Estimates vary, but over the course of his eight years years in office, President George W. Bush was responsible for the murders of roughly 500,000 people. That’s the lowball, too: Cite that stat, and somebody is bound to point out that the reality is probably closer to a million. You’ve never met that many people. Not a million, not 500,000, not the relatively conservative 268,000 that the Iraq Body Count can confirm in that nation alone. Imagine the murders of all of your friends and all of your family, of everyone else you’ve ever known. Imagine them bombed, shot, shelled, and poisoned by depleted uranium. Then imagine everyone they’ve ever known meeting the same fate. Do that a few more times over and you’ve got a sense of Bush’s body count. Then remember how lovely it was to see him on The Ellen DeGeneres Show earlier this month, a charming elder statesman, redeeming himself by talking about how he couldn’t figure out how to wear a poncho on Inauguration Day and his friendship with Michelle Obama.
The rehabilitation of George W. Bush has been a long time coming. Conservatives never really gave up on him, keeping their public praise to a minimum. (Reagan’s always better for that anyway.) But over the last year, a troubling number of theoretically respectable American liberals have joined the chorus, waxing nostalgic for the honor and decency of George W. They’re glad to see the positive work he’s doing, happy to hear him speak out on the importance of a free press. They’ve traded in their “Not my president” t-shirts for Facebook posts about how nice he seems, how grandfatherly, how they’re glad he’s giving back after fouling up America so badly. They are not yet ready to sing his praises, but they are ready to equivocate, welcoming back into their qualified good graces the president who leveled Iraq, who let New Orleans drown, and who tried, and very nearly succeeded, to replace Social Security with senior discount coupons for the Golden Corral.
The rehabilitation of George W. Bush has been a long time coming.
The sweet old man on Ellen was only the latest episode of this rehab tour. Before that, it was Aziz Ansari praising Bush’s “leadership” on Saturday Night Live the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, or George Takei calling him a “member of the Resistance” in February. Earlier this year, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom publicly praised Bush for having the incredible courage to tell People magazine that a free press is important. “Michelle Obama isn’t the only liberal embracing George W. Bush,” reported The Washington Post. Michelle Obama hugged him before any of this, way back in September, on the baffling premise that this was somehow a vital step in defeating Donald Trump. I don’t know how vital it was, but it was, I suppose, part of the package you buy when the “most progressive” Democratic nominee in history praises Henry Kissinger from a debate stage and touts letters of endorsement from the league of extraordinary neocons.
During the election, praising the younger Bush was a tactical exercise. It wasn’t that the Democratic Party was ready to welcome Bush administration officials and other assorted war criminals into the policy fold — never mind any votes authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, or drone wars — it was only that candidate Trump represented a unique threat and defeating him should be a bipartisan goal. If even the guys who could write memos explaining that torture isn’t really illegal before kissing their children goodnight thought Trump was bad news, then surely every moderate Republican in the swing state suburbs would defect in the name of the country. The Obamas had to embrace the Bushes: It was important, after all, to show our deep commitment to the peaceful transfer of power, especially when one candidate was suggesting that he might not accept the election results. We know how the neocon gambit went and we see, as a consequence, who was skittish about accepting the results.
It would be difficult for any president to prove himself “worse than Bush” in under 100 days, but Trump is simply too stupid to even come close.
The election is no longer the excuse, but Trump still is. Bush has transformed himself from Hague candidate to sensitive elder statesmen by selling paintings for wounded warriors, and the liberal response has not been to embrace Bush with open arms, precisely, but to offer a baffled kind of admiration. Nancy Pelosi recalled fond memories of their work on immigration reform, praising his “respect” for the “dignity” of immigrants. “The thing about this is, Donald Trump has now done something I thought he would never do,” Joy Behar said last month, struggling to complete her thought: “I like — I like the fact that George Bush — I like George Bush now, is what I’m trying to say.” Peter Daou, a former Clinton staffer and executive editor of the now-defunct Democratic house organ Blue Nation Review, tweeted last month that although “George W. Bush was a bad president,” this did not contradict the “fact” that “So far, Trump is worse.” It isn’t that liberals have suddenly become fond of Bush, except in a fuzzy way, but that in comparison to the current president, he doesn’t seem half bad.
This view is ridiculous. It is contradicted, immediately, by even the most cursory reflection on reality. I do not intend that as a defense of Trump, who may yet prove himself to be a more violent and repugnant leader than Bush, but in the barely two months that have elapsed since Trump’s inauguration, the new president’s capacity for evil has been consistently stymied by his incompetence. Since January, Trump has made dangerous appointments, declared malicious intentions, and vaguely threatened the invasion of Mexico, but his only real effort so far — a draconian ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations — was so ineptly executed that it remains frozen in judicial limbo, replaced by a more tepid but equally dubious alternative. Trump has not yet started any wars. He has not reauthorized the use of torture. His efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act are floundering. It would be difficult for any president to prove himself “worse than Bush” in under 100 days, but Trump is simply too stupid to even come close. And yet alternatives to the new liberal position of Bush typically rush even further into the realm of the hyperbolic, with “respectable” conservatives like David Frum offering that Trump is not only worse than Bush but worse than every other president in history, including the ones who had slaves.
The only way to make sense of current sentiment is to remember that in the mainstream of American politics and commentary, there is no higher virtue than civility. Our ruling class would rather feel good than do good, and the rehabilitation of Bush reveals only that the burning center of their disdain for Trump is not his wicked intentions but the fact that he is vulgar and mean, that he insults reporters with abandon, likely colluding with Russia the whole time. “Then what are we fighting for?” Winston Churchill didn’t actually say in a much-beloved apocryphal story about his refusal to cut arts funding during World War II. Now you can invade any helpless petro-dictatorship you like, but if you aren’t even going to attend the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, what’s the point of this whole empire? Liberals may have hated Bush, but god damn it, he was a Christian and a sport and he only ever did murder in the name of America.
It is worth remembering that nobody, not even in the darkest days of the Bush years, ever suggested we ought not “normalize” that president’s depravity. There was, after all, nothing abnormal in imperial violence, especially post-9/11, so long as it was done politely. War and torture were things to vote against (or not), to protest against (later on), to even hate for a while (when the political winds changed), but redemption is never truly impossible for the elite. It took Trump to prove it, but for the collaborationist wing of the Democratic Party, Bush was an opponent, not an enemy. He was already normal. The powerful have always bickered over where to invade next: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria. If you blow it, just lay low for a decade. Work on your painting. They’ll welcome you back. Trump may yet prove more terrible than Bush could ever be, but what ought to disturb us, what is really sinister in this whole revisionist swan song for Bush, is that even if Trump does rack up a seven-figure body count, he need only wait a while, find God, and wait for the next GOP president to announce that proceeds from his new collection of decorative, hand-crafted throw pillows will be donated to the the two-headed children of everyone affected by his 2019 nuclear skirmish with China. The takes will come: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Donald Trump seems alright now.
It is not that anyone, even someone so wretched as George W. Bush, is beyond all hope of redemption. Of all human behaviors, forgiveness is perhaps the most valuable, and most complex. But charity work and softball interviews are rehab moves we might accept for someone like Paula Deen or Michael Richards, a good first step in making up for that time they were malicious racists in public. They are not commensurable to a million bodies. This should be clear enough to anyone seduced by the new Grandpa Bush, and it should be a warning to those tempted to believe that the upper echelons of our political class have ever needed anything but an excuse to let a patriotic butcher back into the warm, endearing chamber of their hearts.
Emmett Rensin is a contributing editor at the LA Review of Books.