Much like the presidency that spawned it, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is heavy on the style and light on the substance. For the most part, the exhibits trumpeting Bush’s supposed successes bear little more than a cursory resemblance to reality and are there principally to do what presidential libraries are designed to do, which is to make its namesake look good. To this end, George W. Bush evidently thought it would be a prudent and family-friendly gesture to turn his collection of 60 or so signed baseballs into one of the primary exhibits in his presidential library. To me, this says more about George W. Bush as a person than hundreds of pages of autobiography could and it speaks to why so many people voted for him in spite of his consistent neglect of the public interest. I’ve heard all the arguments that claim George W. Bush is a sort of populist poseur; a man who grew up wearing boat shoes in Connecticut only to trade them in for cowboy boots in Texas when it suited him. I can appreciate the reasoning behind these theories, but I cannot endorse them, mainly because George W. Bush was maybe one of the more genuine presidents we’ve had in the past century. It may sound absurd, but I contend that it’s also the truth. Simple is as simple does, and Bush was about as simple as presidents come. Now, being genuine doesn’t mean he didn’t lie—he did plenty of that—it simply means he meant what he said when he said it. You can usually hear it in his voice and see it in his posture whenever he gives a meaningful speech or newsworthy sound bite.
When George W Bush gets up at a fundraiser six months before the start of the Iraq War and says that he knows that Saddam Hussein’s hatred is mainly directed at the Bush family because, “this is a guy who tried to kill my dad at one time,” there’s no part of me that doesn’t believe he truly hates Saddam Hussein in a very personal way. Similarly, I’m pretty damn certain that the reason why Bush took an S-3B Viking jet out to the USS Abraham Lincoln for his Mission Accomplished speech despite the fact that Marine One could’ve reached the ship was because he’d get to land in a fucking jet on an aircraft carrier! During many of the key moments of his presidency, George W Bush just did pretty much what your average American male would do if put in the same situation. If you find out somebody had tried to kill your dad with a car bomb, the natural reaction for most folks would be to find the son of a bitch and try to kill him back. Ask a random American guy if he wants to put on a Top Gun-style flight suit and fly a twin-engine anti-submarine jet on an aircraft carrier, and you won’t be halfway through your question before he says yes.There weren’t many Presidential duties that George W. Bush excelled at, but throwing out first pitches was certainly one of them. The man threw a heater off the mound and down the center of the plate at Yankee Stadium before the 1st World Series game in New York since 9/11. That sort of things matters to people.
Ironically enough, the reason why George W Bush’s personality and actions resonated with so many Americans is precisely because he was born into such an affluent and prestigious family. Had he been born into any other family in America, there’s no way in all of god’s green goodness that he becomes the President of the United States. But he wasn’t. He was born a Bush. And being born a Bush allowed him live the kind of life that was once reserved for crown princes who had nothing but time to kill until their dad scuttled off to join the choir invisible. Unlike his sturdy, industrious, Gooper-esque younger brother Jeb, George Jr spent the bulk of his life playing the role of “the family clown,” perpetually disappointing and frivolous. However, it was in those decades of triviality, as he seemingly frittered away all of the promise of his birthright, that he gained the skills he would need to become President one day. Family friends and political pundits expressed a good deal of shock at the time that it was George and not Jeb who got the family’s shot at the White House. After all, he was smarter than George was and he was certainly more politically astute. He had the track record and George didn’t. So why was Jeb the bridesmaid and not the bride?
At this point, it might do us well to go back to the words of the godfather of the English canon and look at Prince Hal’s soliloquy from the beginning of Henry IV, Part I. Other than the titular character in the parable from the Gospel of Luke, there is no more famous prodigal son in all of western lore than that would-be-king, the dishonor stained son of Henry IV who spent the bulk of his young adulthood cavorting with drunkards and peasants and generally acting like a damn fool. However, there is a method to Hal’s mischief, which he shrewdly explains to us and no one else:
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Now, personally, I don’t believe that George W. Bush ever made a conscious decision to play the court jester over the first half of his life so that the underwhelming nature of his youth would make the competence of middle-age seem like a revelation. The men and women who are born with such cunning forethought inevitably skip right past the dalliance and head for the glory straight off, as Jeb did. No, I think George truly was the black sheep of the family and that there is a great deal of legitimacy to his come to Jesus moment that propelled the latter part of his adulthood. But I also think that there was always a part of George who knew—who had to know—that all he had to do was shake off the cobwebs of a life of perpetual slack and he would be in the driver’s seat once more. He is the eldest and the first born and while primogeniture may no longer be the law of the land, it still holds a special place in the hearts of the wealthy, WASPy and wise.
More than any other time in our nation’s history, 21st American century politics is a battle of image and perception. What you do is never so important as who you are, or at least who people think you are. One of the polls that was cited again and again in the lead up to the 2004 election was the one which asked undecided American voters if they would rather sit down and have a beer with George Bush or Democratic candidate John Kerry. Bush won by double digits. A similar question was asked about which candidate came off as a more “real person” and Bush won by the same margin. In many respects, it is absurd to debate the “realness” of a person’s character, if for no other reason that there’s no metric by which to judge it. Discerning the authenticity of another human being is based almost entirely on feeling and shared experience. If you have nothing in common with someone, you’re far more likely to fail to identify with them and politician’s are acutely aware of this. Hence, you get the requisite onslaught of staged photo ops to show that a candidate is just like the people. Some of them, like President-elect Bill Clinton jogging in a chunky Arkansas Razorbacks sweatshirt and ending his run by ducking into a McDonald’s, work perfectly and do their part to establish the folksy, down-home vibe Americans often like in their candidates. Others, like Mitt Romney heading into a mom and pop hardware store in New Hampshire and telling reporters as he was leaving that he had bought some “hardware stuff”, only serve to reinforce the image that the candidate has no idea what life is like for the average American.Ay, there’s the rub, ain’t it?
At the time of the 2000 election, Al Gore had just finished up a two-term Vice Presidency during one of the most prosperous eras in recent American history. Before that, he had spent 16 years representing his home state of Tennessee in the US House and Senate, first being elected to Congress when he was just 28 years old. Several years earlier, Gore had been one of only about a dozen members of his graduating class at Harvard to enlist in the military, serving in Vietnam as a war journalist. For his part, the sole experience George W. Bush had in politics was a six year stint as the Governor of Texas, which followed nearly two decades of failure in the oil industry that resulted in the SEC investigating him under suspicion of insider trading. Gore spent his twenties serving his country in a war zone and running a successful campaign for the US House of Representatives, while Bush spent those same years dicking around in the Texas National Guard and driving drunk at his folks’ summer home in Kennebunkport. None of this really mattered.
From the very outset, the Bush/Cheney campaign realized that the only line of attack against Al Gore was a moral one. The Clinton Administration had left the country in relatively good stead and there weren’t too many weak spots to attack Vice President Gore on concerning his policies or their outcomes: For the first time in 30 years the United States had a federal budget surplus; the country wasn’t embroiled in any major international conflict; unemployment was hovering at 4.0% and exit polling on election day showed that 69% of American voters thought that the country was heading in the right direction.(1) The only thing the GOP had to fall back on was its self-proclaimed status as the perpetual champion of Christian ethics in a morally bankrupt town. Sure, it was Clinton that got the blow job from the intern, but why should that stop them from assassinating his character by proxy? And, remember that one time he said that, he “took initiative in creating the internet”while in Congress? Why not make him sound like an utter maroon by taking that line out of context and telling everyone he said he created it himself?
The Bush camp had ample reason to believe that such a strategy would pay dividends. When Bush ran for Governor of Texas back in 1994, he had to unseat a very popular incumbent in Democrat Ann Richards at a time when the GOP had yet to gain a stranglehold on political life in the Lone Star State. Going on little more than name recognition and vitriol, Bush and Karl Rove launched an effective campaign that took everyone, including Governor Richards, by surprise. Among the campaign’s biggest coups was their success at starting a whisper campaign that insinuated that Richards was appointing “avowed homosexuals” to positions within the government and that she herself might be a lesbian. Never mind the fact that she was a 61 year old grandmother who had never had a homosexual relationship in her life. The veracity of such rumors don’t matter all that much because they don’t need to be true; they just need to exist. And therein lies the method to Karl Rove’s madness. Early on in his political career, Karl figured out that the reality of a candidate’s circumstances are more or less irrelevant so long as his campaign controls the narrative of the election. Certainly, character assassinations are a lot easier when your opponent provides you with some ammo, but they’re not necessary for success. To paraphrase Voltaire, If immorality did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent some.
Bush and company one-upped their homophobic histrionics five year later, when they orchestrated a smear campaign on John McCain in South Carolina that would have made Nixon blush. After squandering a massive lead in the polls and losing the New Hampshire Primary to the Maverick Senator from Arizona, the Bush campaign had officially hit Defcon-5. If they didn’t pick up South Carolina, they stood a real chance of losing the nomination, and Karl Rove and his minions weren’t about to let that happen. With two and a half weeks to go until the South Carolina primary, the Bush War Machine sold their soul to the Religious Right in exchange for the GOP nomination and gave up all pretense of civility and humanity. Pretty soon, an e-mail from a professor at Bob Jones University was circulating throughout the The Palmetto state that “McCain chose to sire illegitimate children,” opening the floodgates for a sea of slander and libel that was all but absent from national media coverage, yet saturated South Carolina.
Through Bush’s allies on the Christian Right anonymous push polling and leafletting campaigns, potential voters were inundated with a host of reprehensible assertions about Senator McCain and his family that ranged from “informing” the public of McCain’s marital infidelities with his first wife and accusing his current wife of being a drug addict to declaring that McCain was a homosexual whose time in a Vietnamese P.O.W. Camp had left him mentally unstable and not fit for office. By the time the South Carolina Primary Debates came around, cars all across the state were being peppered with leaflets featuring a McCain family picture that included the McCain’s adopted daughter Bridget—who was Bangladeshi and dark-skinned—claiming that he was the father of a “Negro child.” The Bush camp also orchestrated push polls in which campaign supporters called prospective voters and asked them, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” Once again, the partnership of Bush and Rove had used imaginary scandal to create very tangible doubts among the electorate about his opponent’s character. These doubts helped spur Bush on to a double digit victory in South Carolina and, while McCain would win a few more states in the coming weeks, the primary season was pretty much all over but the crying at that point.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen two teenage boys fight each other on the playground or in the classroom, but if you have, you’ll know that there are normally about 4 directions the fight can take. Most of the time, you get a “hold me back, bro” type of fight, where both guys just want to assert their manhood and not look like pussy in front of all their friends. They’ll run at each other and maybe start grappling a little bit, but really, they’re just waiting for their boys to come over and restrain them so they can spend all day talking about how much they would have fucked the other guy up, had they gotten the chance. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got your no holds barred slobberknockers, where both parties go absolutely berserk and try to maim each one another to within an inch of their lives. This type of fight actually happens a lot more frequently with the young ladies, who have a tendency to go from 0-60 in the bat of an mascaraed eye and will generally try to detach their opponent’s scalp from their skull using nothing but a pair of well-manicured hands. The third kind of fight is basically a game of “totally hetero” Greco-Roman grabass, where both guys have no intention of hurting one another and just want to establish their dominance in the group, Animal Planet-style. You’ll see this a lot in future frat boys and skater punks who like emulating Jackass stunts and routinely kick one another in the nads for a laugh. The fourth and final fighting style is the “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” fight. This is the one that is particularly prescient in understanding how it is that I ended up visiting the George W Bush Presidential Library and not the Al Gore, John McCain or John Kerry Presidential Libraries.Using an opponent’s young, adopted, Bangladeshi daughter as racist attack ad fodder? That’s just the Bush family way.
A “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” fight happens whenever you have two people fighting one another with two different conceptions of what the rules are. For example, let’s say you’re at a party and two of your friends start beefing. They’re up in each other’s face, talking shit, when one of your friends starts to take off his jacket so he can have more mobility when the fight goes down. As your one friend begins taking off his jacket, your second friend simply pulls back and unloads a vicious right hook onto the other guy’s temple. Next thing you know, jacket boy’s knocked out cold on the ground and the fight’s over after one punch. What happened? Well, one guy went into the fight assuming that they’d be exercising traditional fight decorum and giving one another the gentlemanly courtesy of being able to remove any cumbersome clothing items before throwing down. The other guy could give two shits about being a gentleman and was going to go about the business of winning the fight by any means necessary. If that had meant kicking the other guy in the balls or going Mike Tyson on his ears, then he would have done that too. His key to success is that he was going to take the fight to that next level. If the other guy pulls out a switchblade, then he busts out a revolver. Ann Richards; John McCain; Al Gore; John Kerry; they all brought knives to a gunfight when they went against George W Bush. They all naïvely assumed that Bush and his handlers hand some basic sense of human dignity and fairness. They should have known better, especially considering the Bush family history of being low-down dirty sons of bitches when it came to electoral politics.
Entering the 1988 presidential campaign, sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush was in pretty dire straits in his bid for the White House, trailing his Democratic challenger from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, by 17 points in the polls. At the time, Bush’s campaign manager was Lee Atwater, a fiery South Carolinian with the moral compass of a sex trafficker and a penchant for making the lives of his candidate’s opponents miserable. After doing a number of focus groups with independent voters and so-called “Reagan Democrats”, Atwater decided the best course of action was to go negative against Dukakis and to highlight the case of Willie Horton, a black Massachusetts man who was sentenced to life for 1st degree murder, but managed to escape from prison by exploiting a state furlough program that allowed inmates out into the general population on select weekends. A little under a year after his escape,Horton assaulted a young white couple in Maryland, tying up the man and repeatedly raping his fiance. In the months leading up to the election, the Bush campaign pressed the issue, repeatedly accusing Dukakis of being soft on crime and linking him to this furlough program that was established more than a decade before he took office. And then, the Willie Horton ad happened.
It might be the most infamous mug shot in all of US politics: Willie Horton staring back into America’s living room with that slightly upturned, unfeeling face—his big afro and thick beard framing a pair of half-shut eyes while an omniscient voice informs you of the grisly details of his felonious past. In the words of the ad’s creator Larry McCarthy, he was “every suburban mother’s greatest fear.” Not every mother’s fear, but every suburban mother’s fear. It was race baiting in its crudest form; Birth of a Nation redux in a 33 second political ad. It was the distillation of the Southern Strategy, a political philosophy that has been the backbone of conservative politics for the last 40 years which says, racism by any other name is just as sweet. This was George W Bush’s political inheritance from his father; the blueprint by which he could win elections he had no business winning.
People often make the mistake of dismissing Bush as a simpleton or a rube. They look at his gaffes and his policy failures and they see a bumbling Magoo who almost fell into the Presidency by accident. On a daily basis between 2000 and 2008, the liberal establishment would turn on the TV and see George W. Bush giving Angela Merkel an unasked-for shoulder massage or making up words like misunderestimated, and they’d simply ask, how? How in the hell did we lose to this guy? Well, the answer to that can be found in that seminal user’s guide to political deception, The Prince. In his chapter on how a prince should go about keeping good faith with the public, Machiavelli says that it is important that a leader seem pious and religious and sincere, but cautions against actually being any of those things. Instead, he tells us that:
“Everybody sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are, and those few will not dare to oppose themselves to the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them…the vulgar is always taken by appearances and the result of things; and the world consists only of the vulgar.”
Essentially, seem charming, be fake and act shallow. Sounds like George W. Bush to me.
(1) For the record, exit polling in 2008, after two Bush terms, showed that just 20% of American voters thought the country was on the right track.