When Barack Obama claimed his victory in Chicago’s Grant Park, he thanked many people. But the one name missing from the list was the man who perhaps did the most to win Obama the presidency: George W. Bush. More than anyone else, he showed the disastrous downside of being born rich, white and well-connected.
It seems an eternity since Election Night four years ago when my friends and I sat around cursing John Kerry (whose concession speech was the high point of his campaign), dreading the specter of a Bush not just triumphant but seemingly vindicated. The man who’d treated a crooked Supreme Court decision as a mandate had now won a clear majority (give or take some voter suppression), filling with panic all those who saw him as a born-again anti-Christ. You had to shudder at what he might try to do in a second term: Bomb Iran? Privatize the air? Appoint Ann Coulter to the Supreme Court? She is a lawyer, you know.
But history is tricky, as Obama’s mentor Lenin once said, and Bush will now go down as the lamest quackyfoot in the Oval Office since at least Herbert Hoover (who, unlike W., had actually been an impressive figure before entering the White House). Indeed, Bush has pulled off a paradoxical parlay. Not only is he widely seen as leading the country to disaster — even Republican candidates treated him like a Lone Star strain of Ebola — but he’s managed to do this while seeming wholly irrelevant to our national life. He’s become America’s version of George and Martha’s imaginary child in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — at once blamed and invisible.
I don’t know anyone who would have predicted this in November 2004. Not me, that’s for sure. Back then I had just published a book that said being president was the only thing Bush had ever been good at. Yeah, I know. But this wasn’t quite as fatuous as it now sounds. I wasn’t suggesting that he was a good president (God forbid), but that he had proved extraordinarily skillful at imposing his will on a country that often didn’t want what he wanted them to want. Resentful at being misunderestimated, he was hell-bent on having a presidency that mattered — no Clintonian small-ball for George. Even his worst enemy has to admit he succeeded. A small man riding a big presidency, he quickly turned Clinton’s administration into a blip on history’s radar, assuring that ol’ Bill — an incomparably smarter and more gifted man — will forever be remembered for Monica.
Just look at all the big, quintessentially Bushean missions his administration has accomplished. Failure on 9/11 — and nobody fired. Maladroit wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tax cuts enriching the already-rich and creating massive deficits. Failure to check the collapse of our whole financial structure. Egregious violations of the Constitution, including the embrace of torture. GOP apparatchiks rewriting scientific reports. A politicized Department of Justice. Knee-jerk reactionaries appointed to the Supreme Court. Polarization turned into an instrument of state. Call me an elitist, but I sometimes wonder at the 25 percent who still think he’s doing a good job. What would he have to do to lose them? Admit that he has gay friends? Declare that the world is more than 6,000 years old?
Although the seeds of Bush’s ruin had already been planted before his re-election, he began his second term flush with overconfidence. When the Washington Post asked why nobody was being held accountable for the botched occupation of Iraq, he snapped, “We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections.”
But that’s the thing about hubris: It’s easy to mistake it for strength. And so Bush overplayed his hand again and again. Driven by an almost religious belief in unregulated markets — reason is harder work than faith — he hoped to nudge the country toward privatizing Social Security but was outmaneuvered by the Democrats, who knew that the public didn’t want it. He kept insisting that things were going well in Iraq even as newscasts were flooded with images of blood-spattered markets and women keening over their dead children. The public had long accepted that Dubya wasn’t a details guy, but his words about Iraq made him look clueless, out of touch.
This image of him was forever confirmed by his response — or more accurately, lack of response — to Hurricane Katrina. Even as the horrified nation watched suffering people get no help, there was George doing everything wrong — staying on vacation, gazing down at the ruined city from the heights of Air Force One, uttering the line that may be his masterpiece, “Heckuva job, Brownie.” Although Bush was president for more than three years after saying these words, most Americans never again saw him as presidential. Katrina became a metaphor for his administration, and those who hated him hated him more than ever. Yet precisely because Katrina spelled the effective end of Bush’s presidency, that hatred began to diminish, especially after voters rebuked him in the 2006 congressional elections.