President George W. Bush opened his presidential library today, tacitly addressing his critics with the words, "history will decide" on how to think of the Bush legacy. With that in mind, we humbly offer these five volumes to help explain the presidency of George W. Bush:
Hubris, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn
Any discussion of the Bush legacy has to start with the wars he started. The first in Afghanistan, was at least arguably a response to 9/11. Whether it was a good response is open to debate, but it was a response. Iraq was publicly--PUBLICLY--based on a hunch that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaida, but in reality was more about securing oil reserves and getting Dick Cheney’s friends at Halliburton and Blackwater very rich.
To catalogue that debacle, we turn to Isikoff and Corn, whose tome is subtitled: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. It’s an ugly story, but the first one that needs to be told when deciding how we feel about the Bush presidency.
Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin
The Big Short by Michael Lewis would have been equally appropriate, but Lewis is more of a storyteller, while Sorkin conducts something resembling a full autopsy of the financial crisis. This also belongs in the Clinton library, because it was under the Clinton administration that most of the disastrous deregulating of financial markets (signing the Glass-Steagall act was one of the worst moves of Clinton’s presidency), but the Bush team took control of the train headed toward the cliff and pushed the throttle all the way down. That’s the basic story. To get the full picture, go to your local (non-Bush Presidential division) library.
Wealth disparity is at cartoonish levels right now, with the top 1% of earners taking in around half of the entire country’s income. How did that happen? Well, it wasn’t all Bush (again, that was all set in motion in previous decades), but Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith details how wealth steadily made its way from the middle class to the upper class to the upper upper class. With that history, we can understand the infamous Bush tax cuts, which Smith explains in painful detail. It was hardly the first, but possibly the largest wealth transfer directly from the government to the richest Americans. Funny, not a lot of that wealth has trickled down. Weird, right?
No Child Left Behind Primer, by Frederick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli
While many are skeptical, one major initiative that history is still deciding on is Bush’s landmark education bill: No Child Left Behind. NCLB aimed to have every child in the U.S. proficient in math, reading and science by 2014 (good luck with that). NCLB trumped state legislatures, the normal arbiters of education policy, and put in testing regimens to judge students, teachers and schools. It is this influx of tests that many feel is misguided, encouraging teachers to teach to the test, inflate grades and occasionally make up scores.
Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It, by Lawrence Lessig
I’m cheating a little bit with this one, because it’s not exactly about the Bush presidency, but it is about politics in this era, and how every major industry from big oil to big pharma to big banks to big farms shaped the legislation and decisions of the Bush presidency. Lessig’s cause is campaign finance, and the corrupting influence it has on American politics. No understanding of American politics over the last several decades, but especially the last two decades can fit all the disparate pieces together without an understanding of how the gravity of campaign money warps the entire system.
I encourage you to check out all of these thoughtful, well-written books, but if you have to pick one, start with Republic, Lost. If we want to avoid another Bush-level disaster of a presidency, we need to cure Washington of its corrupting addiction to campaign money, and the people that provide it.