Let Us Now Praise Heinous Men
Too bad for corporate moguls that they can’t yet patent news events. If they could, they could turn the dedication ceremony for George W. Bush’s presidential library in Dallas last Thursday into one hell of a moneymaker. Big Pharma could market the DVD as an emetic.
That would be strong medicine indeed: those five living Presidents (one of them still serving) along with a motley of more exotic but equally noxious active ingredients: among others, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Ehud Olmert, John Howard, and Mikheil Saakashvilli.
If the whole event would make for too powerful or too bitter a pill, a less cruel and unusual variation should be equally “safe and effective”: say, a dialogue on the bunga bunga between Berlusconi and America’s homegrown rapscallion, Bill Clinton.
And for patients for whom other treatments fail, a heartfelt discussion between Blair and the guest of honor on neo-conservative, faith-based aggression should work just fine.
In an age like ours, the profits would be enormous – unless, of course, the fees demanded by the principals ate them up.
In time, of course, the patent would become worthless because memories of the sheer awfulness of Bush’s governance are bound to fade. So it is, for example, that Warren G. Harding nowadays arouses no ill feelings, only retrospective contempt.
But even in our amnesiac culture, it could be years before George W. is similarly regarded, especially if the ambitions of brother Jeb give the House of Bush yet another chance to wreak havoc at home and abroad.
It is not impossible. The fact that the pillars of the Republican establishment are, at this moment, contemplating a Bush candidacy shows that in our time anything, no matter how preposterous, can come to pass – even a third President Bush.
This is why we must never “misunderestimate,” as George W. might put it, the debased condition of our political culture or the power of moneyed interests to engineer outcomes they desire.
Those interests would probably look with favor upon another Bush in the White House. If they had any sense, they would realize that another Clinton would do them at least as much good.
The spectacle in Dallas was embarrassingly awkward too. Poor Jimmy Carter, always a gentleman and the one former (or still serving) President who would not now be wearing an orange jump suit in a more just world, had to struggle to find something nice to say.
There was a hint of that in Clinton’s ramblings too. One could not help but take pity on the two of them.
No matter how hard they tried and no matter how diligently they avoided Bush’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” and his war crimes, crimes against the peace, and crimes against humanity, they
could barely come up with more than faint praise for a few marginal expressions of “compassionate conservatism” in the Bush record.
I would venture that it was more than just a sense of duty that led them to try to find nice things to say; gratitude must have figured in as well. After all, Bush did all other Presidents a favor just by being there; he made them all look good.
George W. Bush was by far the worst of the lot for reasons more personal than political. Not only was he more incompetent than the others and more inarticulate; he was also indifferent to the harms he caused. To this day, he voices no regrets.
His problem is not just that he believes that being President means never having to say you’re sorry or that, as an over-privileged ne’er-do-well kid, he never learned how. The man genuinely lacks the moral and intellectual capacity to appreciate the harm he caused.
To be sure, for a while, he let neoconservatives call the shots. But this departure from the norm was more superficial than may appear. With the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, a man of an earlier, more salubrious age, all the living Presidents assembled in Dallas are, and always have been, on the same page ideologically.
Bush made a bigger mess than the rest because he was in so much out of his depth even in that cesspool. As the lunkhead himself might have put it, he did “a heck of a job.”
No matter how long-lived the emetic powers of the Dallas celebration turn out to be, one thing is sure: it will give future historians a “hook” for anchoring interpretations of American politics in the present era.
When they look back upon that appalling spectacle, they will find the key maladies of our time revealed. It is one of those “grains of sand” in which, as William Blake said, one can see the whole world.
They will see the utter superficiality of the immobilizing differences that distinguish our two semi-established parties and the standard bearers they choose.
No two Presidents could seem more unalike than George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Nevertheless, it has long been clear that, in substance if not in style or tone, the Obama presidency is a continuation of the Bush presidency. Remarkably, this fact has yet to register in the political mainstream.
Republicans deny it for opportunistic reasons; they think that mindless, racially tinged, Obamaphobia works to their advantage. The 2012 election gave them cause to rethink their ways, but their attention span is short. No matter: for the most part, their strategy has worked.
Democrats are in denial because their fortunes rise and fall with Obama’s. Also, some of the people they purport to represent, coming from constituencies they cannot afford to alienate, still can’t get beyond illusions of “hope” and “change.”
With the benefit of hindsight, though, it will be apparent to everyone that, on April 24 in Dallas, Obama definitively settled the question of his Administration’s relation to Bush’s.
It was not just for reasons of decorum that he had nothing bad to say about George W. or that he didn’t even mention Bush’s (and now his) Iraq War — which, in an earlier life, he had famously and unequivocally called “dumb.”
It wasn’t even that he is still “looking forward, not back,” as he said early on, when supporters would question his decision to assure that neither his predecessor nor anyone else associated with the Bush torture regime would ever be brought to justice.
It is that he and Bush are really of one mind.
At first, it didn’t seem possible. However “disappointing” Obama’s early (and subsequent) appointments were and however floundering his first (and later) prevarications and surrenders, it never dawned that it might not be true that at least he would be, as people said at the time, “better than Bush.”
The question then was would he be better than Bill Clinton? The answer to that became clear from Day One: he would not. Instead, he effectively superintended a restoration of the Clinton presidency.
But after eight years of Bush’s wars, including his Global War on Terror (and therefore on civil liberties and the rule of law), and after all the Bush government did to enrich the plutocracy and neuter democracy, there was no going back to the halcyon nineties – when financial bubbles, deregulation, “free trade,” and wanton outsourcing sufficed to keep the plutocrats happy; and when sanctions and bombs were enough to keep the empire from imploding and the military-industrial complex sated.
Under Bush, the country changed – for the worse. It changed so much that, for a while, anything but Bush seemed good enough, and the Clinton years seemed like a Golden Age. Only lately has it become clear that changed circumstances, not changed politics, account for the ostensibly palpable differences that affected perceptions earlier on.
The same goes for the other living Presidents except perhaps Carter: they were all promoting a similar political line. In the United States and everywhere else, except where Margaret Thatcher’s villainy is more salient, we call that kind of politics “Reaganite.”
Dead though he be, Ronald Reagan was present in Dallas; his specter haunted the entire affair. It was George W. Bush whom the miscreants gathered to praise, but it was Reagan that they each, in their own way, had in mind.
The solidarity exuded by the living Presidents for each other underscored the point. Obama all but said it outright: that when it comes to assuring American hegemony abroad and undoing social progress at home, each of the Presidents assembled in the Bush Library had taken up where his predecessor left off.
If Obama gets his way, he will be the one to carry the project they all pursued through to its final consummation.
Bill Clinton tried; and, as a Democrat, he was able to neutralize more of the opposition than any Republican could. This is why, as a deregulator, he did more to implement the Reagan agenda than Reagan himself or than either of the Bushes.
With the 2012 election behind him, Obama is now hell bent on besting Clinton, and making the Gipper proud.
In Dallas last week, a drone President paid homage to a torture President, and the best friends plutocrats have had since the Gilded Age celebrated one another. In so doing, they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that in American politics, for at least the past three decades and a half, there has been more continuity than change – and hope for the one percent alone.
At some future time, if we manage to survive Reaganism and its demise, historians will conclude that Obama’s words in Dallas, and those of the others, were not just polite tributes to a former President but revealing confessions through which this sorry state of affairs becomes painfully apparent.
What they each said will then be plain. Reduced to its core, it comes to this: that if you think Bush was an anomaly, dream on.
All those live Presidents, except maybe Carter, are Bush, each in his own way, because they all read from the same Reaganite script, improvising – for the most part, like Bush, ineptly – to take account of the circumstances they encountered.
The Obama presidency, coming last, reveals this truth with particular perspicuity.
This raises a question: back when Obama was just beginning to disappoint, was it really right to say that, if nothing else, at least he’s better than Bush?
Today, the answer still seems obvious; a turnip would be better than Bush.
But, in the future, when Bush’s moral failings and bumbling incompetence are no longer politically consequential, when differences in style and tone pale in importance, and when the affinities linking the participants in the Bush library celebration are impossible to overlook, what seems obvious now may not seem true at all.
Wittingly or not, Obama more or less said as much in Dallas. This is one time when he should be believed.
In any case, the lesson for us now is plain: they are all Reaganites, Obama above all.
That is the situation we now confront, and we court disaster if we don’t deal with it.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).