Former President George W. Bush Dead at 72

Policy Review, October 5, 2018--George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, died today at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. He was 72. The cause of death was announced as heart failure.

Mr. Bush's always controversial presidency left behind a changed nation and a changed world. Taking office in 2001 after a disputed election settled only by a 5-4 decision by a bitterly divided Supreme Court, and decisively reelected in 2004, President Bush led the United States into four wars, oversaw the dismantling of Social Security and Medicare, and enforced a drastic shrinking of elementary, secondary, and collegiate education. He spearheaded the transformation of President Bill Clinton's budget surpluses of 1999 and 2000 into permanent deficits of more than a trillion dollars a year, thus profoundly reducing the amount of capital available to address the needs of the vast majority of citizens and inhibiting the creation of new jobs with any promise of advancement or financial security, while at the same time pursuing tax reductions that increased the differences between the income and assets of, in his own terminology, "owners" and "pre-owners" of "the American ownership society" to extremes almost beyond measure. When he left office, taxation of personal and corporate incomes, while still legally extant, had been effectively replaced by a new payroll tax, so that almost all investment, inheritance, and interest income was left tax-free. "Those with the greatest stake in America," President Bush often said throughout his second term, "have the greatest stake in defending it. Thus we as a nation must do all that we can to ensure that the commitment of those with the greatest stake to the rest of us, a commitment on which our freedom and security rests, only grows greater."

Adding to Mr. Bush's statutory and administrative economic policies were a series of decisions by the "Bush Court," as the Supreme Court was known after 2005, when in that year Mr. Bush replaced three retiring members with very conservative justices (a fourth was replaced in 2006), depriving government regulation of corporations and the environment of any legal basis--decisions which many analysts considered more significant than the repudiation by the Bush Court of previous decisions upholding a woman's right to privacy in the matter of abortion and certain applications of affirmative action. Even with the Bush Court seated, however, the Republican-controlled Congress that Mr. Bush enjoyed throughout his presidency repeatedly passed legislation removing issue after issue from the purview of the state and federal courts, including questions of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to trial by jury. Despite these prohibitions of judicial review, the government, under Mr. Bush, did not press for any legislation curtailing what had previously been referred to as "First Amendment freedoms," but simply refrained from challenging such legislation passed by many states, rather filing supportive briefs before the Supreme Court when such measures were contested. Ultimately the reversal of the series of 20th-century Supreme Court decisions subjecting the states to the Bill of Rights, long-sought by certain conservatives, was achieved not de jure but de facto. "The press is legally free," the former New York Times columnist Frank Rich put it in 2007, writing in his online journal "It merely refrains from practicing freedom." Some said the same of the nation as a whole; others said the country was freer than it had ever been.

President George W. Bush in 2004
Eric Draper
President George W. Bush in 2004

Mr. Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 6, 1946, and raised in Houston and Midland, Texas, where his father, the former President George H. W. Bush, began his careers in oil and politics. Mr. Bush attended Andover Academy and graduated from Yale University in 1968. During the Vietnam War he was a member of the Texas Air National Guard, known at the time as a safe haven from combat duty; whether Mr. Bush did in fact fulfill his military obligations became a subject of dispute during his second election campaign. In 1975 Mr. Bush graduated from Harvard Business School and began careers in oil and politics in Texas; neither flourished. Though he married the former Laura Welch in 1977 and fathered twin daughters Jenna (named for Mrs. Bush's mother) and Barbara (named for Mr. Bush's mother) in 1981, Mr. Bush's life through his early 40s was characterized by business failures, accusations of insider trading, reports of silent bailouts, and self-confessed "drinking." (Mr. Bush claimed to have renounced drinking--the word alcoholism was never used--the day after his 40th birthday, as the result of divine intervention and an act of will.) He became a public figure in 1989 when, through a questioned investment, he became part of the consortium that bought the Texas Rangers baseball franchise; his title as managing partner produced an impression of competence and good humor. In 1994 Mr. Bush ran for governor of Texas and proved himself a first-rate campaigner. When he was elected, Texas was a bipartisan state; as Mr. Bush's advisor Karl Rove once said, "He charmed Democrats into riding on his strong back as he forded the river of discord." When Mr. Bush left office as president, the Texas government was all Republican.

Mr. Bush was a politician opponents underestimated at their peril, and throughout his career his opponents did just that. He cultivated an aura of know-nothingness, of "a fine disregard" of inconvenient facts or opinions, but he was devastating on the attack, able to present himself as an ordinary man outraged by the self-superiority of whoever might be opposing him at any time and on any issue. Even as president, before the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City, in 2001, he was not always taken seriously by political commentators or the public at large; after that event he became a heroic figure, standing in defense of the United States as if that historic responsibility were his alone.

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