Sympathy for the Devil

There I was, an angry, idealistic and (therefore) insufferable 15-year-old, on the train towith my ex-Trotskyist, Blairphobic father.

It all used to be so simple.

There I was, an angry, idealistic and (therefore) insufferable 15-year-old, on the train to my first proper protest march with my ex-Trotskyist, Blairphobic father. The political cosmology of those days was blinding in its clarity and completely unalterable; a steady-state universe. Iraq was All About Oil. The hated Blair was America's Poodle. 9/11 was Only To Be Expected due to Western Imperialism. Israel was an Apartheid State. Corporations were Destroying The Planet. The capital letters are there because this is how the words appear in my memory.

Dominating the scene, the Godot we were all waiting for, was the presumptively unassuming figure of George W. Bush. His place in the Stop the War pantheon was central, but curiously bifurcated in a way familiar to watchers of the Obama presidency. On the one hand, Bush was a cowboy, an ignoramus, a maladroit malapropist swinging in a tire, his finger hovering over the nuclear button, taunting us. Simultaneously, and often to the same people, he was the diabolical executor of sinister Jewi... neoconservative schemes, the new face of white colonialism and, if not directly responsible for all the world's ills, certainly lacking a strong alibi.

As I stumbled woozily into adulthood, my politics evolved/I sold out (delete as appropriate). I'm now agnostic about Iraq, intolerant of excuses made for suicide bombers and a Zionist; I've also contracted a sneaking admiration for Blair and think capitalism, on balance, is a jolly good thing. As with other forms of growing up, some continuity was helpful to remain centered, and so it was with Bush: my contempt for him only deepened as I moved rightwards. I came to find the truth of Iraq - that the bloodshed was chiefly the result of his administration's shocking, culpable lack of foresight and preparation - far more disturbing than the airport novel version in which he did it all for Halliburton. The best approximation I've seen of my feelings is this celebrated 2003 essay by Jonathan Chait, presciently written when Bush was at the height of his powers:

[A]lthough Bush hatred can result in irrationality, it's not the product of irrationality. Indeed, for those not ideologically or personally committed to Bush's success, hatred for Bush is a logical response to the events of the last few years. It is not the slightest bit mystifying that liberals despise Bush. It would be mystifying if we did not.

In short, I thought I knew where I stood. That was before I saw this fascinating post at New York Magazine's Daily Intel blog:

George W. Bush is no Bill Clinton. The most recent ex-president remains far too unpopular to have anything to do with next week's Republican National Convention, and so he's pretty much just hanging around these days, the Washington Post reports, reading the newspaper, working out, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He's "spent much of the month with relatives at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he played golf, rode bicycles and dined with friends. Back in Dallas, the former president will mostly play golf, ride bicycles and dine with friends."

As I read these words, I felt myself well up with what can only be described as pity. For eight years, this was the most powerful man in the world. He could talk to any world leader on a whim, invade wherever took his fancy, invite anyone on Earth to dinner (except Osama Bin Laden, who never left a forwarding address). Now, at the sprightly age of 66, he... potters around. Keeps himself busy. Finds things to do. Who would actually bother to list "reading the newspaper" as part of their daily schedule, unless that schedule were a yawning chasm? At any moment, I expect to hear he's taken to sitting on the porch with a banjo.

I haven't completely taken leave of my senses, I assure you. Pity? For George W. Bush? The man is wealthy beyond the dreams of most human beings, surrounded by a loving family, protected by the Secret Service and is now happily watching the book royalties roll in (unlike Blair, he declined to donate the proceeds to wounded veterans). I know all this. To me, the real note of pathos is contained in the sentence "far too unpopular to have anything to do with next week's Republican National Convention".

Think about that. Bill Clinton will be a star turn at the Democratic convention; even (whisper it) Jimmy Carter will speak via video link. Yet Republicans, who were quite happy to ride Bush to electoral and policy success when he was still popular, would now like us all to pretend their party had no leader in the 2001-09 period. Why?

The Daily Intel puts it down to Bush's continuing unpopularity, which is surely part of the answer, but strikes me as incomplete. After all, surely it would be less embarrassing to grant Bush a video address, as in 2008, rather than clumsily excluding him altogether. I'm no expert on the Republican psyche (a fact I am most grateful for), so for clues I turn to someone who is - GOP Menshevik David Frum, who touched on the subject in a 2011 essay. Frum, who tells me his own thoughts on Bush are "not sufficiently sorted out", offers this thumbnail analysis:

In the aughts, Republicans held more power for longer than at any time since the twenties, yet the result was the weakest and least broadly shared economic expansion since World War II, followed by an economic crash and prolonged slump. Along the way, the GOP suffered two severe election defeats in 2006 and 2008. Imagine yourself a rank-and-file Republican in 2009: If you have not lost your job or your home, your savings have been sliced and your children cannot find work. Your retirement prospects have dimmed. Most of all, your neighbors blame you for all that has gone wrong in the country. There's one thing you know for sure: None of this is your fault!

Something along these lines, a combination of suppressed guilt and economic frustration, seems to me the most psychologically satisfying explanation. If true, then Bush really does have reason to feel aggrieved; the conservative movement owns the failures of his administration every bit as much as the man himself, but now wants us to believe Bush was never a real conservative at all. So yes, I feel sorry for him. I don't like it any more than you do, disliking Bush was my ideological security blanket. If only I could find something, some sliver of information from that Washington Post story, to restore my reassuring antipathy.

This room opens up onto 22-foot-high beams of twisted steel, now ghostly under plastic wrap, that once held up the 85th floor of the World Trade Center. The steel will be surrounded by walls bearing the names of the victims of 9/11 and a video loop of the Twin Towers getting hit and going down.

Ah. There it is. Heckuva job, Bushy.


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