George W. Bush is now gone. He is no longer the president. He is an ex-president.
Even his dwindling hardcore base doesn't seem terribly sad to see him go, really. Maybe they're getting tired of defending him, weary of the increasingly elaborate and strenuous mental gymnastics it takes to explain how the manifestly obvious screwed-uppedness of our country is actually Clinton's fault.
People are talking about the "Bush Legacy," by which they mean the Bush Narrative -- you know, the shorthand view of him and his presidency that even people who never crack open a history text will pick up through a kind of cultural osmosis.
Will he forever be known as "the hero who kept us safe from terrorists after 9/11?" Or will he be cast as "the bungler who let 9/11 happen?" Will he be remembered for doing the best anyone could have done under the circumstances, a victim of bad luck which was entirely not his fault? Or will he be remembered as, simply, the worst president we've ever had? This battle isn't over just because he's leaving office. In fact, it's only beginning. No matter what people in general think of him now, in five years, ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand -- there will be people debating it, changing it, fighting over it.
Look at Nixon. Bush leaves office with the highest disapproval rating of any president since Nixon. For a while, Nixon was a potent symbol of ultimate presidential malfeasance, and there are certainly many who still see him that way. But over time his image softened, until the general consensus seemed to be "Eh, Nixon wasn't so bad."
The thing about the lasting Bush Narrative, is that narratives have a funny relationship with facts. Even with simple and relatively unimportant narratives, like the story of when you got your parking ticket at lunch, we shape the events, leaving out details that strike us as boring or beside the point (or unflattering to ourselves), distorting them (for humor, or irony, or to be more flattering to ourselves), and sometimes getting them flat-out wrong.
Our brains are little story-making machines, you see. When our memories are vague or incomplete, we freely make up the missing bits, sometimes without even being aware that we're doing it. Once we have a narrative that pleases us, if we tell the story more than once, we'll tend to tell the same story and reinforce our memory of it every time we tell it. And, eventually, we might no longer remember that any part of it was narrative spackle applied to a gap in our memories. We simply remember it as what happened.
Because that's another weird aspect of the human brain -- our memories of books, dreams, and other things that happened only in our imaginations, are not different from our memories of things that actually happened. We don't store them in a different place or recall them any differently. As far as the electrical and chemical maps of our brains are concerned, fact and fiction are the same.
I suspect this is why we rely on consensus reality the way we do, because it's a way of fact-checking ourselves. "Hey, I remember this thing that seems kind of weird, did I dream it or did it really happen?" Or, "Say, do you guys see those fairies in the corner over there? No? You think maybe I'm imagining them?"
Consensus reality is an important part of how we humans relate to the world. But consensus reality can be distorted, vague, and made up whole cloth just the same as individual internal reality. Just because you're the only one who sees the fairies doesn't necessarily mean they're not there. And just because everyone else claims to see the fairies doesn't mean they are there.
So, the Bush Narrative.
Right from the start -- by which I mean the 2000 presidential campaign -- there seemed to be a consensus reality about Bush that I thought was false. I first noticed it right after one of his debates with Al Gore.
Now, back in those days, college students and barflies were less political than they are now, so those of us without cable TV couldn't just go down to the local pub and watch the debate there. Paul and I listened to much of the debate on the radio in the car. We thought Gore was sensible (if a trifle dull), and that George W. Bush didn't make one damn bit of sense.
Bush's answers were a bunch of talking points randomly strung together. "Advertising slogans" was how I phrased it at the time. We thought it was obvious who won the debate we heard, and that person was not George W. Bush.
Yet, when the media consensus the next day seemed to be that Bush had "won" the debate. Because Al Gore sighed a lot and was caught on camera rolling his eyes or whatever.
"If I were debating that idiot, I'd roll my eyes too," was my reaction. But it was a harbinger. Now that I started to notice the media reaction to Bush, it seemed remarkably consistent. How was it possible that the media didn't seem to notice that nothing Bush said made any sense? And I'm not talking about his infamous spoonerisms here. Those are just the shiny dada sprinkles on top of the whole nonsensical cupcake.
The more I saw of Bush the less I liked him. In addition to never making any sense ever, he seemed smug, insulated, indifferent, shallow, and in way over his head. I don't know if I had come to loathe the frat-boy smirk yet, or cringe at that oh-so-earnest thing he does with his eyebrows. But I had a growing visceral dislike of the man completely at odds with the persistent media insistence that he was "likable" and "a guy you'd want to have a beer with."
I don't know how well this vision of Bush as "likable" represented the general public consensus rather than just the media consensus. But I do remember one conversation I had with a gentleman at Orycon -- which seems like it must have been after the election, but I remember it as being before the election -- where he expressed an intention to vote for Bush. I thought this was surprising news, because he looked like a pretty liberal guy, anyway, he had really long nails which were painted with nail varnish and I don't really expect people like that to vote Republican. When I asked him why Bush, he said, "Because Al Gore is the Antichrist."
Me: Ooooookaaayyyy.... (backs away slowly)
Then came the election, the Florida recount, and Bush v. Gore.
The public reaction to the recount was baffling to me, because it seemed to be regarded merely in light of partisan side-taking. If you wanted Gore to win, you wanted to count all the votes, and if you wanted Bush to win, you wanted to end it right there with him ahead. I was like, "They're votes! You want to count them accurately!" And the media was like "Whatever! We want to call a winner!"
So, the Supreme Court of the United States stepped in and essentially declared Bush president.
Of all the SCOTUS decisions I have ever disagreed with, this one was one of the most baffling. It seemed again to be based purely along partisan lines, which was a rather frightening thing to see the SCOTUS as subject to, and public reaction to it was equally partisan. Nobody seemed to see it as weird, or unprecedented, or even significant unless they wanted Gore to win. Everybody who was pleased with the decision in Bush v. Gore was all, like, "get over it."
So Bush took office, and there were a lot of protesters at the inauguration, and this is a known fact, but somehow the general media narrative didn't include "controversy as Bush takes office!" The protesters might as well have been invisible. Which seems a little weird, actually. I thought the media liked conflict and drama? Aren't protesters all about conflict and drama?
For some reason, the media didn't want to emphasize the conflict narrative of Bush's presidency.
So, 2001. Bush was president. I vaguely remember him and other members of his cabinet saying stupid things and trying to do stupid things, most of them by-the-book Republicanisms, like Cheney's sneering dismissal of energy conservation as a "personal virtue." I remember joking that the universally repellent Dick Cheney was Bush's anti-assassination strategy, and that you'd have to keep shooting until Colin Powell was next up in order to get to anybody who I would actually trust to run the government.
But even so, I wasn't too worried at the time. I was convinced that the Bush Cabal was overreaching themselves, squandering already scant political capital coping with things like the Enron scandal. I was fairly confident that Bush would be an ineffectual one-term president. Of course I thought all his ideas were terrible, but I also thought he wouldn't get to implement many of them.
Then came September 11, 2001.
I woke up that morning and turned on the radio and heard one of the morning djs saying something along the lines of "When I said it was a testament to the engineering, that the other tower hadn't fallen, I spoke too soon. The second tower has fallen. I repeat. The second tower has fallen."
My thought was "huh?" and then a chilled, "I don't know what that is, but it sounds bad." And then I turned on the TV. Canadian news was just like US news, and if you turned on the TV that morning you would see the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York City, getting lodged inside those enormous buildings, smoking for a while, and then the towers falling one by one.
I had the same reaction as everyone else, I think. I thought it looked like a movie special effect. I couldn't quite wrap my mind around it. I thought it was amazing how neat the fall of the towers looked, almost like a planned demolition.
(Note for you 9/11 conspiracy theorists out there: it looked like a planned demolition because what happened was similar to what happens during a planned demolition, that is, the vertical supports were weakened -- in this case by the monstrous heat of a jet-fuel-and-office-paper fire -- which allowed one or two floors to start falling. And once the floors were falling, they kept falling, as the weight and force accumulated. That's what the people at Scientific American have to say about it, and it sounds perfectly plausible to me. Thank you. The end.)
I remember, on that day, that Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York, felt like the leader of our country. He was the face, the voice, telling us that everything was going to be all right, that we were going to weather the crisis, that people using the tragedy as an excuse to overcharge for basic necessities would be Dealt With Harshly. Bush himself was strangely absent, strangely silent.
I wasn't the only one to notice that Giuliani filled that role -- remember when he was "America's mayor"? -- but sometimes I felt like the only person who noticed that he was filling a leadership vacuum left by Bush himself. When Bush finally did appear that evening, to make a typically underwhelming speech (that was instantly praised as an inspirational work of enduring genius), it seemed to be universally forgotten that he hadn't been there from the beginning.
Nearly universally forgotten. About 90 percent, I'm guessing. Bush's approval ratings immediately after 9/11/01.
The narrative appeared instantly, fully formed from the pop culture zeitgeist: Bush was a great leader, possibly even the greatEST leader. Our country had never faced a crisis like 9/11 before, and Bush was just the man, the wonderful and extraordinary man, who could lead us through it.
It didn't matter that nobody could seem to point to anything, in particular, that Bush did in response to 9/11 that was so great. Really, he did nothing that wasn't at best the absolute minimum one would expect from whoever happened to be president at the time, and at worst moronic and ineffectual and anti-Constitutional. It didn't matter that every new piece of evidence that came to light suggested that Bush had in fact been grossly negligent during the summer of 2001, doing absolutely nothing that might have prevented the attacks from taking place. Bush's greatness had become an axiom, a frame, a given.
It is possibly the greatest example of a delusional consensus reality that I have ever witnessed.
Maybe it is a bit harsh for me to put the nearly universal support for Bush in those days -- late 2001 and 2002 -- down as simple mass hysteria, nothing but an example of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. There was an element of benefit of the doubt, too -- of people giving Bush their unqualified support in the hope that he would do the right thing with it.
He did at least make a token effort to do what a normal president would have done, that is, invading Afghanistan to take down the Taliban and go after Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, the terrorist network and leader actually responsible for the attacks on 9/11. But some of us noticed that he seemed to lose interest in that right away, and started talking about Iraq instead.
I'm not an insider, so I can't say with any confidence exactly why Bush was fixated on Iraq. It was merely obvious that he was. The dust hadn't settled in Afghanistan yet (still hasn't), and he was already talking up the case for an invasion of Iraq.
You know the drill by now. Saddam is a bad man! Weapons of Mass Destruction! 9/11, Saddam, 9/11, yellowcake, 9/11, Iraq, mushroom cloud! This scattershot, kitchen-sink approach to a justification for war seemed to undermine itself -- to prove that Bush was just looking for the soundbite that would work, the advertising slogan that would sell the Iraq invasion to the American people. There were people who were convinced by it, for whatever reason, even people who otherwise weren't big Bush fans. Benefit of the doubt? 9/11 hangover? Bush administration threatening to kill people's loved ones, like Tony Soprano or something? Who knows?
It's not my job to explain why everybody started to believe there were fairies in the corner, even though nobody could see them.
So, the Iraq invasion. Saddam's government fell swiftly. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and there is plenty of evidence that Bush and his cabal knew this the whole time -- they didn't believe in the fairies themselves, they just wanted us to support their anti-fairy measures, for some reason.
Nothing that has happened since then has really made any sense. When there were no WMDs, why didn't we say "sorry," make appropriate reparations, and then leave? When there was looting and lawlessness in the power vacuum after Saddam's fall, why didn't we do anything to stop it? Why didn't we rebuild their societal infrastructure right away? And then leave? What are we really trying to accomplish? We keep establishing milestones, like free elections, which are met, and then we still don't leave.
We're like that obnoxious deadbeat cousin who is sleeping on your couch supposedly just until he gets back on his feet, and then he won't leave and won't leave and won't leave, and then it turns out he's dealing crack out of the garage and the police seize your house in a big raid and you end up in jail and homeless and with a bullet in your leg.
Bush, and the rest of the Republicans, have made the US occupation of Iraq one of their advertising slogans. Like other advertising slogans -- "Just Do It" or "Coke Adds Life" -- they are designed to evoke a certain emotional response without inviting too much analytical thought. So they talk about how leaving Iraq would be "waving the white flag of surrender" but they never establish exactly what we would be surrendering to. They talk about "the enemy" without explaining who the enemy is. Reality, perhaps?
So we had 9/11 fairies, and now we had Iraq fairies.
Eventually, the fairies in the corner encompassed the economy as well. You had Bush/Republican spokesmodels trying to explain how the economy was actually better than people thought it was, that what appeared to be weak job growth and stagnant wages was actually an illusion because of something something, and the stratospheric rise in real estate prices fueled by exotic debt was absolutely, positively, you can bet your future on it, not an asset bubble.
These fairies weren't quite as convincing. People wanted to believe in the real estate fairies, sure. But the job and wage fairies, not so much -- probably because fairies don't actually pay rent or mortgage or medical bills.
In 2004 there was another election. People had a chance to get rid of Bush, and they didn't. My sense is that it was very much for emotional reasons, that the American people never really warmed up to John Kerry, and they were still feeling traumatized by 9/11. But I know people who claim that it was actually voter fraud and that Bush wouldn't have won an honest election. I don't know. I do know that the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal broke in the spring of 2004 and failed to make any impact on the election, for some reason.
I also know this: it was a close election, and a contentious one, and everyone who didn't vote for Bush was EXTREMELY PISSED OFF by the results. Even the people who did vote for Bush seemed to have a kind of buyer's remorse. Which, I must say, was not helped by Bush's tone-deaf smug triumphalism. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style," he said immediately afterward. Bush was supremely indifferent to the fact that anyone who didn't enthusiastically support him was actually coming to sort of, you know, hate his guts. Which tends to exacerbate that sort of thing, really.
So, 2005. Bush was inaugurated again. More protests. Early in the year, he tried to destroy Social Security and didn't get very far. The Terry Schiavo debacle provided further evidence that Republicans had gone insane.
And then came Hurricane Katrina.
In the Bush narrative, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Katrina. It was like the anti-9/11. In a matter of days, the post-9/11 narrative of Bush's greatness was shattered irrevocably. It was a tipping point.
For those of you with short memories, Katrina was a monster category five hurricane that made landfall in the gulf states. It flattened entire towns along the gulf, destroyed many buildings much further inland, and caused a storm surge that overwhelmed the levees that protected low-lying areas of New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain.
The levees were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s, then neglected and underfunded, and it had been known for years that a sufficiently powerful hurricane might overcome them. In fact, video evidence proves Bush was warned of this very possibility just before Katrina made landfall. Oddly, in the video, he gives every indication of understanding the danger and having a plan to deal with it.
Except, he didn't.
The New Orleans metro area filled with water, more than seven feet deep in places. Although the city had been evacuated, there were many people who had been unwilling or unable to leave it. Unwilling, because they were old or cranky or had pets or were worried about their empty houses being robbed or damaged, and because previous evacuations had proven unnecessary.
Unable because of illness or poverty.
As America watched dramatic rooftop rescues and destroyed homes and other human-interest tragedies, they also saw a usually hidden side of their own country. They were horrified not only by the immediate tragedy of the flood, but by the evidence of the slow-motion tragedy of our collective indifference to the losers on the great Laissez-Faire Capitalist Wheel of Fortune.
The federal government's response to the Katrina flood was baffling in its sloth, ineffectuality, and utter cluelessness. It was like they had decided, in a Grover Norquist-like fashion, that disaster response simply wasn't the federal government's job, AND THEN THEY DIDN'T TELL ANYONE THEY HAD DECIDED THAT.
Of course not. Because, you know, that sort of thing doesn't actually win elections.
But it was still bizarre. Remember when the media had to tell Michael Chertoff that there were thousands of people who had made the downtown convention center an ad-hoc evacuation/relief center? You know, Chertoff, the guy who was supposed to be in charge?
Katrina seemed briefly to shock normally complacent, fairy-seeing media personalities into the real world -- something pointed out by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. That level of feistiness didn't last, but it did seem to mark a long-term change in tone.
Katrina was different from 9/11 in several important ways.
Difference one: there was no foreign power to blame.
Difference two: there was no way to spin it as an excuse to enact key portions of the Bush/Republican agenda.
Difference three: there was no Giuliani to fill the leadership vacuum and then act like Bush had been there all along.
Difference four: instead of hiding all day and then making a speech, Bush spent the first day of the flood in goofy photo ops, like playing a guitar and eating cake with John McCain.
Difference five: it was the second big domestic crisis of Bush's presidency. The first time, you might get the benefit of the doubt. The second time... people start to notice it's a pattern.
So, in 2006, just when Karl Rove was chortling about a "permanent Republican majority" the Democrats retook Congress and almost the Senate.
Katrina was obviously part of that. But I want to mention something else here, something that is often forgotten in the overall narrative of Republicans v. Democrats, and that is the Zell Miller school of "Dixiecrat." When Lincoln was the first Republican president, Republicans were abolitionists. For this reason, a lot of racist southerners ended up as Democrats.
In 1964 LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act and is reported to have said "we have lost the South for a generation." Nixon is reported to have taken it upon himself to make that prediction come true, and to have crafted an election-winning scheme called "the southern strategy" which involved stirring up racial resentment among poor whites in the south to get them to vote Republican.
In 2004, I remember seeing an article that suggested the last of the red-hot Dixiecrats had finally switched parties. Zell Miller's unhinged yelling at the 2004 Republican National Convention certainly seemed to tie into that.
What if... what if that is the real, underlying reason for the Republican-dominated house and senate since the mid 90s? And what if -- now that, even with that realignment, they have lost the house and senate (and, oh yeah, the White House, but that's just one contest so it's not quite the same) -- what if that means the southern strategy is now dead? If that final party realignment was a bit of smoke and mirrors covering up a fundamental shift that means ...
Well, if it means that you can no longer just poke people's racism button to win elections, that is a good thing. Go, us!
At that point -- late in 2006, 2007 -- the public seemed to lose interest in what Bush was doing. People were focused on who the next president was going to be.
Although, certain habits seem awfully slow to die. For example, if I see one more idiot pundit insisting on the "fact" that Bush is likable, I'm going to stick his tongue in a cheese grater.
The professional fairy-spotting brigade shows no sign of letting up, but they do show signs of being... out of touch. Really, didn't the McCain/Palin campaign just seem kind of sadly time-capsuled from 2003? They are losing their hold on the consensus reality. For them, the fairies are still in the corner, will always be in the corner. But the rest of us are starting to ask...
"Fairies? Really? Are you sure?"
Some end notes.
I ran into this "Don't Do" list for the right, which is actually a perfect example of resigned and world-weary, but still pro-Bush, narrative building. A list for what annoying things disappointed right wingers are not supposed to do now that they're out of power, it takes as a given that right wingers haven't already been doing these annoying things (like making up cutesy schoolyard taunt names for the opposition), even when they thought they ruled the universe forever, and also restates the narrative that "the left behaved abominably for the past eight years." Because, y'know, we've spent eight years shouting "this is a really bad idea!" and not being listened to. Yeah, that's abominable.
Of course the pro-Bush narrative builders will never acknowledge that there was any reason other than partisan bickering to dislike or oppose the man. You have to travel a bit into the comments for this one, but check out "we have to remember the garbage heaped on President Bush. I will not forgive these monsters for what they did to him." Which immediately made me think, "huh, is this person a little confused and thinking that we are talking about Clinton? I mean, who exactly did what to Bush? What garbage was heaped upon him? Was he impeached and I didn't notice? I think I would have noticed a thing like that." So anyway, I'm pretty sure the author of that comment is busy knitting together a "best anyone could possibly have done under horrible circumstances which were RANDOM BAD LUCK AND ENTIRELY NOT HIS FAULT" narrative.
Which reminds me a bit of a clueless Young Republican type I saw interviewed during the convention back in 2004, who was talking about the need to elect Bush in order to change the direction the country was going in.
Yeah, narratives: curiously fact-resistant.
We live in Bellingham where, without cable, we get Canadian broadcast TV. At that time I don't think the Canadian broadcast stations would have showed the American presidential debates, but maybe they did and I just didn't notice. And maybe the bars showed them and I just didn't notice. So this is a perfect example of narrative spackle. I just really wanted to say, "Now, back in those days..."
Some people, like these Florida newspapers, who kept on doing the recount anyway on the principle of the thing, claim that Gore would in fact have won on a complete and honest recount.
The 2001 inaugural protests weren't completely unreported, of course, otherwise I wouldn't have known about them. What I am talking about here is the general cultural osmosis view of the inauguration, the things that people who don't listen to Democracy Now would know about it.
I could go into a completely separate rant about how much I dislike 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Why do I dislike them so? Because they are busy making up a bizarre narrative that doesn't fit the facts, when the obvious, fact-supported narrative is already plenty damning to Bush and cronies. So, not only do they discredit by association those of us who think the Bush administration was responsible for 9/11 by virtue of being arrogant, lazy, narrow-minded, and incompetent, they also are merely replacing one delusional consensus reality with another. And then acting like if we hate Bush too we should be all on their side and stuff. You people are idiots, all right? Idiots!
Here is an interesting chart showing Bush's approval ratings over time.
Dan Savage seemed for a while to think the Iraq invasion might be a good idea because he supported a hypothetically effective military scheme to straighten out the chaos in the Middle East. Which, I think the post-9/11 glow is perhaps why Mr. Savage didn't already know that no scheme carried out by the Bush cabal would ever be effective by his definition -- you know, in a liberal humanitarian sense. Maybe they've been effective by the cabal's own definition, whatever that is.
Another thing that made no impact on the 2004 election: the Goth House comic Mary & George: A Romance. This is perhaps less surprising.
Note: I think it's clear that there was deliberate vote suppression, voter caging and whatnot, as well as voting machine problems, in 2000 and 2004. But it never seemed like it was enough to sway anything other than a very close election, so I didn't fully get on board with the "election was stolen in 2004" people. It seems the results in 2008 prove me right, that if there actually exists some vast machine designed to guarantee a Republican victory, we would be hailing President Palin right about now. But what if I'm wrong? What if the machine exists and they deliberately threw the election? Because they didn't want to deal with the mess Bush is leaving behind?
From CNN : A transcript from a video conference the day Hurricane Katrina struck seems to reinforce arguments that governments at all levels identified the potential dangers from the storm but were under-prepared for the devastation.
There was also a racial component to the Katrina disaster, which I have not included in this narrative, because that's another narrative all to itself. But, if you've ever wondered why people in New Orleans didn't just get on the bridges and walk out of town, THIS IS WHY.
I cannot find the article I am thinking of, about the last right wing Democrats finally switching parties, but I did find a reference to this 1997 book about why Bill Clinton will be the last Democrat ever elected president. Hahahahahahahahahah.
The biggest annoyance in this regard was not-always-Republican Chris Matthews who was totally in love with his boyfriend George W. Bush. (Matthews is also the man who thought it was elitist of Obama to order orange juice in a diner and be good at pool and basketball but sucky at bowling, so, you know, that's how the man thinks.) And there's another particularly egregious example of the "he's so likable!" meme, quoted here in Balloon Juice. Balloon Juice is interesting, because if you go to the archives back before September 2005 you can see John Cole still trying to actually be a Republican-type guy. And then ... gradually ... One of us! One of us!