In an era of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson and the alt-right, it’s easy to forget the uniting power that George W Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, had over the world.
For the duration of his eight years in power, Bush was a near universal symbol of mockery, derision and utter hatred. His incompetence and his dangerous policies were directly responsible for atrocious rates of death and destruction.
He failed to concentrate on September 11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden, instead creating two highly destructive wars, one of which – Iraq – was waged on completely false information, and has led directly to the deaths of at least 500,000 people (one major British study puts the death toll at more than a million). These wars have unsurprisingly contributed to the destabilisation of the Middle East.
The deregulation of the banking industry paved the way for the global recession of 2007 and Bush’s presidency also oversaw huge spikes in unemployment, wealth inequality and racially motivated voter suppression across the US.
Many of his party supporters did their best to walk the delicate tightrope of loyalty with the need to distance themselves, in the hope of purely surviving Bush’s reign themselves.
By the time he had finished his constitutionally maximum two terms, the world felt fatigued, like an old snake wiggling to shed its skin. It was a heaviness created by the blood that had been spilt in the name of US-branded democracy and capitalism.
The election of his successor, Barack Obama, felt like a watershed moment in US politics, that was also felt across the world. It wasn’t just that Obama was from the opposing side of politics, but his entire election campaign was built on the corpse of Bush’s failed financial and foreign policies.
The world felt clean, for a brief moment, like the air feels right after a storm.
Just as little was expected of Bush during his presidency, little was expected of him in retirement. It could be argued that Bush’s finest hour was his decision to fade quietly into the background to allow Obama to fully take ownership of the presidency, a clear path from his generation-defining campaign straight to the Oval Office.
Over the course of Obama’s own eight years in office, the latter of which lacked the shine of his earlier near-utopian promise, Bush all but disappeared from public life. While he took the near constitutionally compulsory plum memoir and speaking tour route, his words failed to spark the usual interest showered on one who had once called the White House home.
But now, the second coming of George W Bush is upon us.
It’s no coincidence that it’s happened at a time of Trump’s America; the increasing terror attacks from Islamic State; the US Republican party’s ongoing war on women, birth control and abortion; the destruction of Syria; the ongoing war in Afghanistan and rising Islamophobia across the world.
Just like the jesters who worked in the court of Henry VIII, the world needs its light relief, to take a moment to relax and forget the horrors that continue to unravel. Who better to provide that than Bush, a leader who, like a circus clown, has the natural charisma to sway attention, without necessarily knowing what for.
Bush has so far performed that role perfectly, much better than he ever did as president.
At Trump’s inauguration in January, Bush’s antics of struggling to wear his clear poncho hit Twitter with delight, a distraction from the horror that was taking place on centre stage. His warm embrace of former First Lady Michelle Obama, a woman whose popularity, integrity and grace are near unprecedented, further earned Bush points with millennials, who may not recall the dots that connect Bush with war, death, inequality and mass job losses.
Suddenly, Bush was ‘funny grandpa’, the man who gave up midway trying to put his poncho on and who cheerily sat and grinned in the audience. He did funny, silly things and he didn’t really seem to mind. Instead of trying to hide from cameras that documented his #ponchofail, Bush smiled and played the fool, with a wink in his eye. Bush comes across as friendly, likeable, and someone you could have a joke with; his personality, post-office, is doing much to help people forget.
In his retirement, Bush swapped pens for paintbrush, creating portraits of world leaders and injured soldiers, using bright colours and playful strokes to highlight their humanity, and his.
Here lies again a lesson from the court of Henry VIII, who first weaponised art as power and propaganda, through the portraits of Hans Holbein. The world-famous full-body-length portrait of the King, his chest puffed out and staring defiantly, created an image of undiluted power. Bush’s art has the opposite intention but uses that same power; his art work acts to soften his reputation, putting aside Bush the President, for Bush the Man.
A few years’ distance from events can create a rosy glow that can distort our thinking, nature’s way of protecting our brains from the trauma of reality.
But herein lies the problem. Bush is indeed different from Trump, but that doesn’t mean he was better. The natural desire to compare apples with apples is understandable, but wrong, because it’s based on the assumption that one is healthier than the other; sometimes, both apples have worms growing in them.
The rehabilitation of George W Bush was not intentional, but a symptom of the power of nostalgia. In recent US polls, Bush’s approval rate has shot up 59%, which is almost double his all-time polling high of 32% when he was in office.
Glossing over Bush’s presidency is part of the post-mortem glow that comes with the forgiveness of time. And while a thorough analysis, away from the heightened emotions and obligations of contemporary times, is warranted, that needs to be separated from the human desire to forgive and forget.
The best thing Bush ever did was leave office. He might be wondering why he didn’t do it sooner.
Image: Bush dances at the Dallas Memorial / youtube