Unless the aliens landed before noon Tuesday and he donned his old flight suit, jumped into the cockpit of an F-14 conveniently parked on the White House lawn, kept fueled up and with rockets armed for eight years for just such an emergency, and flew off into the skies to shoot down all the flying saucers by himself and I missed it, former President George W. Bush is going to be remembered mainly for four things.
Starting and failing to win a war of aggression against a nation that was no threat to us.
Playing air guitar while a great American city drowned, then leaving it to rot in the mud for three years.
Getting caught flat-footed by the greatest financial meltdown in the country's history since 1929, a meltdown in great part caused by his administration and Party's policies, practices, and neglect.
Reading a children's storybook while terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center.
History books will note that Bush lied us and bullied us and frightened us into the War, that the only victims of Katrina he appeared to muster any compassion for were a rich Southern Senator and his own incompetent head of FEMA---"Heckuva job, Brownie."---that his "solution" to the economic collapse was to give away the Treasury to the crooks and fools who'd made the mess, that he'd been warned a month ahead of time that terrorists planned to hijack airplanes and use them to kill people. Historians will add other details, about torture, about alienating allies, about politicizing all aspects of government and turning the Justice Department into the legal arm of the Republican Party, about the attempt to hand over all our Social Security money to the same crooks and fools who wrecked our banking system. But in the popular imagination, George W. Bush will be the President who turned everything he touched to shit.
In the month or so before he left office, left town, and, let's hope, left us alone at last, squads of Bush League apologists took to the airwaves and the op-ed pages to try to persuade History to look kindly on their old boss and hero. It was irritating to listen to and read, but also amusing, because the only way most of them could find to go about making the case that Bush had been a successful President was by arguing that he hadn't actually been that bad.
The rest just made up a character named George Bush and told folk tales about a fictional Presidency.
But to the degree any of them were serious, they were forced to rely on one idea. History would prove that George W. Bush was right.
No, it won't. Like I said, History's already being written and it's not good news for Bush.
Even if the pages were still blank, though, think about what's being argued. That sometime, in the future, George W. Bush will turn out to have been a completely different person and President for the one we took him for.
In the future, George Bush is going to get yet another shot at getting it right.
He's going to be given one more second chance after a lifetime of second chances.
For a variety of reasons many Washington Media Insiders were heavily invested in the idea of Bush as a successful President and they never tired of assuring us that any day now he'd start acting like one.
David Broder was particularly fond of this pretty story.
This claque of journalists and pundits rooted overtly for Bush's transfiguration which they seemed convinced was inevitable, if it wasn't already happening right before their eyes. The day was coming soon when he would lead them up the mountain to blind them with his glory and there they would build tents for him and for Ronald Reagan on his right and Winston Churchill on his left.
They covered George Bush as a phoenix, reborn and brand new as President after every self-immolating screw-up and act of destruction. This is it, this time he'll turn it around. Every defeat was a victory in disguise, the re-defining moment.
All their hopes and expectations were based on the notion that people change.
Starting over is one of our national myths, an item of faith in the religion of America. Pack up and move. Go west, young man. Hit the gym. Change jobs. Get out of that awful marriage. Go back to school. Win the lottery. Quit smoking. Stop drinking. Give up gambling and running around. Find Jesus, and be born again.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
This was the basis of George Bush's whole political career. At age 40 or so, after a lifetime of failure, screw-ups, and disgrace, he'd put down the bottle, turned his life over to Jesus, and practically overnight become a new man. That as a new man he was hardly indistinguishable from the old one except that instead of trying to do anything for himself and making a hash of it he let smarter, more diligent, more determined and focused men use him as their tool. Nevermind that last part. The important part of the story is that he changed.
And having changed he was now ready and able to be the success he was born to be.
This idea, that people change, especially when God and Jesus take them by the hand, and that that change always leads to success and happiness, is so dear to so many Americans that they were willing to reward Bush for the great things he had not yet done on the grounds that of course now that he had changed he would do them. They made him Governor of Texas and then President of the United States, even though there was nothing in his past that suggested he'd be any good at either job and much that showed he would in fact be as bad as he turned out to be.
The past didn't matter. He'd changed. That which had been crooked had been made straight. That which was wanting had been numbered. All was not vanity and vexation and seeking after wind.
If he can do it, we can do it.
We elected George Bush President of the United States to reward ourselves for the changes we were going to make that would make us better, happier, richer, wiser, thinner, sexier, younger, stronger, cleaner, sober, worthier of love and therefore loved.
People change. Bush changed. We can change.
This is the central tenet of one of the great American religions. There's Football, there's Money, and then there's the Church of the Second Chance, which has many denominations and hundreds of forms of worship, rites, rituals, and practices. It is the religion of the self-help movement and the psycho-therapeutic industry. It has replaced Christianity in many of the mega-churches. Used to be you rose from the Mourner's Bench to testify. Now you attend workshops and form support groups. The point used to be saving one's soul for a better life to come. Now the point is saving one's sense of self-worth in the here and now, and considering how miserable, lonely, and self-loathing so many of us are, it's hard to argue that this isn't a good point for a religion to make.
People change. Bush changed. I can change.
Well, people do change. They kick bad habits and develop new, good ones. They change jobs and discover talents they never knew they had. They find satisfaction in tasks they'd never had reason to suspect they'd be any good at. They go back to school and learn new skills and new ideas and new methods. They move across country and make new friends, discover joys in scenery they'd never imagined was out there to enjoy, find the change in the weather has improved their health and mental well-being. They go to a doctor and come out with a prescription and within weeks their moods have evened out, their sadness has lifted, their anxiety is gone. They fall in love and discover that it's true, the whole world loves a lover, and they love the whole world in return.
They fall asleep misers and misanthropes on Christmas eve, secret, solitary, and self-contained as oysters, and wake up on Christmas morning as good a friend, as good a master or mistress, as good a man or woman as the good old City knows.
People change. But they transform. They don't transmutate.
The new persons they become are made out of the same stuff as the old persons they were.
And more often than not it's not the case that they have changed but that their circumstances have. They've been given an opportunity.
The apparently mediocre and deservedly obscure math teacher miserably going through the motions in a suburban high school where the principal's a blockhead, the students are without ambition, and the parents think schools exist to justify the hiring of a football coach takes a job in the inner city and a few years later is winning awards and receiving Christmas cards from former students beginning their graduate work at MIT and Cal Tech.
The drop-out from that teacher's old school enlists because there's nothing else to do and a few years later is commanding a company of Marines.
The washed-up quarterback working as a clerk in a grocery store gets a second look and a tryout and fifteen years later is leading his team to the Super Bowl.
But there's nothing magical about the apparent changes in these "new" people. If you look back, the teacher always knew his subject and had a talent for explaining it, just no one was listening to him. The Marine captain was always brave and a quick thinker and she had a way of getting people to follow her lead. Kurt Warner always had a good arm and a good eye.
The "changed" person who showed no signs before her transformation that she would become this "new" person is a rare, rare bird. And it's more likely in such a case that it's not that she didn't show any signs but that there was no one around her perceptive enough to spot them or that her circumstances before the change were so horrific that she wasn't able to be any kind of person at all, she was merely a reaction to or a reflection of the horror.
And a person can only change with a change of circumstances to the degree she has the talent or the skill or the wisdom or the discipline to take advantage of the change. A bad accountant can change accounting jobs as many times as he wants but if the problem is that he's innumerate he's not going to change himself in the process.
Change requires the person who wants to change to make smart choices about what to change into.
A man who does not take advice well, who is incurious, short-tempered, and impatient, who can't be bothered with minutia, nuance, and ambiguities, who needs to surround himself with flatterers and toadies and lackeys, who loses focus easily, who refuses to admit mistakes which means he can't correct them, who thinks that he is owed the job instead of having to earn it, is not going to change into a good President no matter how much he has "changed" by sobering up and turning to Jesus and no matter how many second chances he's given.
When people talked about Barack Obama's lack of experience as a disqualification for the Presidency, they were not looking at his biography. When other people talked about how Sarah Palin's lack of experience should not be a disqualification, because look at Barack Obama, they weren't looking at her biography.
The record of President Obama's life is the record of someone who has always been changing himself for the better, of someone who has worked exceptionally hard at whatever he's done, learned from every job he's undertaken how to do the next job, who has improved himself by leaps and bounds all his life. All Presidents have had to learn on the job. President Obama has a history of learning on the job extremely well.
The record of Sarah Palin's life, though, is the record of someone who has always managed to improve her situation while not doing very much to improve herself. It's the record of a vain and overly self-confident person who has just assumed she's deserving of and up to whatever job she's decided she wants. Look at her now and you see someone who didn't learn anything from the fall campaign except that people don't love her as much as she deserves to be loved. She has said she may run for President, she's probably going to run for the United States Senate, but she's not doing anything to prepare herself for either job. Instead she's busy teaching herself how to become a better celebrity and making headlines by whining and pitying herself in public.
The record of George Bush's life wasn't simply the record of a chronic fuck-up. It was the record of someone who learned nothing from his mistakes, of someone who did nothing different every time he was given a second chance. The myth of George W. Bush is the myth of a man who changed. But I'm not sure Bush himself ever thought for a moment he needed to change. It looks to me as though he thought of his drinking as an obstacle not a symptom of deep-rooted unhappiness or a sign of a bad or a weak character. I think he made the mistake of thinking the only problem he had was drinking and he thought of his drinking as if it was a form of temperamental asthma, a health problem that kept him from running that four-minute mile he knew he was capable of running if he could only find a cure and get up his wind. Once he quit, he thought, he was done. It never occurred to him that even if his lungs were up to it, his legs might not be, and he needed to go into training. Didn't help that he was surrounded by people who found it to their advantage to spot him a hundred yards in every race and move the finish line closer and bribe the judges and knobble the competition.
George Bush's record after he quit drinking is not the record of a man who stopped fucking up but of a man who stopped trying. As I said, Bush's successes after he got clean and sober were due to his putting himself in the hands of other people who succeeded for him without taking any of the credit.
George Bush did not change, but the story of his life could be told in a way that made it sound as if he did, and the American faith in change and our belief in a second chance is so strong that Bush's handlers and enablers hardly had to work to exploit it.
It was often said by his admirers that George Bush was authentic, that he was exactly what he appeared to be. But this was a vice not a virtue. He didn't have the character or the temperament for the job and he never tried to change that, and given that once in office he pursued policies that had proven countless times in the past to be worse than useless, there was never a real chance he would turn out to be a successful President. History will not give him another second chance.
Maybe he learned something from all the time he spent working with President Obama in the last couple months. Maybe when he's out of office and away from Dick Cheney he'll be able to listen to his father, follow his example. Maybe he'll make friends with Bill Clinton too. He was never a good President, but maybe like Jimmy Carter he can become a good ex-President...
Sorry. Can't help myself. I'm an American. I believe in second chances. The religion of Change is my religion too.
I don't think History will be kind to Bush, but Will Bunch is worried that the attempts to rewrite it in Bush's favor will continue for a long time yet to come. Good reason to worry. Long after 60 per cent of the people had figured him out, plenty Media bobbleheads were still at it.
This time, they kept insisting, he'll be different.
Some of them stayed at it till the end.
He can still turn it all around. History will come to rescue his reputation. It's happened before. Look at Harry Truman.
A real understanding of history has never been required mental equipment for a job in the Washington Press Corps.
There are historical reasons for Truman's unpopularity when he left office, reasons that have no parallel in assessments of Bush's Presidency. And the reasons for Truman's late in life ascension to beloved elder statesmen are more biographical than historical. The case for Harry Truman was made by Harry Truman in Merle Miller's Plain Speaking . Truman turned out to be his own best advocate. Historians had already begun to revise their estimation of Truman, but Truman himself is the one who changed the popular conception of his Presidency.
He told his own story in a direct, simple but eloquent, and above all truthful fashion, and he changed people's minds.
Perhaps Laura will be able to speak up for George the way Harry was able to speak up for himself, but no one should be expecting any literary surprises from George W. Bush. Grant's Memoirs were only a surprise to people who hadn't read his letters and war dispatches or met with him for extended conversations.
Cliff Schecter sums up Bush's legacy of failure.
Jon Swift delivers the rebuttal.
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