Farrar, Straus, Giroux
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updated 9/13/2004 3:54:31 PM ET 2004-09-13T19:54:31

What We've Lost addresses the fragile state of U.S. democracy with a critical review of the Bush administrationby one of our leading magazine editors, Graydon Carter. Carter has expressed his deep dissatisfaction with the current state of the nation in his monthly editor's letters in Vanity Fair--which have aroused widespread comment--and now provides a sweeping, painstakingly detailed account of the ruinous effects of this president. Read an excerpt, below.

Chapter Excerpt

To begin with...
In making his final decision to launch an invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush did not seek the advice of his father, a veteran of World War II and a former president who had gone to battle with the same foe a decade earlier. Nor did he seek the overall final recommendation of his secretary of defense, or of his secretary of state, the only man in his cabinet who had been decorated for military service in wartime with the medals befitting a national hero. Instead, as Bob Woodward wrote in his book Plan of Attack, he consulted his God, a God that the president presumes takes sides in disputes between peoples.

That reckless, unnecessary and unforgiving decision to wage a war of choice with a country that was neither an enemy nor a real threat is at the very root of all we’ve lost during George W. Bush’s presidency. We’ve lost our good reputation and our standing as a great and just superpower. We’ve lost the sympathy of the world following September 11 and turned it into an alloy of fear and hatred. We’ve lost lives and allies. We’ve lost liberties and freedoms. We’ve lost billions of dollars that could have gone toward a true assault on terrorism. It could fairly be said that in the age of George W. Bush, we have lost our way.

The deceptions that took the United States into Iraq were the work of an administration without care for logic or truth. The aftermath, a war seemingly without end and one that is costing the country tens of billions of dollars and the lives of about thirteen young American soldiers every week, is the work of an administration without judgment or fore-sight. The United States is a warrior nation with a heart of peace and a history of generally doing the right thing. The cry-wolf invasion of Iraq has not only shaken that opinion of the United States, it will make it difficult for future American leaders to rally nations against an enemy that actually is a credible global threat.

The sideshow in the Middle East proved in the end to be a convenient diversion for the Bush White House: It distracted Americans’ attention from the administration’s domestic agenda, its ideological war at home. Iraq also served as a shield for the administration, in the sense that the White House defined any opposition to or criticism of what it was up to in those early days as the work of the unpatriotic or the traitorous. With the country looking the other way, Bush and Cheney began dismantling decades’ worth of advances in civil liberties, health care, education, the economy, the judiciary, and the environment. It is difficult to point to a single element of American society that comes under federal jurisdiction that is not worse off than it was an administration ago.

The Bush White House inherited a military greater than any ever assembled and spread it so thin that it ultimately had to order thousands of troops to stay in war zones months longer than the terms of their service contracts. At a time of war, the administration tried to cut back on benefits for veterans and soldiers still in the field of battle.

The Bush White House inherited a robust economy brimming with jobs and budget surpluses. It may well end its four years with a net loss of jobs during Bush’s first term, a feat unsurpassed since the Hoover administration. In its desire to create tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, it created a horizon of budget deficits, crippling debt, and trade imbalances.

The Bush White House inherited an education system that, while not perfect, was in many ways the envy of the world. Its unreasonable and underfunded No Child Left Behind program hobbled state systems by placing rigid demands on school districts but pledging little money to meet those demands.

The Bush White House inherited an environment that had been all but saved by the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of the 1970s. The administration, many of whose members were plucked from the oil and gas industries, turned its back on more than thirty years of advances in environmental legislation and global treaties to reward its campaign backers from the petrochemical industry.

The Bush White House inherited a health-care system that favored the rich, then made it worse, turning it into a complex apparatus that will produce unprecedented profits for another set of major campaign backers—the health and pharmaceutical industries—all at the expense of regular patients, the elderly, and the poor.

The Bush White House inherited a government of model transparency and purposefully bent it to the will of the most secretive administration in recent American history.

The Bush White House inherited a judicial system that was America’s centrist, if not conservative, legal safeguard and turned it into an ideological, right-wing juggernaut.

The Bush White House took the world’s warm feelings toward America—remember the days following September 11, when all citizens of the world proclaimed themselves to be New Yorkers?--and turned them into confusion and then rage.

The Bush White House took a nation that was both the cradle and the missionary of democratic freedoms and civil liberties and reduced rights under both for America’s own citizens.

At the heart of all of this loss were two unforgivable deceptions embedded in George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign: that he was a “united and not a divider,” and that he was a “compassionate conservative.” This “uniter” became “the great polarizer,” a president who has divided Americans more than at any time since the Civil War. “Compassionate conservative” was a meaningless bit of public relations designed by Karen Hughes to appease the middle ground of the Republican Party and the conservative flank of the Democratic Party. Once in office, the Bush administration pursued not a compassionate course but rather a harsh, far-right-wing effort to roll back decades of liberal legislation. In a May 2004 interview in The New York Times, the billionaire George Soros said, “The government of the most powerful country on earth has fallen into the hands of extremists.” It seems as if post-September 11 America has been in a slumber—brought on by an anesthetic of fear and patriotism—and is only now beginning to wake up.

* * *

I am an American by choice rather than by birth. I’m a white, fifty-five-year-old Episcopalian. Born in Canada, I’ve lived in America for half my life. I’ve raised four children here, have done reasonably well professionally, and am by most measures a happy man. I’ve followed politics all my life, but politics has never been my life, if you know what I mean. To be honest, I really never had much truck with politicians of any stripe. But I love this country, its land, its soul, and above all its people.

So what does it say about us that we let a man of such blind conviction and willful ignorance lead us? George W. Bush may be the most incurious American president ever. He reads little and is far and away the least traveled president of the last half century. Indeed, most of his trips outside this country have been aboard Air Force One. When he was on the David Frost show in late 2003 before his official state visit to London, Frost brought up previous trips Bush had made there. “Laura and I went to see Cats,” was the president’s chief recollection. Former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill describes meetings with the president as short, limited, and without discussion or inquiry. Five, ten minutes tops, then Bush is up and out of the room.

In polls, America is now regularly listed as one of the most dangerous nations on earth, sometimes ahead of even North Korea. The world, simply put, doesn’t like Bush—or Americans—very much. And Americans, a great people with high ideals, like to be liked. Well, Americans like to be feared and liked, but liked is an important part of the equation. Electing George W. Bush was seen in many quarters of the world as a mistake, a voters’ aberration. His reelection would send those same quarters a message of intent and hostility on the part of the United States that may take decades fully to recover from.

One can only hope that this war, this period, this administration, is not the beginning of a new age. That it is not the true story of our times, a terrible dream from which we will wake up one day only to realize what we’ve lost.

Excerpt from What We’ve Lost: How the Bush Administration Has Curtailed Our Freedoms, Mortgaged Our Economy, Ravaged Our Environment, and Damaged Our Standing in the World by Graydon Carter. Copyright © 2004 by Graydon Carter. Published in September, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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