by Rich Broderick • In a notebook he kept as a student, Napoleon Bonaparte, future Emperor of France, wrote, “St. Helena, a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic.”
Why he made this entry is unknown. The words appear alone, on a page by themselves, apparently unrelated to anything else he was studying, writing, or thinking about at the time.
Whatever his motives, some 30 years later, after his escape from Elba and final defeat at Waterloo, St. Helena is precisely where Napoleon would live out his last years in exile.
Destiny was a term Napoleon often used in regard to himself. In these waning weeks of the Bush Administration, it is instructive to contemplate the often dark and mysterious ways of destiny as illustrated by George W. Bush, another figure who saw himself as a man of destiny. As it turns out, he was correct; he _has_ been a man of destiny, only – as is often the case – the destiny awaiting him was far different from the one he envisioned.
From everything we know, Bush saw himself as destined not only to be President but a “successful” two-term chief executive who would erase the shameful failure of his father to capitalize on the Persian Gulf War to win a second term for himself. After 9/11, Bush also came to see himself as a man who would fundamentally alter the Middle East, assuring American hegemony there far into the future; “reform” Social Security and other vestiges of the New Deal out of existence; and ensure the dream of a permanent Republican majority that he shared with Karl Rove, another man of dark destiny.
Instead, Bush’s blunders, the fruits of a combination of arrogance, ignorance, lack of self-awareness – you name it – ensured that his Presidency would end up a colossal failure: arguably the worst in the history of country.
And for that we should be profoundly grateful.
Consider the following reasons why:
1. Imagine where we would be today if Bush had actually succeeded in effecting his plans, particularly in regard to the Middle East. Where would we be if the invasion of Iraq had been the cakewalk he and others in and around his administration had promised?
If such had been the case, the invasion of Iraq would still have been illegal, the preemptive war we waged there still a crime against humanity. But you know what? If it had gone well, the American people would have forgotten all about such legalities in the rush to celebrate our “triumph.”
Over the years, Bush and his cronies have talked repeatedly about how some action or inaction would “embolden” some “evil-doer” or other. Think how emboldened the evil-doers in his Administration would have been if Iraq had turned out well. Remember the cute little expression that circulated among the neo-cons a few years ago? “Everybody wants to go to Baghdad. _Real_ men want to go to Tehran!” War with Iran, perhaps involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons (Dick Cheney has been itching to break the self-imposed ban on the first-strike use of nukes ever since he was Secretary of Defense under Bush, Sr.) would have been the next item on the agenda, with Syria, and who knows who else, not far behind.
And even discounting the disaster of the Iraq War, where would we be if Bush had responded swiftly to the drowning of New Orleans or even taken steps a year or two ago to mitigate the collapse of the housing bubble – a collapse foreseen and predicted by many eminent public figures? Probably looking at another Republican President taking office next January, quite possibly someone a lot nastier than John McCain. President Rudy Giuliani anyone?
2. Bush embodies much of what is malign or at best unexamined about our national character – the exceptionalism, the sense of entitlement, the anti-intellectualism, the distrust of expertise, the stubborn and often belligerent refusal to be held accountable for anything we do in the world, even the latent racism (though he does not seem to be a racist himself, Bush has been all-too-willing to enjoy the benefits of the GOP’s odious “Southern Strategy”). By failing so spectacularly in so many different dimensions, Bush helped bring the painful consequences of our afflictions – the nation’s collective developmental disorder, as it were – to the surface in ways impossible to ignore. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the example of his punishment has purged these sick elements from our national system, but he certainly has shed a light on the toxic underbelly of America’s dominant culture, and that, too, was necessary and potentially helpful.
3. The commonplace observation made by many during the election campaign — that if Barack Obama had been white he would have trounced John McCain by 20 points – was correct. The truth is, no President George W. Bush would have meant no President Barack Obama. Whatever comes, good or bad, from the Obama Administration, it is undeniable that the country has shattered a racial barrier that many thought could never be overthrown. Racism is far from finished in the U.S.A., and we may never truly achieve a color-blind society, but this election was nonetheless a breakthrough, one hastened by the extraordinary concatenation of failures that was the Bush Administration. Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of losing your job, your health insurance and your house; it proved enough to enable millions of wavering voters to see past Obama’s skin tone.
Meanwhile, the eight years of shame Bush brought upon the country led to an equally compelling desire on the part of the electorate to cast a vote that might help redeem our reputation (and self-respect). In any case, we are all better off living in a country where every child can say “I could grow up to be President” and not be totally self-deluded.
So, thanks, George – sort of. Thanks for screwing up so badly. In the end, you helped the country far more by failing than you would have if you had succeeded. Your dark destiny has paradoxically turned out to be, in an odd, discomfiting and very costly way, our good fortune instead.
Published on 11/30/08.