Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Amnesia Is the Point

I didn't intend to write more about Democrats' determination to whitewash and rehabilitate George W. Bush, but the controversy raged on, and while it seems to have peaked for the moment, it hasn't flattened yet.

Besides, something became clearer to me as I read more of the discourse.  There's probably no way to stop people from playing this game.  Many people are obsessed with ranking and comparison, and the culture and the media feed it by ranking the Top Ten Best or Worst Whatevers: movies, books, music, athletes, artists, stocks, potato chips, soy sauce, and so on, including presidents.  Really thinking about presidents is very difficult, even for specialists, and I think that ranking them is a waste of time.  At best it provides clickbait, a hook for magazine essays.  But it also means that people will focus on the traits they can rank.  With athletes, say, it's easier: you can rank them by their statistics.  With presidents it's not so clear what to compare, and people get bogged down looking for comparable details.  It's related to competition, which obsesses American culture.  But you can't line up the past ten presidents and see who among them can kill the most dusky foreigners, invade the most countries, trample the most civil liberties.  The competition takes place in the mind of the beholder.  Again, I think it's a waste of time, but it appeals to a certain kind of simpleton.

The thing is, if you really insist on playing this game, you need accurate data.  You can't rank the greatest batters of all time if you just make up their numbers.  But what characterizes pretty much all of the people comparing Bush to Trump is that they consistently misrepresent Bush and his record.  One of the easiest and most common rebuttals has been to point out that Bush killed a lot more people than Trump -- around a million people in Iraq alone.  Most of his defenders tend to focus only on the number of US troops who died in Dubya's wars, because Americans are not very interested in America's civilian victims.  The only score they care about is the number of Our Fallen Heroes and Wounded Warriors.  However, they're not as invested in dismissing the number of Iraqi dead as Republicans would be, so they tend to accept correction on that point.

So they move to other defenses -- and though they deny that they want to defend him, they soon talk about his supposed (but imaginary) positive qualities.  Often they claim that he has empathy, or that he has a conscience.  Now, Bush was notorious for his lack of empathy and conscience.  If you want a fuller picture, Molly Ivins wrote a couple of books with Lou Dubose about Bush's political career, but I think his moral emptiness can be summed up by a couple of his comic moments.  First, there was an interview where he was asked about a double murderer, Karla Faye Tucker, who'd become a born-again Christian in prison, leading to calls for clemency.
In brief, Bush was apparently asked if he had met any of those pressing Karla Faye Tucker's case for clemency. Bush said he hadn't, but claimed to have seen an incident on the Larry King show wherein King had asked Karla Faye Tucker what she would say if she could speak directly with George W.

What was her answer? the Talk reporter asked Bush. And George W. apparently puckered his lips and, in a mocking, simpering tone said: "Please don't kill me."
As it happens, Tucker had not said this.  Dubya was as enthusiastic a fantasist as Trump, and like Trump, never more so than when he fantasized about killing people.  George Will, whose 1999 essay on Bush I just linked, sniffed:
Mr. Bush should take care not to exacerbate the suspicion that he has a seriousness deficit. When he was asked by Mr. Carlson to name something he isn't good at, he should not have said, "Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something."

Mr. Bush told James Barnes of the National Journal, "I'm a decisive person" who doesn't "read treatises," and he told Mr. Carlson, "I'm not interested in process. I want the results. If the process doesn't yield the right results, change the process." All very brusque and hearty.
There's another presage of Donald Trump, who doesn't like to read, and prefers the process of making deals.

Another well-known example: In 2004, after Bush's invasion of Iraq had failed to turn up the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction that had been one of its main rationales,
During the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner this week, Bush presented a slide show of quirky photographs from inside the White House. In one, the president is looking under furniture in the Oval Office.

"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," Bush joked. "Nope, no weapons over there ... maybe under here?" (Bush pokes fun at himself at dinner)

Democrats have seized on the matter, calling it astonishingly insensitive when Americans [plus a million Iraqis, but who cares?] have died for their country in Iraq while the search for WMD has turned up nothing. 
I've also seen it said that Bush "unified the country" after 9/11.  This is arguable, but what is not arguable is that he worked to unify the country by going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In his fine book The Bush Dyslexicon, Mark Crispin Miller sought to show that Bush is not very good at inspirational rhetoric, but he can be eloquent when he talks about punitive violence.  And Americans, like many nations, love punitive violence, at least at first.  Trump may not be as eloquent when he celebrates punitive violence, but his base aren't picky.

Related to this is the claim that Trump has alienated our allies overseas, but Bush worked together with them.  Again, the convenient amnesia is remarkable.  It was a Democratic commonplace in 2009 that Bush had alienated our allies -- there was considerable difficulty in getting them to line up for his War on Terror -- and that Barack Obama won them back over.  At last, they crowed, we have a president who doesn't embarrass America before the world!  (As Trump is doing now.)  There's some truth there, because although Obama was happy to ignore multilateral action when it suited him, European leaders found him much more congenial than Bush, who like Trump they considered a boor.  This rapprochement was more complex than well-trained liberal memories like to remember; Naomi Klein wrote about it well in late 2009.
After nine months in office, Obama has a clear track record as a global player. Again and again, US negotiators have chosen not to strengthen international laws and protocols but rather to weaken them, often leading other rich countries in a race to the bottom.

Let’s start where the stakes are highest: climate change. During the Bush years, European politicians distinguished themselves from the United States by expressing their unshakable commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. So while the United States increased its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, the European Union countries reduced theirs by 2 percent. Not stellar, but clearly a case where the EU’s breakup with the United States carried tangible benefits for the planet.

Flash forward to the high-stakes climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Bangkok. The talks were supposed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen this December that significantly strengthens the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the United States, the EU and the rest of the developed countries formed a unified bloc calling for Kyoto to be scrapped and replaced.
Obama was hailed by liberals as a vast improvement on the brutish Bush, in just those areas where they'd denounced Bush while he was in office.  This may be partly because Obama continued many of Bush's terrible policies, and Democrats promptly forgot that they were Bush's or that they were terrible.  That willed forgetting may have extended to embrace Bush himself.

I suspect that many liberals, as dependent on TV for news as conservatives and reactionaries, never paid much attention to Bush's policies.  They were more concerned with his spotty oratorical ability, his many gaffes and bloopers, his inability to pronounce the word "nuclear," than about a million Iraqi dead and another million Iraqi refugees.  They couldn't help noticing the Iraq War or Abu Ghraib, but most likely they blamed the media for making them notice them.  They hated Bush because he's a Republican, the same way they hate Trump.  If they'd read a range of print media, they might be better informed.  Or maybe not, I don't know.

Now, to repeat, it would be different if Democrats looked at Bush with eyes wide open and concluded that he wasn't as bad as they thought.  That they choose to falsify his record, that they seem to have forgotten comparatively recent events from their own adult lifetimes, is strange to me.  It may be their very American Manichaeism, a desire to see the world in terms of heroes and villains, light and darkness, that drives them to invent a George W. Bush wholly unlike the real man.  If Trump is bad - and he's not just bad but Evil incarnate - then anyone who criticizes him, indeed almost anyone who isn't Trump, must be good.  These Bush apologists insist that they're not defending him, not saying that he was a good president, but that's exactly what they're doing: they can only rank him higher than Trump by lying about him, inventing virtues that he notoriously lacks.  No wonder they're equally willing to whitewash Joe Biden in much the same way.