How an Obama Win Would Justify Years of Bush-bashing: A Personal Reflection

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I first posted this personal reflection at….

This time it’s personal.

Then again, it was personal in 2004.

In September 2003, I published a book immoderately titled, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. Its contention was a simple one: that Bush had gone beyond the normal boundaries of presidential spin in using falsehoods and misrepresentations to skew the public discourse on many fronts: stems cells, global warming, tax policy, and, above all, the invasion of Iraq.

At the time, this was not–in certain circles–a well-received argument. Conservative pundits, pointing to my book and others that came out at the time (Al Franken’s Lying Liars, Molly Ivins’ Bushwhacked, written with Lou Dubose, and Joe Conason’s Big Lies), declared a new phenomenon was at hand: rabid, irrational Bush hatred. MSM commentators, ever looking to reside within the comfortable, above-it-all middle, observed that the left was now mirroring the extreme rhetoric of the Limbaugh-crazy, Coulter-loving right. I noted some examples of this dismissive reax in a recent Mother Jones essay. The New York Times‘ Matt Bai, citing my book, wrote, “the new leftist screeds seem to solidify a rising political culture of incivility and overstatement.” Conservative columnist David Brooks proclaimed that “the core threat to democracy is not in the White House, it’s the haters themselves.” (Yes, I was more dangerous than George W. Bush.) What few of these commentators of the center and right bothered to do was to evaluate the case I (and the others) had put forward. That is, to confront the facts I had presented. Their aim was to discredit the very idea of anyone going so far as to call the president of the United States a liar. And National Review editor Rich Lowry opined, “I don’t think the public is going to buy the idea that [Bush is] a liar.”

Lowry got it wrong. By Election Day 2004, polls showed that a slight majority believed that Bush was not honest and trustworthy. Still, Bush managed to best John Kerry in an election that was something of a referendum on Bush’s first term. But that election came too early. Had it been held a year later–post-Katrina–any Dem would have thrashed Bush and Cheney at the polls. And now about seven out of ten disapprove of his presidency, and most of the public agrees with the premise that Bush deliberately misled American citizens about WMDs and the threat supposedly posed by Iraq. Bush is heading toward the door widely regarded as a failure: Iraq, Katrina, the financial meltdown. He has become the vanishing president. Hardly seen. Barely relevant.

Bush’s style of politics, his policies, his political party–it’s all been discredited. Whatever happens in the presidential race, the GOP is poised to take a beating in congressional races. He has led his party to ruin. The battle over the W. story has been won by his critics–at least in the short run. The view that Bush has been a dishonest president and bad for the United States has become the majority position in the United States. If John McCain somehow manages to win, it will be in spite of Bush.

Many presidents are elected as reactions to the previous president. George W. Bush’s (faux) victory in 2000 was a reaction to the Bill Clinton soap opera. And a Barack Obama triumph would be the natural reaction to the W. years. Obama is the most progressive (or liberal) Democratic nominee since FDR ran for reelection. He is black (or biracial). He is an intellectual. He is no child of privilege. To sum up: he is the opposite of George W. Bush. Not only has Bush started two wars he couldn’t finish, presided over a government that lost a major American city, and did little as a financial tsunami hit the nation; he has (I am guessing) created a yearning among many Americans for a non-Bush. And within the realm of conventional U.S. politics, Obama is about as non-Bush as it gets. No wonder Obama has a strong chance of becoming president. He spoke (endlessly) of change; he is an antidote to the Bush presidency.

Many in the media, like much of the public, have learned from the Bush experience. In this campaign cycle, numerous MSM outfits have instituted factchecking features that note when presidential candidates are stretching the truth or outright fibbing. My rough impression is that there has never been as much of this sort of vetting of presidential candidates. And at least one major vetter, The Washington Post‘s Factchecker, has been willing to declare a candidate a liar, by judging false statements on a scale of one to four Pinocchios. (Pinocchio was known for lying, not spinning.) Those who made the case that George W. Bush mugged the truth in more significant and consequential ways than previous presidents appear to have goosed the media to apply tougher standards to the 2008 candidates. (Back in 2000, mainstream reporters often permitted the affable Bush to get away with major misrepresentations about policy matters, while they pounced on Gore for sighs and minor verbal miscues.)

John McCain has paid the biggest cost for this change. His campaign has relied on facts-denying whoppers much more than Obama’s. And the MSM has often called out McCain and Sarah Palin for their brazen and blatant misrepresentations–particularly regarding dishonest attacks against Obama. Unfortunately for McCain and Palin, the politics of Karl Rove have been harder to practice because there is more media accountability these days. Are reporters and voters declaring, We won’t get fooled again? In polls, voters consistently say that they believe McCain has waged the more negative campaign. It could well be that Bush and Rove have made it tougher for their fellow Republicans to use their say-anything/call-’em-anything playbook.

The nation may have reached a point–if only temporarily–when a majority of voters can no longer be won over by untruthful tactics and a majority is willing to give an intelligent and charismatic progressive a chance to lead the country. If that comes to pass on Tuesday, it will be a sign that the public has drawn the right lesson of the past eight difficult years. And it will be vindication for those who have challenged the Bush-Cheney administration, its secretive ways, and its arrogant conservatism. Revenge may be for the small-minded. But it is important to win the big battles of ideas and history. An Obama victory–among many things–will be a total repudiation of Bush and his policies. Americans can thank the outgoing president for creating the conditions that have enabled the possible election of the first black president and potentially the most liberal chief executive in decades.

The damage done during the Bush years will remain done. The dead of Iraq cannot be brought back. No switch can be thrown to undo the financial meltdown. But at least the correct verdict will have been rendered and justice–in its broadest sense–will have been served. Then the cleanup can begin.

A LITTLE TOO LATE. Sadly, this moment–if it comes–will arrive too late for Molly Ivins, Studs Terkel, Paul Newman, and Paul Wellstone. Each of them fought the good fight during the W. years (and for many years before that), and each of them was an optimist and had faith that eventually their fellow citizens would right the course of the nation. If there is a reason to celebrate on Tuesday night, it will be a pity that they won’t be at the party. But they each will deserve a toast.


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