George Bush, an avid sports fan, clearly possesses unyielding faith in Hail Mary plays. At his last press conference as president, he once again struggled to take responsibility for any mistakes, and sounded his familiar defense, that only historians could fairly judge him:
Anyway, I think historians will look back and they'll be able to have a better look at mistakes after some time has passed. Along Jake's question, there is no such thing as short-term history. I don't think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed: Where does a President's -- did a President's decisions have the impact that he thought they would, or he thought they would, over time? Or how did this President compare to future Presidents, given a set of circumstances that may be similar or not similar? I mean, there's -- it's just impossible to do. And I'm comfortable with that.
The Bush administrative team really is rather remarkable; on the one hand, it consistently held that no one could have possibly predicted 9/11, levees breaking, rioting and sectarian violence in Iraq, the economic crisis, and a number of other events, yet Bush officials have also argued that only history can judge them. Apparently, it's simply impossible for any human being to imagine future possibilities, or to judge anything accurately in the present, either. This leaves us only with hindsight – perhaps the only appropriate way to judge those whose approach is backwards.
Fortunately, the administration faced these twin impossibilities of prediction and judgment armed with the preternaturally accurate "gut" and deep faith in truthiness of George W. Bush, and the infallible vision of Dick Cheney, sager than everyone else in the administration, but also wiser than the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Geneva Conventions, the Federalist papers, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Boy Scout Oath. Perhaps that's why, even though Bush told reporters yet again that only history can judge him, as Dan Froomkin notes, "Bush has been plenty willing to assert his view of history's verdict on his presidency, even while saying it's too early for others to do so." Yes, in 2004, 81% of 415 polled historians judged the Bush administration a "failure." But if things somehow get better, well then, reckless behavior that accidentally produces good results clearly isn't irresponsible. A few conservative historians have argued that time is on Bush's side, and Bush, his family and friends firmly believe that history will vindicate him. And after all, how could all those historians fairly judge Bush all the way back in 2004? Hurricane Katrina and the economic crisis hadn't even happened yet.
Some historians and journalists talk of objective standards, but no one can fairly say that George Bush, captain of a brave team, is the worst president ever.
Similarly, to use a sports analogy Bush could understand, no one can fairly say that after going a winless, unprecedented 0-16 in the regular season, the 2008 Detroit Lions are the NFL's worst team ever.
Oh sure, some wags might even try to make the case that Bush and the Lions are pretty much the same, but that's a hard sell:
Over seven seasons under [Matt] Millen's leadership as team CEO, the Detroit Lions owned the NFL's worst winning percentage (31–81, .277), have never had a winning season, have never finished higher than third place in the NFC North, and have not played in any post-season games. Despite this record of total and complete failure, Millen received a five-year contract extension at the start of the 2005 season.
One has a duty to quibble with overwhelming public opinion, common sense assessments, and the very act of critical judgment. Strong alternative cases can often be made. For instance, historians of football might argue that the Cincinnati Bengals, with one winning season in the past 18, are a greater failure, and "an embarrassment to sport," that is, a black mark on the entire endeavor of sports altogether. The same cannot be fairly said of Bush in relation to government and leadership, for while some critics churlishly insist he is the worst president ever, others more charitably place him merely among the four or even five worst presidents of all time. Calling him the absolute "worst" is therefore terribly premature.
Plus, who's to say someone worse won't come along? After all, continuing with our sports analogy, the Detroit Lions are actually 0-17 going back to the 2007 season, and theoretically, they could lose all their games in 2009, too. Some of the games in 2008 were close. They could go 0-16 again in 2009, but lose by an even wider margin. (It would take some effort, but they could break their record of failing to "win a road game for three years (0-24)," too.)
Or – what if the Detroit Lions resigned en masse, ran for office and took over our government? Imagine their record in history then (although predicting the future is impossible). Could they compete with the Bush legacy described by Dan Froomkin?
He took the nation to a war of choice under false pretenses -- and left troops in harm's way on two fields of battle. He embraced torture as an interrogation tactic and turned the world's champion of human dignity into an outlaw nation and international pariah. He watched with detachment as a major American city went under water. He was ostensibly at the helm as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression took hold. He went from being the most popular to the most disappointing president, having squandered a unique opportunity to unite the country and even the world behind a shared agenda after Sept. 11. He set a new precedent for avoiding the general public in favor of screened audiences and seemed to occupy an alternate reality. He took his own political party from seeming permanent majority status to where it is today. And he deliberately politicized the federal government, circumvented the traditional policymaking process, ignored expert advice and suppressed dissent, leaving behind a broken government.
Critics of Bush claim he's been worse than Nixon in harming America, the world, and most importantly of all, the Republican franchise. But never fear for the brand, because Sarah Palin and her backers are determined that they can outperform Bush, you betcha.
Anyway, sports analogies can be taken way too far, even with a sports lover like Bush. Comparing Bush to the woeful Detroit Lions reveals numerous differences, as we'll quickly see.
Here's (since fired) Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli explaining their disastrous season:
Detroit went 10-38 under Marinelli, who took the job in 2006. In September, the Lions fired President Matt Millen after the franchise posted the worst record (31-84) in the NFL during his seven-year tenure.
“We have nobody to point a finger at other than ourselves, we just didn’t do our job correctly,” Marinelli said yesterday. “There’s a lot to learn from that. You accept the adversity, try to fight through it and try to get better.”
Former Lions president Matt Millen made a similar claim:
"Completely responsible," he said. "I mean, you were head of football operations, you throw it back on me. You can say something about the coaching, you can say something about the players. But inevitably, I'm responsible for them. And so I'm completely responsible for it in my mind."
Millen added that even he would have fired himself.
Meanwhile, here's George Bush in his last press conference as president, boldly acknowledging that mistakes were made:
There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.
Some people are just never satisfied. Even after Millen admitted error, over at the Detroit Free Press, Drew Sharp wrote:
Millen blew it again. Detroit deserves a detailed explanation for what went so horribly wrong from those who perpetrated the deed. Simply saying that you’re responsible for the disaster doesn’t make you accountable. That requires serving a penance. If Millen truly seeks atonement, he must delve deeper into those additional “reasons” of which he spoke.
Meanwhile, here's the "Uber villager Stuart Taylor" on alleged wrongdoings by the Bush administration:
...It would be a terrible mistake, in my view, to launch anything like the big, public criminal investigation that almost 60 House liberals, human rights groups, and others are seeking into allegations that John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, President Bush, and other top officials reportedly approved harsh interrogation methods including water-boarding (subject to limitations that have not yet been publicly identified).
This is the most contentious area, because management, punditry and the public often have not agreed. In the case of the Detroit Lions, fans and sports pundits overwhelmingly wanted president Matt Millen sacked, but owner William Clay Ford, Sr. resisted for a long time (eventually, even his own son, Bill Ford, vice chairman of the Lions, publicly said he'd fire Millen if it were up to him). The number and scope of protests pushing for Millen to be fired proved quite extraordinary. In September 2008, Brian VanOchten of the Grand Rapids Press expressed the popular sentiment and urged for more public demonstrations:
It is time for Millen Man March II.
In the aftermath of the Detroit Lions' third consecutive defeat, the infuriated fans of this once-proud NFL franchise must stand united and demand that team president Matt Millen relinquish his throne.
Enough is enough.
The Lions are off to an 0-3 start for the fourth time in Millen's eight seasons of misguided leadership after a humiliating 31-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park.
Meanwhile, with Bush, there was significant public interest in impeaching him, but most political journalists and pundits did not show much interest in this; they lacked their sports brethren's eagerness to criticize management. Mort Kondracke (or his copy editor) expressed a common conservative view by claiming that charges that Bush lied were false. And Gary Kamiya offered, "Why Bush Hasn't Been Impeached: Congress, The Media and Most of The American People Have Yet To Turn Decisively Against Bush because To Do So Would Be To Turn Against Some Part of Themselves."
Brian VanOchten wanted further demonstrations against Matt Millen in September 2008, while in November 2008 at the Wall Street Journal, former John Kerry legal team intern Jeffrey Scott Shapiro inveighed:
The treatment President Bush has received from this country is nothing less than a disgrace. The attacks launched against him have been cruel and slanderous, proving to the world what little character and resolve we have. The president is not to blame for all these problems. He never lost faith in America or her people, and has tried his hardest to continue leading our nation during a very difficult time.
Our failure to stand by the one person who continued to stand by us has not gone unnoticed by our enemies. It has shown to the world how disloyal we can be when our president needed loyalty -- a shameful display of arrogance and weakness that will haunt this nation long after Mr. Bush has left the White House.
Clearly, there are different standards of fandom, patriotism and coverage. Some have claimed that among Bush cheerleaders, "If Bush were the CEO of a company they invested in, or the coach of their favorite football team, and delivered the same quality of performance he has as president, they would have been screaming for his head on a pike long ago." This view misses an important point of diehard fandom. Diehard fans want their team to succeed, but more important than a winning season is defeating hated division foes – for instance, the joy of the Lions making the playoffs does not possess the emotional heft of the schadenfreude felt when defeating the Green Bay Packers in a nationally-televised Thanksgiving game. Similarly, if Bush fails, if America falters, for diehard Bushies this is paltry compared to the satisfaction of defeating, infuriating and taunting political foes.
The Mood on the Team
After their final loss of the season, sentiment on the Detroit Lions was strong:
“This is the conclusion of all that we’ve done wrong,” Lions kicker Jason Hanson told reporters yesterday. “It’s so mind-numbingly awful. It’s a feeling of complete embarrassment and sadness.”
Meanwhile, in his last press conference, Bush reflected:
We had a -- people -- we -- I had a fabulous team around me of highly dedicated, smart, capable people, and we had fun. I tell people that, you know, some days happy, some days not so happy, every day has been joyous. And people, they say, I just don't believe it to be the case. Well, it is the case. Even in the darkest moments of Iraq, you know, there was -- and every day when I was reading the reports about soldiers losing their lives, no question there was a lot of emotion, but also there was times where we could be light-hearted and support each other.
Habits of Mind
In the final game of the 2008 season, the Detroit Lions had a chance to defeat their division rivals the Green Bay Packers to escape a winless season:
Orlovsky led the Lions back into Packers territory, but a taunting penalty on Smith moved the Lions back near midfield and Orlovsky threw an interception to Nick Collins.
"It was a very bad, selfish decision," Smith said. "I let my emotions get the best of me. It was tough, but it is no excuse."
Perhaps more than anything, the penalties got Raiola riled up.
"Stupid," Raiola said. "You know, just uncalled for. You're in a game like that, you can't do that. Just dumb."
And very much like the Lions.
Bush's "top ten moments":
(However, there are plenty of other contenders.)
Americans may hold their presidents and sports teams to different standards when it comes to success and accountability. But for both, the expectations from the public and punditry can be terribly, horribly unfair. During his last press conference, Bush took umbrage with criticism of his response to Hurricane Katrina:
People said, well, the federal response was slow. Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs. Thirty thousand people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It's a pretty quick response.
Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Absolutely. But when I hear people say, the federal response was slow, then what are they going to say to those chopper drivers, or the 30,000 that got pulled off the roofs?
Meanwhile, here's Lions coach Rod Marinelli looking back:
"The biggest thing in this is how you conduct yourself afterwards," Marinelli said. "We accept responsibility for everything that went down."
Clearly, Marinelli should stick to sports, because with an attitude like that, he'd never make in Washington.
(Previous strained political sports analogies can be found in "Political Football Theater" and "The Sporting Life," while the Commission previously explored the Millen-Bush connection (as have several late-night comedians). For better satire on the Bush legacy, check out Jon Swift. Thanks to Buck for video coding assistance. Finally, apologies to all Lions and Bengals fans – as a Cubs fan, I feel your pain.)
(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)