Former President George W. Bush has been everywhere lately, making the rounds on late night shows and getting treated to puff pieces in national news outlets as he promotes his new book. The text focuses on his paintings, but this isn’t about fine art: this is about his legacy. Bush senses that now is the moment to rehabilitate an image that he spent eight years tarnishing, and it looks like the media is happy to oblige him.
But we can't forget: This is the man who declared "Mission Accomplished" in 2003 regarding a war still being fought today. This is the man responsible for the creation of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. This is the man who set a new low for disaster response after Hurricane Katrina. It makes sense that Bush would love to be remembered as something more than a foolish, nepotist war criminal. The baffling thing is why are the media and Democrats obliging him?
Time Heals All Wounds
The easiest explanation for Bush’s back patting tour is nostalgia. The Bush administration was marked by the familiar bureaucratic evil of empire. He was a stuffed shirt president who did the bidding of oil companies at the expense of thousands of Americans and millions of Iraqis. At home, austerity came home to roost as the man cut taxes and failed to manage natural disasters. But, it isn’t Bush’s policies people are excited for.
In terms of policy, Trump would like to do roughly the same things Bush did. The 45th President reportedly has interest in a war with Iran, and the Republican healthcare plan is essentially a tax cut for the rich with the added benefit of potentially harming millions of poor people. When mainstream pundits compare Trump unfavorably to George W. Bush, they aren’t talking about policy differences: they miss Bush’s veneer of respectability. For example, Matt Yglesias wrote that Bush was “good on Islamophobia,” simply because he sometimes restrained himself from giving public voice to the prejudices that were clear in his actions.
As Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic wrote in response to pundits like Yglesias, “Bush’s actions killed and maimed far more Muslims than his nice words ever saved.” Marcetic continued, “It’s also worth noting that the things liberals and radicals hate about Trump, such as his promises of torture and war, weren’t policies he invented. Trump didn’t institute torture or establish Guantanamo Bay – his loveable goofy predecessor did.”
Sure, George W. Bush twiddled his thumbs while New Orleans flooded, but he never talked in open terms about inner city “carnage.” At the same time, many of his actions set a precedent or foundation for Trump to use as a springboard for his harmful executive orders and policy, as well as his noticeably more hostile attitudes and language towards marginalized groups.
The False Comfort of Appearances
The trappings of respectability make us feel good about our country and the terrible things we do, or at least they used to. Trump has no respect for the ceremony, tradition, and optics of the office. He has thrown aside long-held ideas about meritocracy in government. He spends more time in New York and Florida than D.C. He isn’t even going to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The reality is that no matter the difference between the Right and the Left, they have been united for decades by a commitment to diplomacy and “presidential” behavior—superficial or not. The facade of respectability is part of the reason our government institutions still receive reverence on holidays like the Fourth of July, even while they’re bombing Yemen and poisoning the water in Flint at the same time. As Emmett Rensin wrote in a recent article titled “Don’t Normalize George W. Bush”: “In the mainstream of American politics and commentary, there is no higher virtue than civility.”
In an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom, an anthropomorphic Chicken Soup for the Soul book, gave Dubya the softest of softball treatments. He wrote, “When you compare Bush’s genteel approach to criticism to Donald Trump’s scorched earth policy, you find yourself pining for the 2000s.” Here, Albom wasn’t talking about literal policy — Bush has scorched far more literal Earth than Trump (thus far) — but rather Trump’s rhetorical approach. Albom said as much later in the essay: “This is not about Trump’s politics… This is simply about the ability to laugh at yourself.” Albom further fetishized the appearance of the former presidency by quoting Bush’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel, where the late night host implicitly contrasted him with Trump by noting that Bush can actually take a joke. This doesn’t mean his policies were any better, though.
Kimmel and Albom aren’t the only ones to show Bush love as of late: Aziz Ansari, Ellen DeGeneres, George Takei, Matt Lauer, People Magazine, Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Neusome, and more have joined in the chorus. As the Washington Post put it, “Michelle Obama isn’t the only liberal embracing George W. Bush.” The list will undoubtedly get longer.
The End Point of the Tour
Throughout the election, George W. Bush saw himself held up as an avatar of our country’s norms, a representative of the kind of Republican who shouldn’t — and the Democrats hoped wouldn’t — vote for Trump. Even though this Democratic strategy was a loser (and Dubya didn’t cast a vote for Clinton), it’s no wonder why Bush saw this as the perfect moment to launch his rehabilitation tour. In the shockwaves of Trump’s first months as President, appearances are as much the media’s concern as substance. Substance was always George W. Bush’s weak point, but apparently, whether you’re a rancher in Texas or a wonk in D.C., he is still a guy you just feel like you would like to have a beer with: especially if you can cry into your pint about all the mean things the new President is saying. Still, just because the former president-turned-painter may seem like a nicer dude, that doesn't mean he was any more of a fit to run the country.