The dark skies that lingered over Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2001, foreshadowed the beginning of an ominous era. Two months after the most contentious presidential election in a century, tens of thousands of protesters packed the rain-slicked streets, pelting George W. Bush’s motorcade with eggs and greeting the 43rd president of the United States with signs reading “Hail to the thief.”
It seems like only yesterday that we watched this scene on our televisions, hoping this alcoholic-turned-compassionate-conservative wouldn’t botch things too badly.
As it turns out, Bush’s tenure was much, much worse than anyone could have imagined. From Iraq to Katrina, from the recession to the erosion of civil liberties, from the destruction of the environment to a seemingly limitless cornucopia of scandals, the last eight years proved to be a disaster of epic proportions.
But at noon Jan. 20, it all comes to a merciful end. Bush will turn over the reins to President Barack Obama, who has the unenviable task of trying to save a country Bush worked diligently to destroy.
Before that happens, though, let’s take a moment to look back on the long, strange, embarrassing, ruinous and sad trip that the George W. Bush administration has been. Pour yourself a strong drink; you’re going to need it.
Jan. 20: Bush takes the oath of office, becoming only the third president to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, and only accomplishing that thanks to a 537-vote victory in Florida, a state his brother governed, in a vote certified by Secretary of State Katherine Harris, his state campaign co-chair, and ratified by a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision. He inherits a $237-billion budget surplus from President Clinton.
Jan. 21: On his first full day in office, Bush pulls U.S. funding of international health programs that offer or even discuss abortion. On Valentine’s Day, 2006, he will propose deep cuts to overseas family-planning programs that provide contraception, which the White House had earlier described as “one of the best ways to prevent abortion.”
Jan. 29: Bush launches an initiative to permit federal aid programs to be administered by religious groups.
March 29: Bush removes the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocols, the international accords aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Later documents reveal that an oil-industry organization heavily influenced the president’s decision.
May 16-17: The Bush administration rolls out its energy policy, formulated by a secretive task force helmed by Vice President Dick Cheney and packed with oil-industry representatives. Not surprisingly, the policy calls for more oil drilling and increased use of nuclear power.
June 7: Bush signs into law a $1.35-trillion tax-cut package that primarily benefits the wealthy. He will pass subsequent tax cuts in 2002 and 2003.
June 11: The U.S. executes Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; it’s the first federal execution since 1963.
June 16: Bush meets Russian president Vladimir Putin and says, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Aug. 6: Bush receives a briefing titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” Bush hears out the briefer and says, “All right, you’ve covered your ass now.”
Aug 9: Bush makes a national address announcing his opposition to federal funding for new lines of embryonic stem-cell research.
Sept. 11: Al-Qaida terrorists crash airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia, and a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people die. That night, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld urges Bush to “do Iraq,” according to then–White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, because “there just aren’t enough targets in `the al-Qaida base of` Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks.”
Sept. 18: Someone mails envelopes containing anthrax spores to media outlets in Florida and New York. Five people die. Initially, the administration blames al-Qaida. In August 2008, the FBI fingers deceased scientist Bruce Ivins as the culprit.
Sept. 27: Bush encourages Americans to do their patriotic duty and take a vacation. “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Oct. 7: American and British forces attack Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Oct. 9: Bush enjoys a 92-percent approval rating, the highest of any president in modern polling history.
Oct. 26: Bush signs the USA Patriot Act, giving the government broad powers of surveillance over the American public.
Nov. 13: Bush issues an executive order that declares that suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. will be tried by secret military tribunals and will not have access to the legal protections afforded the accused in the United States.
Nov. 29: Cheney says that Osama bin Laden is in a mountainous region of the Afghan-Pakistani border called Tora Bora. Over the next month, Americans bomb suspected hiding spots. Bush relies on Pakistani forces (some of whom were friendly with the Taliban) to pursue the world’s most wanted man. Bin Laden escapes.
Dec. 2: Enron, a Texas energy company with long ties to Bush, files for bankruptcy after it’s revealed that the company hid $1 billion in debt from investors.
Dec. 17: A subsidiary of Halliburton, Cheney’s former employer, receives a 10-year no-bid contract to assist the Pentagon in a wide range of areas. The contract is worth at least $2.5 billion.
Jan. 8: Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act, which forces states to adopt standardized testing.
Jan. 11: The Guantanamo Bay detention center receives its first guest.
Jan. 29: The BBC reports that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a devout fundamentalist, spent $8,000 to cover up the exposed breasts of the “Spirit of Justice” statue that is often visible behind him during press conferences. That night, in his State of the Union speech, Bush calls Iraq, Iran and North Korea — three countries that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks — an “axis of evil.”
Feb. 14: The White House announces the queerly named “Clear Skies Initiative,” which would actually weaken parts of the Clean Air Act under the guise of reducing air pollutants.
May 21: In a 13-page memo to her superiors, FBI agent Coleen Rowley blows the whistle on the agency’s incompetence in the weeks leading up to 9/11, following the August detention of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker.” Moussaoui was taking flight (but not landing) instruction, which aroused agents’ suspicions, but FBI brass threw up “road blocks” to the investigation.
June 1: Bush announces his doctrine of military pre-emption, under which the United States may go to war with any country it believes to be a threat.
June 6: In a national address, Bush proposes the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.
July 23: British intelligence officials discuss America’s increasing war posturing in Iraq. As famously recounted in the Downing Street Memo, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around” Bush’s desire to go to war with Saddam Hussein on the basis of claims about weapons of mass destruction.
Sept. 8: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice raises the specter of nuclear war: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Over the next month, administration hawks began furiously beating the war drums. Chief of staff Andrew Card says the war push started in September because “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
Oct. 11-12: Both houses of Congress authorize Bush to use military force to disarm Iraq. That this vote takes place a few weeks before the congressional elections is no coincidence.
Nov. 4: Republicans win sweeping victories in Congress.
Nov. 15: Rumsfeld insists that the forthcoming Iraq War will last “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that. It won’t be a World War III.”
Nov. 25: Bush signs a law authorizing the Department of Homeland Security, and nominates adviser Tom Ridge as its first secretary. The department unveils a color-coded threat barometer that always seems to tick upward when the administration finds itself in hot water.
Dec. 2: Rumsfeld authorizes “aggressive interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo.
Jan. 28: In his State of the Union address, Bush warned that Iraq had sought to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger, though his administration was told beforehand that the assertion was incorrect.
Jan. 31: Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair agree privately to attack Iraq on March 10, no matter how the United Nations inspections go.
Feb. 5: Secretary of State Colin Powell presents evidence to the U.N. Security Council that Saddam poses a grave threat.
Feb. 15: In more than 600 cities worldwide, millions gather to protest Bush’s looming war.
Feb. 19: In an interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer, Ridge defends his department’s suggestion that Americans stock up on duct tape in the case of a chemical attack.
Feb. 25: Gen. Eric Shinseki tells Congress that the invasion of Iraq will require hundreds of thousands of troops, far more than the administration’s official estimates. He is forced into early retirement.
March 16: On Meet the Press, Cheney says of the pending invasion, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”
March 17: Bush delivers an ultimatum: Saddam has 48 hours to relinquish power and flee, or the United States will attack.
March 19: The Iraq War begins.
March 27: Says deputy defense secretary and war architect Paul Wolfowitz, “We are dealing with a country `Iraq` that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”
April 9: Coalition forces take Baghdad. Rioting ensues, but for days the U.S. does nothing.
May 1: In a surge of bravado aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, and under a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” Bush announces that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” Up to that date, 138 U.S. service members had died in nearly two months of battle. By the end of 2008, 4,219 have died.
July 2: Bush dismisses concerns about the brewing Iraqi insurgency, saying, “Bring ’em on.”
July 14: Conservative columnist Robert Novak outs CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame after her husband helped debunk the notion that Iraq sought nuclear materials from Niger.
Aug. 19: A car bomb destroys the U.N.’s Baghdad headquarters.
Oct. 16: The Los Angeles Times reports that a day after Rumsfeld named Gen. William Boykin to a top Pentagon position in June 2002, Boykin appeared before an Oklahoma Baptist church and cast the war on terror as a war against Islam and Satan. “Ladies and gentleman, this is your enemy,” Boykin told the congregation as he showed them pictures he took of the downed Blackhawk disaster in Somalia. “It is the principalities of darkness. It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy.” Victory, he continued, would only happen if “we come against them in the name of Jesus.”
Dec. 13: American forces apprehend Saddam Hussein.
Jan. 23: The U.S.’s chief weapons inspector resigns, saying there aren’t any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is later revealed that not only had Saddam had no such weapons, but also that he didn’t have any programs in place to make them, Iraq had no connections to Al-Qaida and the entire foundation of Bush’s case for war was a lie.
Feb. 2: Jeff Gannon, the White House correspondent frequently called upon by Bush or his press secretaries during news conferences, asks a softball question about the president’s disputed National Guard service: “Since there have been so many questions about what the president was doing over 30 years ago, what is it that he did after his honorable discharge from the National Guard? Did he make speeches alongside Jane Fonda? … Did he throw somebody else’s medals at the White House to protest a war America was still fighting?” Gannon, who wrote for the right-wing website Talon News, was later accused of plagiarizing White House press releases and media reports and revealed to be a former gay escort.
Feb. 23: Bush endorses a federal same-sex marriage amendment that would ban gay couples from marrying anywhere in the country. The move helps secure the evangelical base that will deliver his re-election victory in November.
April 13: At a press conference, Bush is unable to say what, if any, mistakes he made since 9/11.
April 28: On 60 Minutes II, Dan Rather breaks the story of widespread abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which includes pictures of military police posing prisoners in humiliating sexual positions. While the administration tried to distance itself from the conduct, later reports tie the abuses to Rumsfeld’s and the administration’s cavalier attitude toward torture as a means of securing intelligence.
May 7: As Rumsfeld testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee — apologizing for how his department handled the scandal — protesters disrupt the hearing, shouting “Fire Rumsfeld! Fire Rumsfeld!” Bush’s chief pollster urges the president to fire the secretary because the administration has never lived up to its pledges of accountability. Rumsfeld stays.
June 25: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports that the Iraq War cost $71.3 billion in its first year — far more than the administration predicted — and projected that it would cost between $52 billion and $233 billion over the next 10 years. The actual costs proved much higher.
July 12: Kenneth Lay, the former Enron CEO and longtime Bush financier, surrenders after being indicted on 11 counts of fraud related to the Enron collapse.
July 22: The 9/11 Commission releases its report. It says that there was no link between al-Qaida and Iraq, and that warning signs of the impending terrorist attack were ignored. Bush opposed the commission’s creation. Recently, Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department, told Vanity Fair that before the attacks the administration “didn’t give a shit about al-Qaida.”
Aug. 5: Republican Sen. John McCain condemns dishonest ads run by the third-party group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that accuse Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, of lying about his war record. McCain asks the White House to repudiate the ads. The White House declines.
Nov. 2: Bush defeats Kerry and wins a second term.
Nov. 4: Bush declares, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
Nov. 15: Colin Powell resigns as secretary of state.
Jan. 29: A Justice Department official tells the White House that it would like to replace “15 to 20 percent” of the country’s 93 U.S. attorneys. The rest, he explains, are “loyal Bushies.”
Feb. 2: In his State of the Union address, Bush announces how he plans to use his “political capital” to partially privatize Social Security. The idea goes nowhere.
March 21: Bush throws his evangelical base a bone and rushes back from a Texas vacation to sign a hastily crafted federal law aimed at preventing the husband of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state, from removing her life support. This move is ultimately unsuccessful, and Schiavo is allowed to die days later.
June 24: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is elected president of Iran, which, because of the deteriorating conditions in neighboring Iraq, has gained power. When Iran steps up its nuclear program, Bush threatens military force.
July 19: Following the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, Bush nominates John Roberts to the bench.
Aug. 29: Hurricane Katrina nearly destroys New Orleans as Bush attends John McCain’s birthday party and a fundraiser out west. Though the federal government’s response is an abject failure, Bush nonetheless says that FEMA manager Michael Brown is “doing a heckuva job.” Soon after, Brown is fired. Later, White House staffers point to Katrina as the moment when the wheels started coming off the bus.
Sept. 5: Following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Bush appoints Roberts chief justice.
Oct. 3: Bush nominates his White House general counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court. Bush’s evangelical base revolts – they wanted a more reliably right-wing justice. Miers backs out.
Oct. 28: Scooter Libby, a top Cheney aide, is indicted on charges of lying to the grand jury in the case involving the outing of CIA agent Plame.
Oct. 30: In Miers’ place, Bush nominates the far-right Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Dec. 6: A NASA scientist gives a speech on climate change, prompting Bush’s political appointees in the agency to order that his future speeches be vetted in advance, as the administration prefers to minimize the potential dangers of global warming.
Dec. 16: The New York Times reports on the administration’s secret and quasi-legal warrantless surveillance program inside the U.S.
Dec. 30: Bush signs a law designed to prevent the mistreatment of military detainees — a la Abu Ghraib — then appends a “signing statement” saying that he’s not really bound by the law he just signed.
March 9: Bush signs the USA Patriot Act reauthorization.
April 18: After six retired generals call for Rumsfeld to be fired – given the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Iraq due to terrible post-invasion planning – Bush defends his defense secretary: “I have strong confidence in Don Rumsfeld. I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.”
June 13: The New York Times reports that Bush political operative Karl Rove will not be indicted in the Plame case. This comes after prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald allowed Rove to revise his testimony multiple times before the grand jury. Despite Bush’s repeated promises to fire anyone involved in outing Plame, Rove stays on the job in the face of undisputed evidence that he did just that.
June 29: The Supreme Court rules that under the Geneva Conventions, Guantanamo detainees have rights to due process.
Sept. 4: For the first time in his presidency, Bush uses his veto pen — to block stem-cell-research funding.
Sept. 13: The attorney general’s office recommends to the White House a handful of United States attorneys to be replaced. Some of them are pursuing corruption cases against Republicans. Others haven’t pursued political cases with the vigor the White House wants.
Sept. 21: The EPA refuses to stiffen soot-emissions regulations.
Sept. 22: American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan now exceed the number of people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Oct. 9: North Korea, the forgotten member of the Axis of Evil, successfully tests a nuclear weapon.
Oct. 27: New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici calls United States attorney David Iglesias to ask if local corruption cases involving Democrats will be prosecuted before the November election. Iglesias says no, and is added to the list of attorneys to be fired. Seven attorneys are fired in December, Iglesias included.
Nov. 7: Thanks to the Iraq quagmire, Republicans are strongly rebuked at the ballot box, and Democrats take over both houses of Congress for the first time since 1995.
Nov. 8: Rumsfeld resigns.
Dec. 6: The bipartisan Iraq Study Group releases a report on the future of the Iraq War. Its 79 recommendations include a call for a responsible exit from Iraq. Bush ignores it.
Dec. 20: In response to an economic slowdown, Bush asks Americans to “go shopping.”
Dec. 30: Saddam Hussein is hanged.
Jan. 10: Instead of drawing down American troops in Iraq, Bush decides to go all-in and orders a “surge” of 20,000 additional troops to quell the persistent insurgency.
March 6: Scooter Libby is convicted of lying to a grand jury.
April 19: In Senate testimony on the firings of United States attorneys, attorney general Alberto Gonzalez says “I don’t recall” at least 38 times.
May 1: Bush vetoes an Iraq War spending bill that would require a timeline for withdrawing troops. In his explanation, Bush falsely ties the conflict in Iraq to al-Qaida, “the same terrorist network that attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.”
June 28 Bush announces an immigration plan that would allow 12 million undocumented aliens already in the United States to eventually gain legal status. The xenophobic wing of the GOP beats this down with a fury, and Bush’s popularity among Republicans takes a hit from which it won’t recover.
July 3: After Libby is sentenced to 30 months in prison, Bush commutes his sentence, which he deems too stiff.
July 19: The Dow finishes above 14,000 — its highest point ever.
Sept. 20: The Canadian dollar, which was worth 62 U.S. cents in 2002, passes the U.S. dollar in value for the first time in at least 31 years.
Dec. 1: This month, the United States officially enters a recession, though this won’t be acknowledged for another year.
Jan. 1: Home foreclosure this month will be up 57 percent over January 2007.
March 14: Investment giant Bear Stearns is bought out by J.P. Morgan in a $30-billion deal guaranteed by the federal government.
May 27: On a media tour promoting a book, former Bush spokesman Scott McClellan says the president misled the American public on Iraq. The White House calls him “disgruntled.”
July 9: At Bush’s final G-8 summit in Japan, the nations involved pledge to cut greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2050. Bush refuses to commit to this target, and on his way home tells the gathered heads of state, “Goodbye from the world’s greatest polluter.”
Aug. 8: Russia invades neighboring Georgia. It is a bold move from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has consolidated his power during Bush’s tenure.
Sept. 1: Bush becomes the first sitting president since 1968 not to attend his party’s nominating convention. Throughout the campaign John McCain, the GOP nominee, seems eager to keep the president out of sight.
Sept. 15: Lehman Brothers, a global finances firm, files the largest bankruptcy in American history. The government declines to intervene.
Sept. 26: Washington Mutual implodes in the subprime-mortgage crisis, the largest bank collapse in American history. The federal government seizes the bank’s assets and sells some of them to JP Morgan Chase.
Oct. 3: After a meltdown on Wall Street, Congress passes a law authorizing the Treasury Secretary to spend $700 billion to keep the banking industry afloat. Later, some of this money is diverted to prop up the failing auto industry.
Oct. 9: The national debt clock in New York has to add an extra digit, as the debt now exceeds $10 trillion. When Bush took office, the national debt was $5.7 trillion. Bush, via tax cuts and war spending, nearly doubled the national debt in less than eight years. Seven times during the Bush administration, Congress had to raise the statutory debt ceiling.
Nov. 1: Over a six-month period, the stock market has lost a third of its value.
Nov. 4: U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate whose campaign tied McCain to Bush’s policies, is elected handily.
Dec. 31: As Bush prepares to leave office, the nation’s annual budget deficit is projected to exceed $1 trillion, the highest ever.
Bush inherited a nation at peace with a budget surplus. He leaves office with the worst economy since World War II, more than 4,000 dead U.S. service members and two unfinished wars.
Worst president ever? Quite possibly. George W. Bush, who had a 92-percent approval rating following 9/11, ends 2008 with 75 percent of Americans saying they’re glad to see him go and only 27 percent approving of his job performance, one of the lowest marks in history.
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