Yesterday the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened in Dallas. If you follow the news at all, you’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of the five presidents still living – and their wives – smiling at the ceremony. As I reflect upon the tenure of our most evangelical President, I admit that while my feelings about his presidency remain mixed (he saved millions of African lives, but what about New Orleans?), I find the man himself fascinating. So permit me to join the cacophony and share a few thoughts and reflections about President George W. Bush and the opening of his library.
The longer a President has been out of office, the bigger their smile as they wave at the ceremony. Did you see the photos? George W. Bush looks a little nervous, which makes sense since it’s his shindig. Obama looks smug. Clinton, meanwhile, looks pretty excited by the hoopla, while George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter are smiling like freshman girls asked to the senior prom. Seriously, I don’t think they could smile any bigger if they were trying to prove they still had all their teeth. This may have to do with the evolution of media, of course; Barack Obama and George W. Bush – being presidents in the age of the internet – are accustomed to today’s media, and thus wary of it. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter never had to deal with the modern press, so they smile and enjoy it, absent the Pavlovian conditioning that makes the younger Bush and Obama fear it. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, is Bill Clinton. When he’s on the verge of death, the doctors should probably leave the defibrillator on the shelf and grab a camera to revive him instead. Follow that advice, and he may live forever.
Speaking of living forever… Jimmy Carter still looks good. I saw him working his butt off at a Habitat for Humanity project in South Africa in 2002, and I’ll never forget how much the secret service agents were sweating in the heat while the (then) 77-year old moved in fast forward. With that said, I remember reading news stories that President George W. Bush’s resting pulse was in the 30’s during his presidency, and that he could outrun his supremely-fit protection detail. Add in the advanced age to which both of his parents have thrived, what are the odds that George W. Bush might live long enough to one day attend the funeral of a former president who wasn’t even old enough to vote for/against him?
Every major newspaper has run a story this week on how President Bush isn’t loathed like he was at the end of his term. This isn’t to say that he’s not loathed at all, and to be fair, most of the newspaper articles I’ve read struggle to hide the authors’ conflation of shock and horror that equating President W with Stalin or Pol Pot will no longer go unchallenged. But even the liberal elites who give us news and have always felt that Vice President Gore got jobbed in ’00 have noticed that by demonstrating class and leaving politics when he left the White House, President Bush began a rehabilitation-by-absence. It also doesn’t hurt that he turns out to be a half-decent painter, with subject matter suggesting introspection impossible for someone with the IQ the media have always assumed he has. Best of all for his rehabilitation: the Tea Party hates him. Could anything be more endearing?
While we’re on the topic, this re-evaluation of W was inevitable. Look, President Bush might have been a total idiot, and he might have been unfathomably evil. But he couldn’t be both, so sooner or later his reputation was guaranteed to rebound. Evil of the type generally attributed to President Bush requires inspiration if not genius. Idiocy of the type attributed to him precludes the capacity for exceptionalism of any kind. These are mutually exclusive attributes, and history notices things like that. Consequently, his reputation had to improve with time, and it has. Even progressives have begun to gradually concede that he was neither despotic villain nor half-wit.
Also, as with all political stories in America, the unspoken and unnoticed truth has to do with fear. Our opinions of former presidents always rise after they leave office. Explanations for this abound, including the fact that our memories always dull with the passage of time. We may remember our last fit of apoplexy, but given time, the intensity of our feelings when we think about it tends more towards ‘mildly distempered’ than ‘blackout angry.’ So it is that our animosity towards former presidents subsides as a matter of course, and most of the media reports have acknowledged this.
What the media haven’t acknowledged, however, is the role of fear in politics. Massive numbers of people harbor indefensible distrust and malevolence towards President Obama right now, but let me suggest that it generally has less to do with who he is or with what he has done than it does with fear of what he might do. The Affordable Care Act has its problems – some of which won’t emerge for a few years yet – but it’s not nearly as frightening as what many Republicans fear/imagine Democrats might do to compensate for those problems. The strength of that fear has a direct correlation to the strength of their dislike of President Obama, and the day he becomes former President Obama, the fear will evaporate, yielding a corresponding moderation in their dislike of him. We hate presidents when we’re afraid of them, but once they’re finished in politics, it becomes possible to evaluate them absent that fear, and that always aids popularity.
Just don’t expect to read that in your newspaper. If news were food, fear would be MSG, and the media refuse to admit that they stoke it to help their bottom line.
Bush, despite what you’ve heard, was a moderate. And that explains everything. Democrats and the Tea Party both despise him. He was very conservative – he’s a southern evangelical, after all – but he wanted to soften immigration laws, he massively expanded entitlements by making medicine affordable for the elderly, and he saved the United States from a depression by passing Keynesian policies before leaving office. He was also preposterously unpopular, and in his wake, the Democrats became more progressive, and the Republicans continue to be cannibalized by reactionary Tea Partiers. The dearth of moderates in our current political climate has everything to do with what happened to Bush; his personal unpopularity doomed an entire generation of moderates, and the parties responded accordingly. We probably won’t have a functioning congress – an entity always glued together by moderates – until it’s OK to be moderate again, and that probably doesn’t happen until Bush is fully rehabilitated.
I still find his personal story inspirational. President Bush made some terrible decisions as president. The thing is, I’m sure not even he would dispute that. This is a guy who was an alcoholic ne’er-do-well into middle age, but became president by 54. Infallible he ain’t, and his willingness to explain how faith in Jesus transformed his entire life rings true. It’s the only rational explanation for his transformation and rise, and oh-by-the-way, it makes perfect sense that many of the people who reject the veracity of his faith are the most perplexed and incensed by his ascent.
At any rate, Bush is a sinner who freely admits that fact, but reached the pinnacle of American politics anyway. He’s a politician who generally kept his word, which counter intuitively made things worse. He managed to enrage the entire political establishment, but no group hates him more than the anti-establishment Ron Paul types. And in spite of the unprecedented scope of his late-presidency unpopularity, he seems like he’d be a fun guy to take a vacation with. And I don’t even think that about most of my friends. As I said, he fascinates me.