Sympathy For the W?

In the end, a new portrait of Bush as tired, misunderstood, ruined

Friday, January 2, 2009

You have to go deep. You have to scrape and dig and plow, hunt and dive and sigh and even then it might take so long and cost so much invaluable energy and ultimately prove to be so damn near impossible, you will wonder if it's even worth it and why the hell I am even trying because, well, sweet Jesus knows he doesn't deserve it in the first place.

But if you're so inclined, if the temperature of your temperament is just so, if that fourth glass of $10 recession-defying wine is making you feel unusually generous, maybe, just maybe you can muster a bit of sympathy for George W. Bush.

Possible? Insane? Blasphemous? Damn straight.

It's already happening. I've read a number of pieces and a few strange, sepia-toned articles of late (like this one) that, while certainly not daring to paint Bush with any sort of gushing, rose-colored, wasn't-he-an-unrecognized-genius brush of overt kindness, still attempt to give him a far larger dose of humanity and pathos than which might sit well with your very soul.

It's certainly not uncommon, this soft-focus retrospective thing. Every president gets it right about now -- the benefit-of-the-doubt overview, the look back in wistful pondering before the battered chief steps away for good and history gets hold of the whole package and makes it into various flavors of reconstituted mincemeat.

Writers of such pieces invariably comment on how tired and old the president now looks, how exhausted and beaten down, how eight years in office under that kind of constant pressure absolutely destroys your health, your marriage, your skin, your hair color, and by the way what about that legacy?

But with Bush -- the worst-regarded, least popular, most ethically offensive president most of us will ever know -- things are just little bit different. His is that most peculiar and disquieting of exit portraits, a slumpy little guy initially thought to be a middling and relatively harmless puppet, suddenly thrust into history's limelight by the most dire of events, who then squandered every drop of global goodwill and violated most every international law and whored away the very soul of the nation with far more dazzling, efficient success than anyone could have ever imagined.

The upshot is as painful as it is undeniable: Dubya is, whether we like it or not, one of the most extraordinary and influential presidents of all time. Imagine.

So then, would you care for a more intimate sense of just what sort of man Bush was? What hidden or lesser-known facets we might have missed, how it's possible that Dubya might've been slightly more complicated and interesting than anyone ever really imagined because we only imagine him as a squinty smirky inarticulate destroyer of worlds?

Here is Bush as the good listener. Bush as the simple but spirited debater. Bush as the inviter of disagreement (wait, what?), Bush as the thoughtful and open-minded (please, no gagging) evaluator of opposing argument before choosing his position and closing his little fist around it and never letting go no matter what, because that would look weak and indecisive and we just can't have that.

Bush as the family man. Bush as the master of friendly interpersonal relations. Bush as the dorky wise-crackin' fishing buddy. Bush as the war-weary, wizened, slightly deluded visionary whose vision just so happened to be horribly wrong in every possible way, but who nevertheless truly believed he was doing right by his confused and angry God, and probably still does, and doesn't that make him some sort of sad and tragic figure in our sad and tragic history?

Well, no, it doesn't. Pathetic? Yes. Pitiable? Maybe. But tragic? That implies honor gone wrong, integrity soured by unforeseen traumas, noble intent and spiritual purity ruined by dark forces beyond his control. Not a chance. Bush might not be the cleverest dolt in the playground, but he is far from ignorant of the dishonest, crony-laden, criminal slant of nearly every decision his administration has ever made.

To my mind, even the softest portrait of W merely raises the larger question, perhaps not to be fully answered for many years: How could such a mediocre and unimaginative human cause so much damage? How could this frat house daddy's-boy dullard so perfectly undermine America's fundamental identity and disfigure every major department of government and bring the nation to its knees? Indeed, unpacking that one may take awhile.

Other questions, though, are not so difficult. Questions like: Has it really been all that bad? Have we been too hard on the poor schlub? Does Bush really deserve such white-hot derision and international contempt? Or is he just lost and misunderstood, like a sad clown with a big shotgun and an unfortunate muscle spasm? I think we can all answer those without the slightest hesitation.

There is, after all, no escaping history. There is no escaping the hard reality of our gutted and mangled nation, how the past eight years are simply some of the most dismal and corrupt in our nation's history, a modern take on the Dark Ages. And there is also no escaping the sense that we barely got out of it alive.

But you know what? Maybe there will eventually be a tiny bit of room for empathy for George W. Bush, for feeling a tiny bit sorry for the guy for being so inept and so deeply loathed and for never really understanding the scope of the damage he was doing, or who was really pulling the strings.

They say forgiveness, after all, is one of the highest virtues of man. Particularly forgiveness of those who have wronged us, harmed us, wreaked violence and idiocy and a homophobic war-loving fundamentalist Jesus upon us. The question then becomes, how do you begin? Where do you look inside yourself for a hint of mercy and absolution for this most banal and regrettable of evil overlords?

Maybe you don't look inside at all. Maybe, at least initially, it's more effective to do the exact opposite, to step back and take the long view, widen your lens until it encompasses the entire insane pageant of life, until you can't help but see Bush and all his concomitant demons for what they really are: a blip, a blink, a shrug of God, a speck of sad lint floating through the giant, never-ending cosmic circus.

Hey, it might not be forgiveness, but it's a start.

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