air.”

    Well stated.

    That is to some extent what I did.

    So I went out and shoveled some snow.

    Still think Rich is very wrong.

    Madoff is simply a common criminal. Referencing him does not illuminate anything about Bush or the other troubles on Wall Street.
    The only purpose in the current article of bringing him up, as in the December article that I mentioned (and Lowenstien’s article today, and pretty much all of the coverage of Madoff) is to define down the devience of Madoff. That Madoff was doing what everybody else what doing the last 8 years, Bush, Wall Street, CEO’s of major corporations etc.

    Let’s go through the differences:

    Madoff committed simple fraud. As soon as it was uncovered existing laws were applied and he was arrested and placed in house arrest.

    The Wall Street firms that have blown up, blew up because they operated using techniques that are still taught in every Business school today. What they did was not just legal, it is considered “best practice.”

    What Bush did is what the majority of the American people wanted him to do. (And 46% of the voters on the last election, after almost 8 years of this, asked for another 4 years of the same or worse with McCain and Palin.)
    Once you pull the trigger on a war, waste, fraud, corruption, and war crimes are sure to follow. I’m sure that Maha for one fully understands that. There is no such thing as a well run war, all wars that I know of have had a similar, or greater level of lying cheating and stealing as has the Iraq war.

  17. Mike,

    Madoff is simply a common criminal. Referencing him does not illuminate anything about Bush or the other troubles on Wall Street.

    You are reading all kinds of things in this column that Rich did not actually write.

    He’s not saying there’s a connection between Bush and Madoff. He’s saying that what Madoff did was a replica, although a small one, of what the Bush Administration did. Both Bush and Madoff are/were running a kind of ponzi scheme; they both got away (for a time) with fleecing the public because the System, or the Culture, or the Establishment, or whatever you want to call it, let them do it. That’s what Rich is saying. Whatever else you think he is saying, he is not saying.

    The point of the article is to say that we absolutely must make all the malfeasance public, thoroughly understand it, and prosecute it when possible. Do you disagree?

    (A) If you think the wrongdoing should be forgiven and remain hidden, then you disagree with Rich.

    (B) If you think the wrongdoing should be investigated, made public, and placed in the hands of justice, then you agree with Rich.

    A or B? Take your pick.

    Everything else you are obsessing about is entirely in your own head and not in Rich’s article, so chill.

  18. Bush was the amiable stooge put up as the spokesman for the most corrupt political/financials group in our history. Not since the times of ancient Rome were politics this corrupt on so grand a scale in a “Democracy” so large.
    To those who care about the country, he was a monumental and collosal failure. To those with financial skin in the game, he was a godsend.
    George W. Bush – sociopath. In terms of political sociopathology, he was a John Wayne Gacy; a political clown – and a killer one at that.
    Investigate, indict, incarcerate. Let’s start the process on January 21st, 2009. The day after President Obama’s inauguration: “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’

  19. I like what Dawn Johnsen has to say, and I like where she is positioned. I hope Obama heeds her wisdom.

    I’m reminded of the parable of the builder where we are cautioned not build our house on a weak foundation ( sinking sand). And if Obama wants to move forward in building our nation back up and restoring our values, then I would suspect that he see the importance of repairing the damage to the foundations of our constitution and laws.

    I can’t imaging moving forward successfully without resolving the issues of the past, at least the big ones….Torture,honoring treaties, upholding the constitution and the law. Restoring faith in our national values.

  20. Maybe Obama could take a lesson from the IRS with their tax amnesty policy. All the small fries could take advantage and claim an amnesty or immunity from prosecution by providing an incriminating piece to the puzzle that would in turn clear up the picture for investigators seeking to pin down the big culprits..

    Another idea would be a “claim your pardon” program,where the claimant would be claiming a pardon in exchange for the admission of criminal activity relating to the implementation of Bush policies. The enticement to participate in the Claim your Pardon program would be the knowledge that the Justice Dept is going full guns to bring them to justice.

  21. The word failure doesn’t exactly fit regarding the Bush administration. To me, failure implies that success at governing was the intended goal. I think ” his was no ordinary fuck-up” would be more apropos to describe Bush’s term in office. Bush made no serious attempts at governing.. it was all about crafting an image of himself as a competent forceful leader.

  22. I agree with moonbat that from the perspective of those who supported Bush, his administration has been a “rousing success.” The political scientist, Michael Parenti, has reminded us on numerous occasions that what may appear to be irrational to most of us may be quite rational to those in power. If they spend billions of our dollars to make millions for themselves, they still make a profit.I don’t think this administration was incompetent. I think that they achieved their objectives pretty much as they originally intended. I seriously doubt that they actually expected to easily control Iraq (which is not to say that there is a dearth of really sharp middle east analysts among them). I do think that they knew going in that “liberating Iraq” would require long term US military presence in the region. Dismissing what this regime has done as incompetence would be a serious mistake for the American public to make.

  23. I agree with you Maha on the distinction without a difference point. The distinction will only become relevant if (and this is a big if) criminal charges are ever brought against anyone in this administration since the law recognizes intent, malice aforethought etc when evaluating the seriousness of a crime.

  24. I think that Rich’s point about the lack of outrage on the part of the American public to current revelations about what this administration has done as compared to the reaction surrounding the Pentagon Papers is truly disturbing.I have to wonder whether we are a people temporarily asleep at the switch, or have we so totally lost our sense of decency and our belief in our own agency to such a point that such flagrant violations of law and public trust are not even considered noteworthy anymore. An Ethiopian friend of mine (I tend to value the reflections of foreigners on Americans) once said that in America, the pursuit of happiness was so all consuming that life and liberty went out the window. If that is true, we have a lot more to lament than the damage the Bush administration has done.

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