081202 Intelligence Squared Debate: Bush 43 is the Worst President of the Last 50 Years

I’ve started to post raw notes from events I attend. For more information, see the Notes Policy.

For the Motion

  • Simon Jenkins (SJ), journalist (The Guardian) and author.
  • Jacob Weisberg (JW), editor of Slate, author of The Bush Tragedy

Against the Motion

  • William Kristol (WK), editor of The Weekly Standard
  • Karl Rove (KR), former Senior Advisor to Bush 43

Pre-show makeup dusting

Once seated onstage, a make-up artist comes around to give them a final dusting of powder. While Kristol is immobilized by the artist, Rove reaches over and gives Kristol a wet willie. For real.


Robert Rosenkrantz, IQ^2 CHairman: The liberal critique of GWB is well known, but even the conservatives have a bone to pick. But GWB kept us safe after 9/11. Nixon was reviled in his time, but his trip to China set the stage for today’s world. Jimmy Carter gave us stagflation, the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis.

[audience skoffs]

  • JD: the motion is “Bush 43 is the Worst President of the Last 50 Years”

Jacob Weisberg Opening Statements

Please don’t change yr minds, Bush was obviously the worst. Our task is the most difficult, I’m not sure bush defenders are open to persuasion.

I am not a Bush hater. I’m not a partisan democrat the way Rove and Kristol are partisan republicans. I started writing a Bush book, and wanted to find his successes to set the stage. BUt i found no success. I though education might be an area, but he caved to the right. I thought he was right about immigration, but he surrendered to the xenophobes. I thought he’d be good on AIDS in africa, but he fell to the pro-abstinence faction in his party. Those are the “successes”. The top failures of other presidents don’t even make his list.

GWB’s top 5:
1. Invasion of Iraq on false pretenses. I don’t think he falsified the evidence, but I don think he was uninterested in the evidence.
2. Bungling the Occupation of Ir;q: he delegated to Rummy for 3 yrs
3. Undermining constitutional rights, opened the door to torture, suspended habeuos corpus,
4. sabotaging american unity after the 9/11 attacks, and the tarnishing of US abroad
5. catestrophic economic mismanagement; an ideological refusal to sensibly regulate the economy

Nixon and Carter were nowhere NEAR as bad. Neither comes close to bush in terms of sheer incompetence. If they argue that he’s only the second worst, I’d argue “that’s no defense”

Bill Kristol Opening Statement

Bush was not my first choice in 2000, but he’s been pretty good [audience laughter]. We can laugh, but we’re safe, we won iraq, the economy’s grown. The public has soured on Bush, and he’s done a horrible job of explaining his moves. When he became president, Al Queda was ascendant, Saddam was dangerous, Korea and Iran were working on WMDs. Then 9/11 happened. He defended this country. History will look kindly on Bush’s performance. One piece of proof is that Obama won’t change much; he’ll keep snooping, he’ll move Gitmo to Ft. Levenworth. Iraq was necessary; Saddam or his sons would have been a much more dangerous place. The Surge was a courageous decision, no democrats except Lieberman supported it [ed note: lieb’s not a dem] which has been utterly vindicated. We have a pretty good outcome in Iraq, standing with us against Iran. This could be a victory to bookend the Iranian revolution.

Even under Obama, our policies wont change much with regard to Pakistan, Iran, China, etc.

The economy: these were bipartisan mistakes. We did have economic growth over the last 8 yrs. Clinton signed the 1999 deregulatory bill.

Prescription Drug Benefit worked well, Aid for Africa worked well, free trade worked well.

“Obama’s presidency will be, in most respects, a continuation of the Bush presidency.”

Simon Jenkins Opening Statement

A british accent is the only thing that can make you think Bush isn’t the worst. I’m sensitive to foreign comment on domestic matters. I beg yr pardon.

There are two american presidents: the domestic leader, and then the leader of the western alliance who’s seen as the leader of the free world. I was in Lebanon and a woman said “we all went to the polls on Nov 4, but only some of us were let in.”

I’ve been a cheerleader for america all my life, but its been difficult in the last 8 yrs. But every one felt to be pushing the boulder of democracy uphill. There was always progress forward. When Bush came to power, I admired him, his “humble” foreign policy. This seemed refreshing and unbombastic. then came 9/11. Yassar Arafat gave blood for NYers. Almost the whole world was on America’s side. The disaster that followed, going to war, is something that american diplomacy has not recovered. Iraq today is back to where it was in 2004. Afghanistan is going to be a far worse shape. The wrong decisions have been taken. Iran could look like egypt. Russia, a putative friend 8 years ago, is now a menace. Everywhere you look, you see unnecessary choices littering the neo-con road with wrecks.

For years America had a moral superiority that justified its actions. That’s the why those who approved of US intervention abroad were able to justify their approval. Over the last 8 yrs, that backbone has snapped. There’s no way to tell people the last 8 yrs have been for the best. If you go around the world, you’ll find the most extraordinary faith in Obama. A completely naive belief that he’s the messiah. Ludicrous expectations are on this man. The reason that’s happened is that people have been despairing for the last 8 yrs.

Karl Rove Opening Statement

“I’m gonna make an appeal to the open-minded people of the Upper West Side.” I want to talk about some drive-bys.

Education: we saw a drive-by on NCLB. We wanted states to set standards. We’ve seen more improvement in the last 5 yrs than in the prior 28 yrs.

Immigration: we solved a problem.

PETFAR: african lives are being saved.

[Hissing starts]

Free Trade: we won by one vote. CAFTA should’ve been a no-brainer. Politics got in the way for Democrats. Let’s start with a pact with Columbia.

Iraq: “false premise” bothers me. Its easy to flip-flop now, JW. Do we wish the weapons were there? Yes.

[audience boos]

Smart people, like Clinton, thought that there were WMDs there. Saddam was waiting for the west to lose interest.

I love being lectured about poisoning unity after 9/11. The dems get stuck on union membership for the Dept of Homeland Security. Democrats sopping to their union allies was NOT unity.

Economy: major indices down. $6T lost in one year. That’s not today; that’s March 2000. Thank god Bush passed tax-cut stimulus. Even critics say that 1 in 20 workers would have been unemployed w/o tax cuts.

Yassar Arafat wouldn’t have been a real friend.

Its not Bush’s fault that Iranian lunatics want nukes.

I will defend the president in the long sweep of history.


We have yr numbers now: 65% for the motion, 17% against, 18% undecided.


  • Q: What president in the last 50 yrs has faced the challenges that Bush 43 did?
  • WK: every president faces tough challenges, but Bush had severe challenges. He made mistakes, but he put AQ on the run.
  • JD: the implication is that no pres could have done well. JW?
  • JW: no way. all the prior presidents had to deal with the cold war. WAY harder. Look at JFK and the Cuban Missile CRisis. Brink of doomsday.
  • Q: For Rove: If yr right, how come his approval is so low?
  • KR: he’s been doing tough things fro a long time. THere have been 3 presidents with lower approval rating: Carter, Nixon, Truman, and __. Rule of law: I won’t testify before congress because I believe in rule of law and the executive should be allowed to get private counsel. The senate and the house are stonewalling my totally fair settlement offers.
  • JD: SJ, now that BO is taking over, does he get a boost by contrast, or is his starting point so low that he’s screwed?
  • SJ: 9/11 is the starting point of what we’re talking about. Many people feel that the US(and UK) overreacted. The consequence is that we’ve played the terrorists game. We’ve restricted our liberties
  • JD: i’ve heard WK say the opposite, that we put the terrorists on the run
  • WK: they are on the run. The Jihadist impulse is a problem, but Bush took away their momentum. I don’t buy the premise that we curbed civil liberties. FDR and JFK and LBJ (during Viet Nam) took way more liberty. There’ve been
  • JW: the people you mentioned that challenged the bad decisions were drummed out of the administration. Yr amazingly cavalier about this stuff; “gitmo’s no big deal”?
  • WK: he’s lost close Sup Ct decisions.
  • Back and forth about civilian vs military trials
  • KR: we shouldn’t have the same rules fro enemy noncombatants should we mirandize theses people?

[audience: yes]

  • jw: under yr system they have NO rights. We can’t find out who’s there. Bush arrested citizens and held people indefinitely without charges
  • KR: we picked people up on battlefields, not the Upper West Side
  • WK: Bush went out of his way to say “this is not a war against Islam”. He’s le
  • SJ: what I think is extraordinary to people abroad is that we can’t see why you needed to do theses thing. You’ll never persuade them you didn’t violate civil liberties.
  • WK: what have we done? to muslims?
  • You didn’t need to do it
  • WK: let’s talk
  • is america unpopular in east asia? india? these are success stories. France and Germany went to more conservative- pro-american candidates
  • Q: if he’s to receive credit fro protecting us since 9/11, does he deserve blame for allowing it to happen?
  • WK: USS Cole was bombed no one was paying enough attention to AQ. The bush Admin’n says they wish they were more in tune. But fundamentally the ability for AQ to train in afghanistan
    -JW: Righard Clarke was running around with his hair on fire. Bush wast reversing policy of the clinton admin, and played it down
  • Q: Who is the worst pres in the last 50 yrs and why?
  • WK: Viet Nam was a mess (LBJ), Nixon’s corruption, incompetence (Carter)
  • Q: this has been the biggest-spending admin’n since LBJ, and that’s w/o DHS and Iraq
  • KR: discretionary domestic spending was increased by clinton 15% in one year when we came in. We cut it to 7%, then 4%, then 2%, then flatline. It’s been hard to do. We’re gonna leave Obama a good budget.

[audience laughs]

  • WK Prescription Drugs is a good program.
  • Q: Rove: Had the intelligence been accurate, would the invasion have taken place?
  • KR: in the wake of 9/11, Bush had a concern about Saddam’s human rights abuses, and the UN resolutions, but absent WMDs, no, I don’t think we would have invaded
  • Q: If Bush didn’t go to Iraq, what do you think Saddam would have done?
  • SJ: I don’t see terrorism as a state-projected force. It’s a criminal act of gangsters. To glorify and give it the status of a state gives recruiters a huge boon. By declaring war, we’ve overstated this threat, and in doing so, we’ve turned huge numbers of countries into menaces. If you declare a small group of people into a n int’l menace, you turn them into a folk hero.
  • JW: Rove mentioned in that incredible litany of distortions, that I wanted to remove Saddam—not the way bush did. Saddam was being successfully disarmed and contained. He was a serial miscalculator, but not a madman. What would have happened if we didn’t invade iraq.
  • WK: if we know then would we still do it? We may have had to go after Saddam, but we could have done it with allies and we could have planned for an occupation.
  • WK: I think KR is right and we would have not gone if we knew there were no WMDs. But I think that he would have been more dangerous.
  • Q: Rove: what’s the future of the GOP?
  • KR: after a loss, a party goes through introspection. BO got 3% more than Gore. This was not a blowout. The GOP needs to make a real effort to get black votes. THe GOP needs to get the young. Reagan had longer coattails.
  • Q: What about Osama Bin Laden?
  • KR: He’s hiding in Pakistan, and every effort has been made to get him. A lot of his inner circle are dead. But this is an odd part of the world. It is not a state.
  • Q: What did Carter and LBJ do that was courageous? How would you compare Iraq to Viet Nam?
  • SJ: Nam seemed to be far more competently executed than Iraq. Iraq was the most incompentant think I’ve ever seen. It’s been a catastrophe. Afghanistan has been better-conducted, but it’s a harder situation and ill end in tears. In Viet Nam, they only just lost. It was not a hopeless case. When you go into a country without a good reason, you’re not likely to do well. The punitive element has been the problem.
  • JS: on LBJ: what courageous thing did he do? How about saying goodbye to the south for a generation? On judgment, LBJ doesn’t do as well. Both of them are unable to admit, recognize, or correct error. LBJ didn’t trust JFK’s advisors He couldn’t hear good advice. Bush got good advice from Powell, but he was so blinded by is own motives.
  • Q: fro those against tho
  • KR: democratic iraq, stabile afghanistan, new institutions for carbon where all the major emitters are at the table.
  • WK: the iranian revolution and the saudis exporting of jihadism—jihadism has been on the rise and doing huge damage to us. and to the arab wold. a successful policy would reverse that. Secondly, nuclear weapons. Its amazing that we’ve had so little proliferation. If we can prevent Iran from going nuclear, it’ll be a huge win.
  • Q: What do you suggest Obama do to deal with Islamofascinm?
  • JW: BO should focus on turning afghanistan, figure out how to get us out of iraq with out it getting worse than it was. Its true that we haven’t had another attack; was it bush’s actions, or luck?
  • SJ: good policing on the ground, not war in the middle east, has prevented attacks. The phrase “islamofacism”, which implies __, is the surest way to turn them hostile. These are normal people, just like you, who don’t think they have the right to come here and tell you what to do. Good relations with a country will encourage that country to suppress the hostile elements
  • WK: the islamofascists have killed more muslims; what country has been the greatest victim of islamofascistS? iraquis!
  • Q: For Rove: if the US known for its Constitution and respect for rule of low, how would you rate the bush presidency. and why would you not testify in a criminal investigation about corruption.
  • KR: i refuse to testify to preserve the rule of law. The president needs to have a right to private counsel.

Laptop battery dies. No more notes. Ending:

  • Rove and Kristol change more minds than JS and SJ. Surprise. Does that mean GWB is only the second-worst president of the last 50 yrs? Or that the few right-wingers in the audience stuffed the poll and pled “undecided” on the “before” poll. Audience grumbles on their way out.

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