We’ve all seen the picture. It’s the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and George W. Bush is sharing a brief snuggle with Michelle Obama. The first lady, maternal and forgiving, has both arms around the former president, who looks like he wants a tummy rub.
When the hug went viral last September, it triggered a once-unimaginable bipartisan “Awww!” that echoed throughout social and established media. Dubbed “The Embrace Seen Around the World” by The New York Times, the photo seemed to hold the power of magic, or at least the power of the most adorable cat video: It cast a spell accelerating a general public softening toward a man once widely scorned as a historic failure, dismissed by many on the left as a blood-spattered buffoon who belonged in a cell at The Hague.
Humans are nostalgic by nature, and history is full of once-reviled public figures who enjoyed later reassessments. But where reputational rehab used to take a generation or two, Bush is trying to loosen the clutches of market-fresh infamy.
If he succeeds, he will have his own presidency to thank. The immediate context for the “normalizing” of George W. Bush is the rise of Donald Trump. But Bush’s policies created the conditions that brought Trump to power, and only in the wake of his own trademarked disasters does he look tame by comparison.
The museum hug and its afterlife showcase the internet’s power to turn anything — even yesterday’s calamities — into today’s cute moments. It’s also a worrying sign about our capacity for collective memory. As such, it suggests something deeper and arguably more frightening about America than even the current administration.
Left: President Bush looks out over Hurricane Katrina’s devastation as he flies back to Washington on Aug. 31, 2005. Right: Bush sits with New Orleans high school students Ashantae Martin (left) and Ronjae Pleasant at an event marking the 10th anniversary of Katrina on Aug. 28, 2015.
Bush’s advocates and former officials knew all along that presidential records are inevitably re-evaluated. Years ago, they began working to revamp his image in the eyes of the public. The reassessments started even before Bush left office, with the rise of the tea party and the weakening of the old Republican Party establishment. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was the first trigger that got liberals thinking maybe W. wasn’t so bad after all. (A parallel re-evaluation was underway on the right. Among followers of Palin, who morphed into tea partiers and later into Trump die-hards, Bush was considered little better than Barack Obama.)
These early rehab efforts gained traction with the 2013 release of W.’s oil paintings. The simple portraits — including one that could have been titled “I’m taking a bath and these are my feet” — seemed to confirm old suspicions that the 43rd president was just a confused simpleton in the hands of a Cabinet of wicked Vulcans. During his presidency, this view was just another cause for derision.
During Obama’s second term, it helped spawn an ironic reconsideration widespread enough for Vanity Fair to declare Bush “a hipster icon.” BuzzFeed went further, describing the born-to-wealth Bush as an “outsider artist” and offering “15 Reasons George W. Bush Should Come Work For BuzzFeed Animals.” There was less appetite for, say, “15 Iraqi Children Who Died Agonizing Deaths During The Initial Bombardment Of Baghdad” or “15 Ways Bush Policies Helped Decimate The Wealth Of Working Americans To Benefit The Ultra-Rich.”
Left: Aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, President Bush declares major fighting over in Iraq. The banner reads “Mission Accomplished.” Right: Bush’s paintings of wounded veterans hang at his presidential library in Dallas on Feb. 28, 2017. He also released a book with 66 portraits of vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By the time Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year, Bush’s approval numbers equaled Bill Clinton’s ― a huge turnaround since Bush’s ignominious departure from office. Among Republicans, a narrow majority had returned to rating his presidency “a success.” Then came the cute-bomb of the “Embrace Seen Around the World,” followed more recently by the release of Bush’s coffee table art book, a sit-down on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and a People interview about his besties status with Michelle.
In these and other forums, Bush declared racism bad and criticized Trump’s ban on travelers from seven (now six) Muslim-majority countries. It all contrasted nicely with Trump’s blatant Islamophobia. For those desperate to escape the awful reality of the present, Bush’s comments reinforced the comforting delusion of a big-tent bipartisan #resistance that will return everything to the halcyon days of a completely sane and not-at-all racist Republican Party.
“Bush worked hard to sow tolerance for Muslim-Americans, convinced — like President Obama — that respect and openness was an asset in the fight against jihadists,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote in November 2015, as Trump’s candidacy rose on the back of his proposed Muslim ban. “Now more than ever, this is what the Republican Party needs to hear.”
As president, Trump has shifted Americans’ vantage point on Bush, who seems competent, well-spoken, tolerant and humane by comparison. The first Trump-era host of “Saturday Night Live,” Aziz Ansari, addressed this collective confusion in his monologue.
“What the hell has happened? I’m sitting here wistfully watching old George W. Bush speeches,” Ansari said. “Just sitting there like, ‘What a leader he was!’ Sixteen years ago, I was certain this dude was a dildo. Now, I’m sitting there like, ‘He guided us with his eloquence!’”
Left: Ignoring reporters’ questions, President Bush turns to leave after announcing his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on Feb. 24, 2004. Right: Bush appears as a guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on March 2, 2017.
Missing amid much of the reaction to Bush’s sensible words was the memory of his deeds. Americans have a gift for bathing the past in a warm light. A few generations back, things were better, we always seem to imagine — the children more respectful, the adults harder working, the institutions less corrupt, the population more unified.
This knack for rewriting is what allowed Richard Nixon, a divisive president who left a trail of carnage in his wake and barely escaped federal prison at the mercy of a presidential pardon, to die a respected statesman and geo-strategist. It’s what allows his scheming secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to grow old on vacations with Democratic presidential candidates and bask in laughs during musical numbers on Comedy Central. It’s also what’s helping Bush.
Much has been made of the idea that the current president is a reaction to the previous one ― a “whitelash” against eight years of Obama, in Van Jones’ phrase. While the argument contains a grain of truth, it is an oversimplification that misses the deeper relationship between Trump and the chaos left behind by Obama’s predecessors. This would be the same chaos that hatched the Islamic State and crashed the economy, lighting a spark beneath a transatlantic, right-wing, ethno-populist movement.
What the hell has happened? ... Sixteen years ago, I was certain this dude was a dildo. Now, I’m sitting there like, ‘He guided us with his eloquence!’ Aziz Ansari, hosting "Saturday Night Live" on Jan. 21, 2017
Consider the yawning wealth gap in the U.S. The 2007-2008 financial crisis erased the stored wealth of millions of lower- and middle-income people around the world, the vast majority of whom have yet to recover. Nationalist movements date their current surge to that global crisis, which was preceded and followed by Democratic administrations that also pursued pro-Wall Street policies.
Bush bears a more direct responsibility for the misery in the Middle East. When he took office, al Qaeda was a fringe factor in the Muslim world. The Bush administration’s failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, followed by the non-sequitur invasion and occupation of Iraq, gave rise to ISIS and the world we know today. Bush, it should be remembered, had plenty of warning: Millions marched in opposition to the Iraq invasion, a street echo of the Arab League’s ominous admonition that such a move would “open the gates of hell.”
Trump is an admirer of torture and other Bush deeds that have only driven extremists’ recruitment. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, contempt for international law — surely we all remember the list.
Or do we? Given the media’s role in rehabbing him, it seems necessary to note that Bush also hated the press. As Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic reminds us, U.S. forces under the Bush administration killed multiple journalists, including shelling a hotel known to be full of international reporters. Two Reuters photographers died that time. Maybe this is what Trump had in mind when he told Bill O’Reilly, “We have a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
Without Bush’s two most fateful decisions ― letting Wall Street run amok and invading Iraq ― it’s hard to imagine Trump’s metamorphosis from a second-rate reality TV star to president of the United States.
Left: President Bush disavows anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11, speaking at the Islamic Center of Washington on Sept. 17, 2001. Right: At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Spc. Charles Graner and Spc. Sabrina Harman pose with naked, hooded prisoners who were forced to form a human pyramid.
Hazy nostalgia for George W. Bush carries broader risks. If Bush really wasn’t so bad, then Trump is more of a dramatic switch from ages past than he’s already been judged. His administration is a comet carrying alien life, as opposed to the edge of a continuum stretching back through decades of Democratic and Republican misrule. Normalizing Bush weakens our already weak grip on history, making it that much harder to see how today’s political harvest was also cultivated by the administrations of Clinton, who signed the legislation implementing NAFTA and unleashed Wall Street, and Obama, who continued the Wall Street bailouts and allowed 90 percent of wealth creation during his tenure to accrue to the top 1 percent.
If Bush had never been president, or an execution-happy Texas governor, he might be a great buddy to talk baseball with. Even now, despite everything, it’s possible to empathize with his anguished conscience and maybe grant him whatever fleeting solace he finds in his paints and his bubble baths. But that’s really between him, his minister and his therapist. The country cannot afford any more sentimentalized politics.
If Trump’s election has any value, it’s as a wakeup call to stay focused on the forces and interests behind the masks. This was never going to be easy. Humanity is blessed and cursed with an ability to repress memories, especially traumatic ones. Voluntary and enforced forgetting has long been used to strengthen social cohesion. In ancient Athens, statues of Lethe, the god of forgetting, were erected as reminders of official decrees to let go of recent civil wars.
The “Embrace Seen Around the World” has shown us how much harder remembering will be under the spell of social media, which may be shrinking our historical depth of field faster than Bush’s secret energy task force helped melt the Antarctic ice sheets. The habits of mind encouraged by social media are part of the new velocity, the constant internet-powered churning and re-appropriation, that is driving our great forgetting. A decade ago, The Onion imagined the U.S. Department of Retro warning that the nation “may be running out of past.” The joke concerned recycling yesterday’s fashions at Urban Outfitters, but it hinted at a world where George W. Bush is recycled on national television and the pages of Time magazine.
The internet can also be a tool for resisting memory loss. In the past, scholars, columnists and other elite gatekeepers drove public rehabilitations, re-tailoring reputations for acceptance at the latest dinner party. But those gates are no longer kept, and the public that chooses to forget can also choose not to. In the leveled, noisy fields of the internet, they can say, “No, this must be remembered.”
Bush helped birth Trump, but he also revived the soul of national resistance. That resistance can’t stop Bush and his fellow ex-presidents from trying to rewrite history and making tens of millions of dollars on the lecture circuit. But Americans can remember what these presidents did and why they belong on the other side of the barricades. Or at least back at the ranch, standing before an easel.