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.
Nowhere was this clearer than in pop culture, where Bush’s persona came full circle. When he first hit the national stage, he was treated as an amiable dope. Think of Will Ferrell on SNL, or Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s short-lived filthy-title sitcom That’s My Bush! All this changed after September 11, when Bush was suddenly elevated to mythic status: Depending on people’s point of view, he was either Frodo or Sauron.
These days such extremes seem ridiculous, and as his presidency dwindles, we’re once again seeing Bush portrayed as a far-from-malignant comic figure. He got stoned with Harold and Kumar. And to loving applause in the form once more of Will Ferrell, he recently turned up on SNL to discuss the election “between the hot lady and the Tiger Woods guy.” Even Oliver Stone bent over backward to be sympathetic in W., portraying Bush as an essentially well-meaning guy cursed with wicked advisers and gnawed by Oedipal angst (James Cromwell’s a revelation as the cold, withholding Poppy).
As poor, sad John McCain could attest, it’s Bush’s fate to screw up everything he touches (even W. is a flop). Far from helping Republicans institute the “1,000-Year Reich” dreamed of by nerdy Karl Rove and the exterminating angel, Tom DeLay, his administration exposed the decadence of a conservative movement that once took pride in having ideas and principles but now only has a sense of entitlement. Conservatism is supposed to be about limits, but Bush put the lie to that idea with an unnecessary war, huge budget deficits and the largest expansion of government power since the New Deal.
Along the way, he also discredited the notion that Republicans are competent. It used to be thought that liberals were dreamy idealists and that conservatives, rooted in business, knew how to get things done. But that illusion has been shattered by our MBA president and his ex-CEO veep, who, ever since his acclaimed Elmer Fudd hunting impression, seems even more spectral than his boss. I’d still love to learn whether their private meetings came straight from Of Mice and Men (“Tell me about the weapons, Dick”), but we already know the essential truth about them. Where Bush is interested in politics, not governing, Cheney’s brilliance lies in bending the bureaucracy to his will. Too bad what he wants isn’t good for the country. Even as I write, the two of them are refusing to go quietly. Despite Bush’s words of cooperation the morning after Obama’s win, he and Cheney are hoping to institute all manner of hard-to-reverse, last-minute regulatory changes — weakening consumer and environmental protection — like a retreating army strewing land mines over the countryside.
Of course, it’s always been too easy to act like Bush is some monstrous aberration. In fact, he’s been emblematic of America in the early 21st century in many of its aspects: jokiness, personal loyalty, political bellicosity, resentful anti-intellectualism, thoughtless consumerism, naïve do-gooderism, reflexive incuriosity about the outside world, and a profound unwillingness to face unpleasant facts. A man who should never have been president once, got re-elected with a bigger margin, which means that the fault is not on him alone. It’s on those who still admire his politics of division — you could hear them booing Obama’s name during McCain’s gracious and decent concession speech — and on those of us who opposed him but didn’t fight him harder.
As Bush himself once magnificently put it: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Tristan Tzara weeps.
If Bush reflected our failings with funhouse-mirror extravagance, Obama’s election offers us hope. This is us, too. Four years ago, right after he won his senate seat, Obama told me that the tricky thing about dealing with the right’s politics of personal destruction was to avoid falling into the same thing “without being a chump.” That’s precisely what he did in his campaign, and of the many things there are to admire about his presidential run — quite possibly the most brilliant in our national history — I rank none higher than the way he kept his nerve when many of his rabbity supporters (myself included) thought he needed to go on the attack more, especially in the weeks around the Palin nomination. But he kept his poise, and his bearings, and these were the qualities that carried him to victory and to that surprisingly sober speech Tuesday night.
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Obama has every reason to be sober, and not only because he has raised expectations so high that his followers may have an appointment with disappointment. Having steered the country into war and massive debt, Bush will turn over a presidency that
seems supiciously like a poisoned apple — it’ll destroy the next person to touch it. But touch it Obama must, and in Grant Park he had the high seriousness of a man who knew that the apple could be poison but also knew nothing magnificent is ever accomplished without risk.
A group of historians was recently asked to name the worst president in American history. George W. Bush came first. The man who came a clear second was James Buchanan, notorious for his ineptitude in the years leading up to the Civil War. As we look forward to the Obama years — and what a thrilling phrase that is to write, even though I know I’ll probably start criticizing the guy around noon tomorrow — it’s hard not to be encouraged by the recollection that when Buchanan left office, he was succeeded by none other than Abraham Lincoln.
It’s a comparison Obama’s never been shy about courting, ever since announcing his candidacy before the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech about slavery. He invoked Honest Abe again the other night, quoting from the Gettysburg Address and is giving his Inauguration a Lincoln theme. It’s far too early to know whether Obama will achieve that kind of stature but having watched him succeed and succeed as I doubted and doubted, I’m no longer prepared to bet against him. Besides, as the incomparable Chris Matthews observed about the presidency of George W. Bush, “This is not a tough act to follow.”