One more day.
Yes we did, yes we will, et cetera. It happened, and it’s happening (Obama is in, Bush is out), so I’ve felt less compelled to absorb every piece deconstructing the Bush debacle. Who needs to read several dozen of the same stories, especially for anyone who has watched the story unfold, in real time? Of course, it’s enlightening, and infuriating (and above all, amusing), to read the tepid apologies and especially the face-saving salvos reminding us of all the good things that happened on The Decider’s watch.
Needless to say, most of the opportunistic armchair commentators denouncing Dubya happen to be the same ones who endorsed him in 2000. Accordingly, something struck me–not for the first time–while reading The Economist’s farewell to the man-child they dub the “frat boy president” (here). Not that they are assessing him as a frat boy, now, which is correct, if somewhat innocuous considering the damage he’s done (it is sort of like calling an arsonist responsible for burning down a city block a man who “liked to play with matches”); it is that they called him that, then, and still felt it was acceptable (preferable?) to have this admittedly dimwitted, unspectacular in every aspect, incurious ne’er- do-well from a patrician political dynasty (yeah, giving the family black sheep with daddy issues the key to the kingdom was never a powder-puff keg waiting to implode) in charge.
Here is the quote that brings me back to 2000 (literally and figuratively): “He came across as an affable chap, particularly when compared with his uptight rival.” Yup, that was the type of intellectual refuse that passed for political analysis at the time. Perhaps not the prevailing view (Gore did, after all, win that ultimately unpersuasive popular vote), but resonant enough that it gained significant traction. And while not nearly enough time has been spent rehashing the collective apathy and willful ignorance (one might call it the complacency from the Clinton years–a time of peace and prosperity not only taken for granted, but one that seems increasingly conspicuous in hindsight), even less time has been devoted to grappling with the perverse perspective that allowed the Gore/Bush contest to be close in the first place: we all know the tired and unfortunate balderdash about Americans having a preference for the guy they’d rather have a beer (or, in Bush’s case, a near-beer) with.
This is the same type of sentiment that informs the creation (and success) of reality TV and spectacles like the red carpet walk before the Academy awards, or the Academy awards period. As Americans, we’ll always have our lamentable lack of intellectual integrity working against us, but 2000 was a low-water mark for presumption mating with unwarranted optimism to create the imperfect beast that has been Bush. Optimism in the sense that, despite all of Clinton’s (mostly self-inflicted) flaws, the man oversaw a period of time that put the vast majority of Americans in a better place than they’d been during the papa Bush (not to mention patron saint of rose-colored conservatism Ronald Reagan) era. Americans made the mistake of assuming we were on cruise control, and heading into the 21st century, it didn’t particularly matter who was behind the wheel, our car was never running out of gas or off the tracks. And this is the crux of the dilemma: how many Americans would allow (much less prefer) a non-credentialed, but good-natured stranger to fix their car? Or do their taxes? Or sell their house? Or manage their funds? (Oops). But somehow, when it came to choosing the person who would run the affairs of the most powerful nation in the world, enough (and entirely too many) of us said “Hey, what’s the worst thing that can happen?”
The answer: 2001-2008.
The point being, it’s woefully inadequate for all of the typically, predictably unaccountable journalists to castigate, in hindsight—and now that the country is burning—all of the ways Bush’s cronyism and incompetence set us back. He remains, and always was, the same man we beheld during the 2000 campaign (did anyone actually watch the debates vs. Gore? Did anyone come away from a single debate reassured that Bush was up to the task?) Again, this is not to let Gore off the hook for his myriad shortcomings and tactical blunders: against all probability, Kerry (and even McCain) tried to make it close, but Gore’s 2000 campaign must ultimately rank as the single-most self destructive and useless of all time: to invoke a lame, but unavoidable cliché, he truly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. From his sighs to his naïve reliance on obtuse consultants to his tone-deaf insistence on keeping Clinton (who, despite the Lewinsky debacle, was still by far the most popular person in the country) away from his operation, he became a cat that, in a bewildering mix of confidence and confusion, declawed itself only to watch the mockingbird chirp at him with relative impunity. It was unbearable to behold, one can only imagine how insufferable Gore finds those memories–even now–when he hits his pillow at night.
And so, none of this is to excuse Gore, or to lose focus on how much responsibility master of muppets Cheney actually bears, but the most culpable individual for the Bush disaster is the American voter who (with no help from a typically supine media) pulled the lever for a man who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering implausible reality.
Of course, many of these individuals are the same ones who, chastened or inspired, pulled the lever for Obama. And that, in the end, might be the truly enduring legacy of George W. Bush: he failed so spectacularly, his incompetence was so colossal, his influence so poisonous, that he—more than anyone or anything—set the stage for the previously unthinkable: a relatively untested, young African American (Democrat!) winning the presidency. In a landslide. Turning states that had voted reliably red for 40 years blue. With all due respect to Obama’s considerable skills, charisma, and promise, the cult of personality he has inspired might owe as much to a Bush backlash as any sudden shift in the American sensibility. Things have been so bad for so long that the thought of “more of the same” (sorry McCain) was simply repugnant and inconceivable for way too many Americans. So, while wars, failure abroad and at home, the economy, torture and inadequacy will all be part of the sordid Bush story, he might have exceeded even his most virulent detractors’ predictions and done the impossible, after all: he made it possible to imagine a new, better era dominated by Democrats, and democracy.
Only in America.