Saturday, January 10, 2009

Memo from NYC

"Why weren't they grateful?"

That's the last sentence of Robert Caro's The Power Broker, the book I've been obsessing about all year. Late in his life, a retired and angry Robert Moses would give speeches and carp to friends about how New Yorkers were ungrateful to him for working so unselfishly on their behalf. Moses was baffled. He couldn't understand why the people had rejected him. Caro ironically writes, just before that last sentence, “Couldn't people see what he had done?”

They did -- and that's why they turned on Moses. His ill-conceived highways caused traffic jams to choke the city, he starved public transportation of funds and prevented it from serving all parts of the city, he built ugly and depressing public housing, he botched the city's waterfront, and he destroyed neighborhoods that led to huge increases in crime. People were supposed to be grateful for this?

America's own power broker is leaving the Presidency soon and, to be cliche, it's deja vu all over again. Bush and his fellow Republicans are screaming about people's ingratitude to him. Americans are ungrateful to him for "keeping us safe." Iraqis are ungrateful to him for "liberating" their country." This whining has been going on for some time now. A few examples:
  • On 60 Minutes last year, Bush said, "I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude." The American people, "wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."

  • Andrew McCarthy from National Review wrote "Thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer funds have been expended to provide Iraqis the opportunity to live freely ... Yet, to be blunt, the Iraqis remain ingrates."

  • After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana State Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere, Jr. called Louisiana Democrats "ungrateful" for everything Bush had done for their state (!)
This blather goes on and on. The case -- or narrative, or spin, or whatever you want to call it -- that Bush and his few remaining acolytes are fashioning goes like this:

"George W Bush is a courageous, deeply moral and principled man, a natural leader, the right man at the right time, who did everything he could to protect and strengthen America and didn't care what popular or elite opinion thought about it. He didn't care what anyone thought about it! And in being so bold and so brave, he made unpopular decisions that history will ultimately deem were the right decisions. You see, George W is like Harry Truman, another president who left office unpopular but has since been reevaluated by history as a great one. We're so lucky to have had Bush for these last eight years. We're just too stupid to realize it right now."

This "Bush-will-be-redeemed-by-history-and-he's-like-Harry Truman" stuff has become accepted dogma in the right-wing intelligentsia. Even a former Mayor of NYC not named Rudy buys this crap. In an article called "History Will Redeem Bush", Ed Koch wrote:

His position can be compared with that of Harry Truman who left Washington unpopular and alone in 1953 … Like Truman, George W. Bush, in my view, will be seen as one of the few world leaders who recognized the danger of Islamic terrorism ... We will recognize his worth long after he is gone."

Truman recognized the danger of Islamic terrorism? Silly me, me thoughts it was Communism. Oy vey. Hiding behind the skirt of history is the ultimate sign of failure. As for this Bush-as-Truman myth, the late great David Halberstam debunked it beautifully with words and wisdom I’ll certainly never be able to muster as well.

In The Power Broker, pondering the Moses legacy, Caro quotes Sophocles who said, "One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”

In the evening of the Bush presidency, how splendid has “the day” been?

He turned the largest budget surplus in US history into the largest deficit, he trashed environmental rules and regulations and did nothing to address global warming or our nation's addiction to foreign oil, he let an already broken health care system worsen and placed impediments on scientific research, he appointed hacks and incompetents all over the government and tried to put one of them on the Supreme Court, he politicized and undermined the credibility of the US Justice Department, he botched the government's response to one of the worst natural disasters in US history, he totally ignored warnings of the terrorist threat prior to 9/11, he invaded and screwed up the occupation of a country that never attacked us and posed no threat to us, and he spent almost four years telling us that this invasion was going just dandy when reality showed it to be a disaster. Oh, and he spied on Americans without warrants, tortured people, and increased government secrecy to a level not seen since Nixon. His government failed to properly regulate the financial industry that led to one of the worst economic calamities since the Great Depression.

And where the hell is Osama Bin Laden?

This is his record. This is the reality of his presidency.

History is going to redeem that? For this we should be … grateful?

"But don't you see," most Bush supporters say, especially when it comes to the economic crises, "most of this wasn’t his fault. A lot of it was out of his control."

So even though Bush has been a great president, he never really was in charge …


Caro wrote in The Power Broker that Moses “believes he will be justified by history, that his works will endure and be blessed by generations not yet born.”

Well, history hasn't redeemed Robert Moses. Today, generations later, New Yorkers are still living in, and trying to grapple with, the mess that he made of our city. The best Bush can hope for is that Barack Obama fixes the disaster he's leaving behind so that Americans years from now aren't still living in it and blame him. Maybe history will be kinder to Bush then. Who knows? That's a big, unknowable maybe ...

... but then again, Bush and his supporters already know what history is going to say. You see, we're not as smart as they are, we’re just too stupid to understand his greatness …

Can't people see what he's done?

Why aren't we grateful?

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