The five living presidents will meet in Texas on Thursday to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. And while Bush and his aides are using the occasion to soften the 43 president’s image and solidify his legacy, a recounting of Bush-era policies — from his deregulation of Wall Street to the invasion of Iraq — greatly undermine the new rosy narrative of the Bush years:
Authorized the use of torture
Though the US Code bans torture, Bush personally issued a memorandum six days after the September 11th attacks instructing the CIA that it could use “enhanced interrogation techniques” against suspected terrorists. The methods included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and “stress positions.” A recently-released bipartisan committee concluded it was “indisputable” that these techniques constituted torture, and that the highest authorities in the country bore responsibility for the creation of a torture programs at Guantanamo Bay and CIA “black sites” around the world.
Politicized climate science
Bush’s “do-nothing” approach to climate change prevented the U.S. from pursuing meaningful action. Though he claimed that global warming was a serious problem that was either a natural phenomenon or caused by humans, the administration routinely edited scientific reports to downplay the threat of climate change, censored CDC testimony that climate change was a public health threat, and promoted climate denying studies financed by ExxonMobil. At the end of the Bush presidency, a top intelligence adviser warned the incoming president that climate change was a massive destabilizing national security threat that would lead to “Dust Bowl” conditions in the Southwest.
Ignored Afghanistan to launch a war in Iraq
Rather than consolidating gains after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Bush and his neoconservative allies pushed for removing Saddam Hussein from power, kicking off a war that led to one mistake after another. Ten years later, the war is estimated to have cost cost up to $6 trillion and resulted in the death of more than 100,000 Iraqis, 4,000 Americans and another 31,000 wounded. Meanwhile, Afghanistan saw a resurgence of the Taliban after Bush shifted resources to Iraq.
Botched the response to Hurricane Katrina
Bush appointed Michael Brown — a man whose only real qualifications were political connections and a sting at the International Arabian Horse Association — to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2003 and he preceded to undo everything the Clinton Administration had done to make FEMA functional, botching the response to 2004’s Hurricane Frances so badly as to prompt calls for his firing. But Bush kept Brown on board and, as a detailed timeline of the response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrates, neither man took the storm seriously until it was too late. Bush, who famously said “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” midway through the crisis, thus presided over the most deaths due to a single natural disaster in the United States since 1900.
Defunded stem cell research
At the turn of the century there was perhaps no greater hope for finding cures to illnesses ranging from Alzheimer’s to diabetes than ongoing stem cell research. But months after taking office, Bush eliminated federal funding for research involving new stem cell lines created after an arbitrary date in 2001, citing a philosophical objection to the use of embryos — even though the embryos in question were byproducts from couples undergoing in vitro fertilization and would have been destroyed by IVF clinics. Bush’s policy effectively limited federal funding to only a few dozen sets of preexisting stem cell cultures. Twice more during his presidency, Bush vetoed legislation that would have restored funding.
Required Muslim men to register with the government
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, instituted an anti-terrorism program to register all male immigrants between 18 and 40 years old from 20 Arab and South Asian countries. Thousands of innocent men came forward to register, only to be rounded up for minor visa violations. Roughly 1,000 men and boys in the process of applying for permanent residence were arrested and confined in standing-room-only centers, enduring invasive strip searches and beatings by guards. Many were deported, while others were held for months after their immigration cases were resolved, without a shred of evidence they had any links to terrorism.
Reinstated the global gag rule
On Bush’s first day in office he reinstated a rule that prevented any non-profit doing work overseas from using any of their own, private money to fund family planning services. This so-called “Global Gag Rule” posed a serious threat to international maternal health, but it also cut off funding for HIV/AIDS initiatives, child health programs, and water and sanitation efforts.
Supported anti-gay discrimination
In 2004, President Bush endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which would have banned same-sex couples from marrying in the U.S. Constitution. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of marriage equality, and Bush hoped to block the ruling from taking effect because “a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization.” Though the FMA failed numerous times in Congress during Bush’s tenure, he exploited the issue of same-sex marriage to turn out conservative voters for the 2004 election. That year, 11 states added constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage.
Further deregulated Wall Street
Under Bush, federal agencies eliminated regulations on predatory lending, capital requirements, and other Wall Street practices, allowing banks to engage in riskier and more destructive practices that contributed to the financial crisis that started on his watch. Bush’s Treasury Department also pushed for even further deregulation that would have given Wall Street more oversight over its own practices even after the housing collapse had begun.
Widened income inequality
The per-person benefits of Bush’s tax cuts accrued to the top one percent of Americans, as the rate for capital gains dropped to 15 percent. The CBO found that federal income taxes dropped far more as a percentage of the one percent’s income than for any other group after 2000.
Undermined worker protections
Under Bush, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, whose mission is to protect safe working conditions, issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations and pulled 22 items from its agenda of proposed safety and health rules. The office’s funding and staff were also consistently reduced. Meanwhile, funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with helping workers who claim discrimination against their employers, was similarly low and staffing fell even as the number of complaints increased, leading to a rising backlog of cases.
Ideological court appointments
Bush filled the federal bench with ideologues, including two lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court. These conservatives believe that corporations should be able to buy and sell elections, ruled against equal pay for equal work, and have sought to undermine a woman’s right to choose.
Presided over a dysfunctional executive branch
A 2008 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity documented more than 125 executive branch failures over Bush’s two terms. These included government breakdowns on “education, energy, the environment, justice and security, the military and veterans affairs, health care, transportation, financial management, consumer and worker safety,” and others. “I think we’ll look back on this period as one of the most destructive periods in American public life . . . both in terms of policy and process,” Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution observed, noting “genuine distortion in the constitutional system, an exaggerated sense of presidential power and prerogative and acquiescence by a Republican Congress in the face of the first unified Republican government since Dwight Eisenhower.”