How Propaganda Can Slowly Repair the Image of an Utterly Disgraced Public Figure Like George W. Bush
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This review of "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker" (DoubleDay) originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is reprinted here with permission.
It is a testament to the degree to which presentation overshadows practice in modern political life that 49 percent of Americans approve of George W. Bush. Here is a President not only on the wrong side of history in almost every particular, but one whose misjudgments continue to constrain the country in measurable ways into the present. He is the author of two wars, one entered into based on faulty information, that have cost thousands of American, Iraqi and Afghani lives and further destabilized the Middle East, delivering it to the machinations of Islamic militants and increasing threats to our national security. To fund these wars, he employed deficit spending that could have been used to grow human and material capital through investments in infrastructure, education, clean energy and scientific research, among other areas. In the process of ballooning the deficit, he put further pressure on entitlement programs that were already moving toward unsustainability, helping precipitate a political crisis 20 years earlier than necessary. His concrete domestic innovation is a sprawling and convoluted defense bureaucracy lacking adequate oversight. His signature domestic initiative, a stillborn plan to privatize social security and create an “ownership society,” appears, five years into an economic downturn precipitated by unwise investments, astonishingly ill-conceived. His two most successful decisions, the 2007 “surge” and the 2008 bailout, were reversals of errors that he either caused or compounded. This would not, in sum, seem to be a politician who merits much affection from the electorate based on his policies. Yet here he is enjoying a 49 percent approval rating, the result of a successful rebranding in which his professed purity of motives have come to count for more than the quality of his actual performance.
This rebranding had several sources. The first was historical logic: the dissatisfaction that Bush helped precipitate among Republicans ended up empowering figures so radical that he appeared prudent by comparison. The second was Bush’s own canny performance once he was out of office: unlike, say, Dick Cheney, he stayed on the political sidelines and devoted himself to benign initiatives helping African AIDs victims and U.S. veterans. The third, and most instrumental, was a Washington press corps habitually focused on stark narrative contrasts, which helped publicize the benign storyline that the former president was quietly crafting (Bush vs. the Tea Partiers, Bush vs. Cheney). The opening of the Bush Presidential Library in April functioned as the opportunity for this process to go public, and, specifically, for longtime Bush supporters to press their case for redemption in a newly receptive environment. Against the backdrop of partisan logjam in Washington, the event was portrayed in the rosy hues of reunion: in Peggy Noonan’s unabashed rendering, “What was nice was that all of them — the Bush family, the Carters and Clintons — seemed like the old days. ‘The way we were.’” The exhibition itself included prominent places for Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and Andrew Card, those figures marginally less tarnished by the Administration’s blunders, and none at all for the reviled troika of Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove. Political commentary tended to revolve around the President’s charitable initiatives or, more insistently, his “character.”
Writing in The Washington Post, with the rather elaborate caveat that “[Bush’s] two terms defy summary, just as a snapshot can’t capture Niagara Falls during a lightning storm,” Michael Gerson proceeded to offer up a summary of the president himself as a man of “principle” and “undivided sentiments.” Under the headline “Bush’s Legacy is More than Iraq,” Kathleen Parker generously conceded that “what a president says and does is fair game for criticism” but put forward for “the public record” a recounting of a private act of kindness Bush had once done her, a hug followed by a personal note. Stephen F. Knott attacked the issue of Bush’s standing among historians, which he portrayed as a product of personal animosity, noting that “[Bush] may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and [...] the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.” Richard Cohen devoted a column to praising, in strikingly unembarrassed terms, Bush’s lack of introspection: “Among the many things [Bush] lacks is self-doubt. It is a gift.” The common tactic, in other words, was not so much to defend or engage but to redirect focus, largely toward the personal. The man of the hour put in an arresting performance that dovetailed smoothly with these commentaries: “It was the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States,” Bush said in closing, eyes welling, “Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.” In her Wall Street Journal column the next day, Peggy Noonan reliably hit the ball he’d teed up for her: