There’s a set protocol for former presidents. You go underground, you do some charity work, you get disgustingly rich, you publish some bland tome in praise of your own accomplishments that quickly goes into the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble, and you wait. Wait for the public to forget your blunders and crimes slaughters and invasions, wait for your “Presidential Library” (and Tackle Shop!) to be built, wait for history to be remolded by your minions and the natural American affinity for mythmaking.
As a people, we like to believe in our leaders, like to idolize them, like to think they’re worthy of our idolatry. Where they fail, we make up the difference. Andrew Jackson — genocidal tyrant— becomes Andrew Jackson— democratic man of the people. Ronald Reagan — vapid, heartless, deficit-spending plutocrat — becomes Ronald Reagan — the bright, pomaded Jelly Bean-eating granddad who single-handedly destroyed Soviet Communism forever. Bill Clinton, passive observer of genocides, demagogue, hammer of the poor — becomes Bill Clinton — universally loved symbol of moderation and responsibility.
Their character reflects on us; after all, we elect them, at least most of the time. Might as well make the reflection as attractive as possible.
Some folks, though, are just too ugly to pretty up.
Exhibit A: #43, Former President Death, Destroyer of Worlds, also known as George II, also known as Dubya, also known as George Walker Bush, current painting impresario of Preston Hollow.
Since leaving office, Bush has kept himself busy painting things, making money off speeches, riding Bill Clinton’s saintly coat-tails, writing a book that said absolutely nothing about anything or anyone, and shutting up. He’s also been hard at work observing the development of a presidential “library” in his name at Southern Methodist University, which will open this week to considerable fanfare and will apparently afford Bush the ample opportunity to, in the remaining twenty to thirty years of his life, undergo a similar apotheosis from complete and utter failure to cherished, godlike symbol of the country, in spite of history, justice, his body count, and the actual observations and opinions of those contemporaries who remember what an immoral, unqualified, destructive fool he was and is.
And the truly rotten thing is that he’s totally getting away with it.
Never mind the more than 100,000 dead in Iraq. Never mind the 20,000 dead in Afghanistan. Never mind the stunning ineptitude of his response to Hurricane Katrina. Never mind the crash of 2008 and the boom and bust, hands-off, not my problem economic policies that preceded and enabled it. Never mind the crippling debt he drove up. Never mind the scandal after scandal after scandal after scandal that marked every week of his presidency. Never mind entering office in disgrace and under the taint of fraud. Never mind leaving it having completely eviscerated the country’s standing in the world. Never mind having repeatedly exploited the ignorance and homophobia of large swathes of the electorate for political gain. And the litany of crimes and failures and disgraces goes on and on and on.
The sheer scale of the catastrophe of the Bush presidency is — five years on — what still impresses. In the entire history of the country, there have been only a few presidents to have presided over so complete and perfect a collapse of prosperity and confidence and prestige and general happiness as happened under George Bush II. James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson are his only rivals in the race to the bottom, and even they can not rival the breadth of his failure: in economics, in war, in foreign policy, in civil rights, in fiscal responsibility. In only this way, in his unique facility at destroying and squandering whatever he laid his hands on, is George W. Bush a remarkable leader. He is the Jeff Zucker of American politics.
For all of these things, Bush has been, for the past five years, roundly derided, condemned, scoffed at, and mocked. But now comes the time, after a suitable period of cooling off, where we’re all supposed to gather around the campfire and agree that he really did have the country’s best interests at heart, and he really did do some things like preventing attacks on the “Homeland” after 9/11, all right, and he really was just such a lovely guy, in spite of his body count.
But, to paraphrase my grandfather, you can’t polish a turd. And this turd has comes with so great a stink that the country it soiled for eight years will not be able to wash its stench off for generations.
It falls to us, we, the still-soiled sons of this still-soiled country, to remind that turd of its place. And its place is still in the toilet.