If you've just crash-landed from the planet known as Kepler-186f and have no experience with the human life form or its recent history, let me just clarify something for you: George W. Bush was a divisive and unsuccessful president. Economically, internationally, culturally — you name the category of leadership, and the results pretty much range from disappointment to disaster. A CBS News/New York Times poll clocked Bush's final approval rating at 22 percent, which is about as low as you can go in politics without needing a parole officer.
You may get confused about this, because lately Bush is enjoying a public restoration. The Bush you read about these days is the kind of inclusive conservative you can deal with, a guy who bikes with wounded veterans, a sensitive portraitist of world leaders. A graphic this week on FiveThirtyEight.com showed how fewer and fewer Americans blame Bush for the country's economic morass, even though his successor, Barack Obama, won two presidential campaigns based on precisely that premise.
Bush's critics will argue that this is testament to how quickly we forget the past. But it has more to do, really, with how we distort the present.
The truth is that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was. Read "Days of Fire," the excellent and exhaustive book on Bush's presidency by Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times. Bush comes off there as compassionate and well-intentioned — a man who came into office underprepared and overly reliant on his wily vice president and who found his footing only after making some tragically bad decisions. Baker's Bush is a flawed character you find yourself rooting for, even as you wince at his judgment.
But as is the way in modern Washington, it was never enough for Bush's political opponents that he was miscast or misguided. He had to be something worse than that — or, more precisely, a lot of things worse. He had to be the most catastrophic president ever, in the history of ever. He had to be a messianic war criminal. Or a corporate plant looking to trade blood for oil. Or a doofus barely able to construct a sentence.
That was the way Will Ferrell portrayed Bush in a one-man Broadway show that, for a while after Bush's departure, thrilled the enlightened set. For a lot of urban Americans, the ones who bought little books of Bush's mangled syntax at the Barnes & Noble checkout line, Ferrell's comic version of Bush became more real than the man himself. You know something's wrong when the most nuanced portrayal of a political figure comes from Oliver Stone.
Bush wasn't the first president, of course, to be caricatured this way, to see legitimate criticism of his policies overtaken by assaults on his character or intellect. Bush's father was typecast as callous and wimpy, a patrician without principle. You could fill an adult bookstore with the political pornography written about Bill Clinton and all his alleged conspiracies and murders. Had Clinton been half the moral derelict his haters believed him to be, he wouldn't have had time left to govern.
Since then, of course, ubiquitous TV punditry and pervasive social media have only exaggerated the exaggerations. There's a lot of money to be made writing quickie books and giving speeches about the utter depravity of a president. And then you have the growing industry of interest groups and political action committees on both extremes of the ideological spectrum, who exist mostly to raise money and who don't care what they have to say to do it. Find me the direct mail firm that deploys any sense of proportion or decency, and I'll show you a consultant who can't pay the rent.
But then a strange thing happens. A president leaves, and the partisan mob moves on to savaging (or defending) someone else's morality. And in contrast with the new president, or with the new breed of opposition trying to destroy him, the last guy never looks quite so monstrous anymore.
And one morning we wake up to find that the things we once admired in a politician, even one whose policies we didn't like, are still what make him essentially human and worth our respect. Turns out George H.W. Bush is an honest man with a thoughtful view of the world. Turns out Bill Clinton was the kind of agile, pragmatic leader with whom conservatives could actually find some common ground.
And what do you know: George W. Bush really does care deeply about the men and women he sent to war, and he really did want to do good for the country. And as contemptuous of government and generally arrogant as he could be, he seems almost moderate next to the tea party crowd that's turned everything in Congress upside down.
This isn't Americans revising history. It's Americans dispensing, finally, with the cartoon version of it. It's the country getting some perspective.
It would be nice, of course, if we could take care to calibrate the rhetoric in Washington, which is what drives so many Americans screaming from any engagement in politics. In a less feverish environment, Obama would be criticized at the moment as a champion of expansive government and a cautious reformer (both of which are fair critiques), rather than as a closet socialist or tyrant who lies about his own inspiring story. But there's no market for reasoned rhetoric in American politics now. There's no incentive to responsibly dissent.
Obama can look at Bush, though, and take heart in the certainty that one day in 2022 or thereabout, he will get out of bed in Chicago or Honolulu to discover that even those who grew disillusioned now remember why they found him compelling in the first place — the sense of humor and self-possession, the deliberate intellect, the genuine love of family. There will be the inevitable chorus of, "Say what you want about Obama, but at least he wasn't…"
Obama may not ultimately be remembered as a great president (though he'll likely fare better than Bush). But at some point, we should all be able to grant that he's at least a good American.