Leaving office after eight disastrous years, George W. Bush wisely disappeared. It was now former President Obama’s mess to clean. The financial markets had crumpled; millions of Americans were out of work. Families were losing their homes. The American auto industry teetered on the brink of collapse. Across the globe, U.S. troops were embroiled in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, while Americans at home were subject to post-9/11 warrantless surveillance programs. The national memories of Hurricane Katrina were beginning to fade, but in New Orleans, the wounds were still fresh.
But all would appear to be forgiven, judging by the ecstatic reaction to Bush’s five-word analysis of current President Donald Trump’s inauguration address: “That was some weird shit.” If the American people and the click-hungry press want their “W” back—the Texan, the charmer, the straight shooter, the harmless Mispronunciator in Chief—they can keep him. If comparing Bush to Trump is what it takes to spur a renaissance of opinion, how standards have fallen.
Rewind to the years of Obama’s double term. There was little sight of Bush, as Obama labored to reaffirm the economy and other wreckage left by the previous administration. That was until hacked Bush family emails revealed his new fondness for painting, of all things. It was the first time many newsreaders had heard from Bush in a half decade. The emails revealed amateurish, partially-nude self-portraits in a bathtub (Bush said, in typically rakish character, that he chose his subject matter to shock his painting instructor). This was a departure from how most presidents spend their years following office: stumping for their party’s new leadership, founding charities, building a legacy. It suggested a man in exile, if the mind is given to a sympathetic reading. Or, alternately, a man in oblivion, playing with his toys as the world burns.
Now “W” has reemerged, cannily positing himself as the sincere voice during an administration that can only make him look competent in comparison.
The first glimpse of the new Bush came during Trump’s campaign. “I’m worried that I will be the last Republican president,” Bush said in June, suddenly wary of his party’s direction, if not the country’s. It revealed a presidential responsibility that was notably absent during eight years of Birther nonsense, a decade-plus of endless Mideast war, a crawling recovery from the recession, a legacy of torture, warrantless surveillance, and unchecked homeland security apparatuses. Nevertheless, by November, the Bush Rehabilitation was in full swing, with the family spokesperson confirming that neither he nor the former first lady had voted for Trump. The game continues. On inauguration day, George W. Bush battled his poncho, lost, and became a meme. This is Bush re-imagined as the folksy, harmless grandpa, cute as a button, caught in the rain, and Twitter loved it.
NPR gladly repackaged the tweets into a story, highlighting: “Never thought I’d say that George W Bush is all of us, but here we are;” and “The George W. Bush reaction cam during Trump’s inauguration speech was lit.” What fun might be had watching the former leader of the free world struggle with a sheet of plastic is tempered by the fact that, on the same day, U.S. airstrikes in Syria killed 100 supposed Al Qaeda fighters. Or, the day before, two United States Air Force bombers attacked Islamic State training camps in Libya overnight, killing more than 80 militants as the endless war to contain the threat of ISIL, born of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, continues to spill across the entire region.
Or, more directly, do the residents of Mosul, Iraq find the former president cute, as well?
By February, the new gentle Bush, a reconstruction of his pre-9/11 compassionate conservative persona, was granting media interviews, providing non-ambiguous swipes at Trump and the travel ban, all to the reflective benefit of positive contrast. “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” Bush told NBC News’ Today show, with little in the way of a raised-eyebrow rebuttal from the host. “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.”
“Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse power, whether it be here or elsewhere,” he continued.
These are uncontroversial statements, to be sure, spoken by a man who deserves more controversy. Is the press’ warm reacquaintance with Bush a rehabilitation of its own American conscience? However difficult it is to explain the reception, it may be even more impossible to explain the former president’s conceptually disturbing new book of paintings, “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.”
His appearance on Today was a promotion for the book, which collects his painted portraits of veterans wounded in the Iraq war and pairs them with inspirational recovery stories. To be clear, these are portraits of men and women disfigured in a war started under false pretenses which left a region in chaos—painted by the man who sent them there. The book’s premise begs the question, is this “tribute” actually atonement? Or is a wounded soldier’s resiliency and recovery Bush’s testament to the American will, to his willingness to make “tough choices” and live with them? Like the press’ gleeful reacquaintance with the former president, is it an abdication of guilt? By giving Bush an unscrutinized platform, we normalize an era that should be synonymous with torture, human rights violations, reckless war and domestic surveillance.
Americans want to remember their leaders fondly, even those who followed the wrong path. We emerged unscathed, we want to tell ourselves. All is forgiven; we are not a nation of victims, but a coalition of the brave. And yet the shape of American recovery from the Bush years resembles a broken statue rebuilt on a shoddy plinth. The general figure remains, only now tilted and distorted. The head hangs at an odd angle and the arms point in skewed directions. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Bush years is the Karl Rovian gift of governing as if it is still the campaign. As The Atlantic wrote of Rove’s political style in 2007, “Steamroll the opposition whenever possible, and reach across the aisle only in the rare cases, like No Child Left Behind, when it is absolutely necessary.”
This tradition is carried by Trump and his preference to hold rallies, antagonize his enemies on twitter, and boast of his own competence as if still on the campaign trail. It is a dividing tactic, an us-against-them competitive approach that works during a campaign, but is less effective when crafting policy. Rove and Bush experienced this but did not learn from it—No Child Left Behind amounted to one of the administration’s few successful legislative initiatives. It’s a record that Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan could have reviewed before their spectacular health care reform failure.
Like Trump, Bush is a man who desperately wants to be liked. And, it, appears, the American press and public would like that as well. But as much as the former president would contrast his place in history with the current administration, there is no separating the past from the present.
Ed McMenamin is a regular contributor to Paste and Under the Radar magazines. Follow him on Twitter, @EdMcmenamin.