Time Changes Perspectives
Time has a way of changing how we see things. With an ever speculative media and lowering of the bar in our general cultural zeitgeist, it’s only natural that our hearts soften and we yearn for an escape to the past, blissfully ignorant of the fires once ignited in us. We see things differently because we forget, we forgive, we re-evaluate, and re-prioritise our claims to what holds important today. In a broad sense, this has helped out former President George W. Bush a great deal.
Once the ire of liberals and humanitarians around the world, George W. Bush has managed to shift his appeal and image to that of a happy-go-lucky, maybe he wasn’t-so-bad-after-all kooky figure. Perhaps one of the most controversial US leaders of all time has somehow become the least controversial of the former living occupants of the Oval Office.
That might sound a little extreme but when you consider the current climate of divisiveness in the US, it makes sense. Obama and soon Trump represent polar opposites and are each pinatas for the other side due to their current relevance (and in Obama’s case, race). Bill Clinton… well, we wrote a piece on him earlier this year delving into his legacy but to surmise briefly- Epstein, Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary, women, etc. And then there’s Jimmy Carter. While he’s my favourite president, he’s few others’ and has remained a punching bag for “ineptitude” in conservatives and some liberals’ minds since he left office (unfairly I might add).
The Likability Factor
George, like his father, has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office and for this reason, doesn’t grate people as much. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.) When he does appear in public, it’s usually for a non-partisan cause like supporting veterans or promoting humanitarian relief. When interviewed, he will explain and reassert his opinion that what he did in Iraq was important but he also seems content that “history will judge” his efforts. In other words, he’ll defend himself without becoming too defensive, like Bill Clinton has. Plus, he’s able to joke about himself (“most people didn’t think I could read, let alone write a book”) and has shown he’s not as partisan as once believed, becoming friends (or at least friendly) with Bill and Michelle Obama. Plus, he’s taken up painting which seems a bit quirky for someone like him.
So, in that sense, he’s re-established his likability factor which was probably his strongest asset against the rather dry Al Gore in 2000. This successful rehabilitation rendered a 61% approval rating in a CNN poll in 2018, compared to 33% upon leaving office. And he’s even been able to appear on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. I can only imagine Trump being invited to some wretched right-wing podcast in the coming years.
Likability is just one thing, however. Have his actual acts as commander-in-chief been vindicated? The answer is basically no, although the emphasis has shifted away from what was important in the 2000s. Where the war on terror once occupied the headspace of many Americans there is now a miasma of issues relating to what side you are on. While partisanship has developed bitterly over the last three decades, it’s so much more intrinsic to the nature of politics than even then. Basically, concerns for warfare abroad have been replaced with grisly notions of civil war at home.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is forgiven. In the 2016 Republican primaries, no candidate (except poor Jeb) backed their former leader’s venture into democracy. Four years before that, George wasn’t even present at their convention. So, the Republicans have basically tried to make their supporters forget he was ever a thing. The Democrats meanwhile, have pushed against their own for supporting the war effort back in 2002-3, using it as bait against the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. All in all, it would be fair to say, Iraq probably wasn’t a great idea.
On the other hand, some of Obama’s critics have argued he withdrew from Iraq too soon and that helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. His defence would counter some sort of pushback was inevitable and he was merely fulfilling the obligation of the American people but ultimately, enough room has been left for some blame there.
Afghanistan was a less controversial affair so that’s not been as much of an issue for George, besides relaying the popular assertion that he was a warmonger. And to many, he is seen as a war criminal who should have been trialed or impeached for what he did, particularly with regards interrogative measures in Guantanamo. He and his team have always asserted that they took any necessary precautions to avoid another attack on America, which they point out, didn’t happen. Critics remember the one time it did, of course, and argue that his administration took advantage of the patriotic frenzy following September 11th to pursue goals that were long in place, particularly with Saddam Hussein.
Ten years before, the Gulf War had been a triumphant effort. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed for the way he handled foreign affairs but he had played his cards with more caution, not moving beyond a liberation of Kuwait (to the dismay of many). Sanctions and warnings were placed against the Iraqi dictator and a resolution passed with bi-partisan support later on in the 90s which suggested there was actual cause for war should they put a toe in the wrong place (which Saddam did). Of course, principles and ambitions don’t mean much without proper strategy and when your intelligence amounts to nothing. In this regard, even George W. Bush admits things could’ve gone better. No WMDs were found and in 2007, he decided to send a surge of troops in order to relieve the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the liberation effort.
Establishing democracies is not easily done and the absence of a dictatorship does not immediately resolve all problems. Iraq developed into a mess, whatever the president’s intentions, and for this, it’s highly unlikely he will be forgiven.
With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to omit some of the accomplishments of George W. Bush. For one, his PEPFAR (AIDS’ relief) program in Africa was one of the greatest relief efforts America ever heralded, making him especially popular there. His Medicare expansion proved a fruitful endeavour. So too did his No Child Left Behind program, which aimed to hold schools with sluggish standards to account (though criticised for making teachers teach for the exam).
Anyways that’s that. So… there was also his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which brought his approval ratings to an all-time low and led to accusations of racism on his part. Gay marriage also became a red-hot subject for the 2004 elections under his tutelage, but not in a positive sense. And yes, the 2008 financial crash. Now, of course it’s not fair to place the blame solely on his administration. That bubble had been expanding since the 90s. However… only a year into his presidency, after successive years of a surplus, America was in recession. And he provided, as Republicans always dream of, a massive tax cut, going against much of the work Clinton had built on. Some of this comes down to political perspective but surrounding yourself with controversy and chaos rarely bodes well for one’s resume.
Historians, in their presidential rankings, generally place George W. Bush close to the bottom 10, if not among them. As briefly touched on, this was not an easy or steady presidency. In his defence, it never was going to be with the attacks of September 11th. He was dealt, undoubtedly, a tougher card than his predecessor and had to make some tough decisions, that could’ve gone either way. In this respect, I’m more sympathetic than most. If we think of these world leaders as playing on a chess board, partially obscured with fog, then it can be pretty difficult to navigate your next move.
With that said, it hasn’t gotten any worse since 2009 for George. His party may have severed ties with him (on an official capacity) but the majority seem to have taken a shine to this man. Maybe it’s because they forget easily. Maybe they think he was a good guy, waylaid in his efforts. Maybe they suspect Cheney was really in power. Maybe it’s because he seems so amiable compared to the current occupant. Maybe his candour, since leaving office, appreciated by the likes of Obama, has become symptomatic of something lost in US politics today. There’s all sorts of possibilities.
It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing that this legacy is changing so quickly. Commonality and closing the political divide is certainly important; in that respect, when he teams up with Bill Clinton, it’s understandable why people are happy to see him. On the other hand, he who forgets history is likely to repeat it and in some measure, it feels a bit insulting to trivialise this man’s legacy given the death toll and destruction afflicted under his watch. Popularity, in other words, is no replacement for competency.
Maybe, to toe the line, it’s as simple as one of us thinking what we would have done in his shoes since unlike so many other world leaders, he seemed like one of us.