Pols, pundits and even some historians are beginning the debate on George W. Bush’s presidency. At a debate earlier this week, Karl Rove and Bill Kristol debated a UK Guardian columnist and Slate group editor in chief on the topic of "resolved: Bush 43 is the worst president in the last 50 years."
The debate, produced by Intelligence Squared U.S. and the Rosenkranz Foundation, was moderated by ABC News’s John Donvan. It was held, of all places, at a hall in Manhattan’s notoriously liberal Upper West Side.
The liberals drew the expected applause and the conservatives drew the expected jeers. Going in, the audience was polled and 65 percent said they were for the motion, 17 percent were against, and 18 percent were undecided.
Weisberg and Jenkins argued that President Bush’s administration was the worst in recent history, that Iraq was a colossal mistake and failure, that Bush lacks character, judgment, intelligence, humility, and foresight, and that the result has been the total and utter deterioration of America’s standing in the world.
Of course, Rove and Kristol in their inimitable ways, argued that all of that was, quite simply, ridiculous.
The debate produced few surprises. But there was a minor revelation, and it’s that hyperbole is the mother tongue of the American and international left. (Is Tom Cruise really the "worst person in the world?" He was for a time, if you ask Keith Olbermann.) Simon Jenkins, a British journalist and BBC broadcaster, proved this point expertly at this hyperbolically- titled debate.
Jenkins made some of the most overblown, totally inaccurate, wildly speculative and blatantly irresponsible statements I have ever heard. (Okay, that was a little hyperbolic.) But he was, in many ways, astonishingly misguided.
Some of it he stumbled into. While arguing that Americans have implicated Muslims at large for the terrorist activities of a few, he said that Muslim-Americans have been horribly mistreated. When pressed by the moderator, Rove, Kristol and the audience for examples of how exactly Muslim-Americans have been mistreated, he blurted out that they’ve been arrested. When pressed again to give a single name, he couldn’t. Adding irony to insult, of course, is the fact that British-Muslim relations are among some of the most tenuous and overtly hostile in all of Europe.
Likewise he was asked if there were differences between how the Iraq War and the Vietnam War were carried out, and he actually, inexplicably, said that Vietnam was run far more competently and with much better success than Iraq; Vietnam, where 55,000 US troops were killed, and from which we returned a failure, was run better than Iraq, where 4,000 troops have died and we have returned a success. The statement drew gasps and laughs from the audience. Conservative celebrity Stephen Baldwin, who was seated across from me, could barely contain himself. Even the liberals shook their heads.
But other statements were not mere stumbles. They were bold and oversimplified declarations of utter absurdity. In suggesting that Afghanistan will be a far greater challenge for the U.S. than Iraq was, he said smugly, "Iraq is easy. We just leave."
And in a page right out of Noam Chomsky, he also said that the consequences of 9/11 have been catastrophic — not because of the devastation incurred by its victims, but because of what the United States did afterward.
In the end, Jenkins came off as cavalier, elitist, out of touch and largely ineffective. Kristol rightly pointed out that the proof of Bush’s legacy is that Obama seemingly plans to change very little in the coming months and years. As for the president elect, Jenkins told us condescendingly that he thinks we have a good future ahead of us.
After the debate, Kristol and Rove gained a whopping 10 percentage points, while Jenkins and Weisberg only gained 3. As we set out to write the book on President Bush’s two terms — arguably a daunting and serious task that will require us to consider complex and significant factors only fully explainable with time and distance — let’s keep in mind that hyperbole has no useful purpose here, except maybe as a punchline.