Looking Back at W

President George W. Bush was briefly back in the news on Thursday, and there was a conspicuously restrained tone to the stories. In some cases, the coverage was almost sympathetic.

The occasion was Bush’s return visit to the White House, where in keeping with longstanding tradition he was invited by the current president to attend the unveiling of his official portrait and hear some flattering remarks, so perhaps the reporters were just caught up in the bipartisan and largely apolitical nature of the event. Still, the lack of vitriol was striking.

So much has happened since Bush left office and stepped almost completely out of public view that one might have forgotten about the red-hot hatred that he used to stoke in his political opponents. Comparisons to Hitler and chimpanzees were standard fare, as were jokes about assassination and allegations of mass murder, and even in mainstream publications writers felt free to frankly confess that they hated Bush. We recall one watching one fellow scurry around a barroom in search of a picture of Bush to spit on, and we know another who wrote in a local “alt” publication that Bush that should be boiled in oil, and neither were the least be embarrassed by it.

It’s also hard to remember, so very far into to the Obama era, what that was all about. The most common grievance heard these days is that Bush single-handedly destroyed the American economy, but that happened late in his second term, and we can’t recall any of his critics shrieking about the sub-prime bubble until after it hard burst. Ask any of the die-hard Bush-bashers exactly what he did to bring about the financial crisis, and you’ll usually get no specific answer. Sometimes they’ll tell us that it was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, but that happened during the Clinton administration, and upon further questioning they’ll usually admit that they don’t know what that FDR-era bill did in the first place. Others will say it was the Bush tax cuts, but they’re always unaware that revenues increased throughout the Bush years, or that the tax code he wrought was deemed the world’s most progressive, and they’re hard-pressed to explain how the economy collapsed as a result of insufficient taxation. A few still rail against the irresponsible deficit-spending of the Bush years, then try to defend the more recent debt, but they’ll no longer so adamant about it.

They used to speak indignantly about indefinite detentions at Guantamo Bay, lobbing missiles and drones at helpless Middle Eastern countries, secret assassination squads, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, and a host of other things that somehow are no longer so shocking to the proper sensibility. Bush’s swaggering cowboy machismo used to drive them crazy, too, but now they’re more likely be boasting about how their guy personally rappelled from a helicopter and killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands. Even the famous Bush malapropisms that once provoked gales of laughter now go unmentioned, lest someone respond with some of the frequent misstatements made by his supposedly silver-tongued successor.

There will always be the Iraq War, of course, although not the Afghanistan War, but even that seems less infuriating since the troops pulled out on the Bush schedule left behind a more or less sane and democratic country by Middle Eastern standards. Many of the arguments made during the war, have already been disproved by subsequent events, such as the theory that it was merely an attempt to control the country’s oil wealth or build a pipeline for some evil corporation, and others will await history’s verdict. Even Obama has stopped making an issue of the “stupid war” that propelled him to national prominence, and instead prefers to focus on a mythical Republican war on women.

So it was that Obama wound up making some kind remarks, modestly sharing credit for the bin Laden kill, and gently joshing Bush in an almost inappropriately familiar way during the ceremony. He couldn’t help making mention of the financial crisis that occurred before his own election, and characteristically made the occasion very much about himself, but he also showed a rare flash of humility by conceding that the job of being president is sometimes very hard.

We have our own gripes with Bush, including an ideologically consistent objection to those relatively small deficits, and we’re sure history will have a few more, but the harsh rhetoric and raw hatred he provoked always struck us as wildly disproportionate. Even as we indulge in our daily Obama-bashing we studiously avoid any comparisons to Hitler or chimpanzees, or jokes about assassination or allegations of mass murder, and we hope that the refreshing civil tone at the portrait unveiling will prevail in the coming vigorous debates.

— Bud Norman

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