The Improbable Rehabilitation of George W. Bush

Despite being, at one point, one of the most hated presidents of all time, 53 percent of Americans now approve of George W. Bush.
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Despite being, at one point, one of the most hated presidents of all time, 53 percent of Americans now approve of George W. Bush.
George W. Bush throws out the ceremonial first pitch before game five of the 2017 World Series on October 29th, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

George W. Bush throws out the ceremonial first pitch before game five of the 2017 World Series on October 29th, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

More than any other president in recent memory, George W. Bush remains a supremely polarizing figure. He left office in 2009 with one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in history. One survey, taken at the time, revealed just 22 percent of constituents viewed him favorably. Another poll suggested as few as 6 percent of Democrats found his presidency to be acceptable upon his exit. These statistics bookended eight years of both lighthearted mockery and aggressive political denouncement.

Bush was an oft-lampooned figure in popular culture. Saturday Night Live portraying him as a bumbling simpleton, a tool used for the nefarious agenda of Vice President Dick Cheney. Musicians created the complication series Rock Against Bush. T-shirts were printed with slogans like "Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot." Cartoons satirized him as ape-like and unintelligent.

Opposition to his governmental protocols was just as virulent. He was actively criticized for implementing policies that rolled back women's access to reproductive health care, and his No Child Left Behind act, many feel, placed an undue burden on testing and grades. Even more severely, Bush's authorization of torture tactics at the Guantanamo Bay detainment center earned the former president the label of "war criminal." These are not accusations about his character, but opinions and views widely held during his time in office, and evidenced by his dismal exit ratings.

And yet, less than a decade after Bush Jr. left the White House, he's facing a renewed moment in the sun, a role reversal in public perception that depicts him as the antithesis of the aggressive, populist administration currently operating out of the Oval Office. Bush paints dogs. He hangs out with Lady Gaga. He gives impassioned, thinly veiled speeches against President Donald Trump and his ilk, in which he denounces, "bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed."

Weirdest of all? It's working. People are starting to like him. New polls show that 53 percent of Americans now view Bush in a favorable light. Of that average, 51 percent are Democrats.

It was less than 10 years ago that Bush left the Oval Office for the comforts of his Texas ranch. For the majority of this decade, he had remained almost completely silent on political affairs. So how, and why, is this man's legacy so suddenly and entirely reformed for the better?

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It is not atypical for a president to find post-term grace. The fact that they are no longer the central figure to blame for anything disastrous happening in the Western World, combined with a healthy dose of nostalgia, allows former presidents to reinvent themselves as the nation's innocent grandfathers, here to guide us through the whims of changing administrations.

Yet the scale of Bush's rehabilitation is staggering, especially considering the extent to which the United States (not to mention the rest of the world) must continue to wrestle with the policies left in Bush's wake. Military men and women are still fighting battles begun on his watch, American public schools are still struggling with the remnants of No Child Left Behind, which was dismantled in 2015.

Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1.

Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1.

Much of the pro-Bush sentiment is intertwined with Trump's own low favorability ratings. Bush certainly upholds ideas of statesmanship that Trump is all-too-eager to dismantle, be it a sense of decorum, a respect for the efforts of Congress and the court system, and, yes, a reluctance to tweet. For many Republicans, Bush is a reminder of a not-too-distant past where politicians seemed to play by a set of rules. The same holds true for Democrats.

Believing in Bush, even retrospectively, provides both Democrats and Republicans with a sense of hope that a level of (what many consider) political normalcy is still possible. With Trump so widely and wildly unpopular, Bush has been maneuvering his way back onto the scene and jockeying for the still-vacant role of "Republican leader." He released a book of paintings just weeks after Trump's inauguration. (It received a generous review from the New York Times, which said the book left the reviewer in "shock and awe.") In October, Bush gave a speech that indirectly referenced Trump's "cruelty"; the Internet immediately went ablaze with applause, citing Bush as the latest member of the "resistance."

Still, one must recognize the irony of seeing Trump and Bush as two entirely unique political figures. In many ways, Trump as we know him could not exist without many Bush-era policies and sympathies. During his presidential tenure, Bush stoked the flames of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment that fueled Trump's campaign and have become cornerstones of his administration. Bush sought to roll back protections for LGBT individuals, now Trump is attempting to expel transgender individuals from service. Even Trump's public persona mirrors early critiques of Bush: unintelligent, an unhinged style of public speaking, the perception that they are a figurehead for a more sinister puppet master, and the leveraging of perpetually nationalistic ideals.

One of the more dangerous elements of the Bush-Trump comparison is the fact that many facets of Bush's personality and personal philosophy that were once used as biting critiques of the man have now been flipped to appear as nostalgic ideals: he was once criticized for his foolishness, but that is now revamped as sweet innocence; we once laughed at him, and now we are laughing with him. It's almost as though he was plotting his comeback all along: a public persona of simpleness certainly makes it retrospectively difficult to evoke evil in the same way that is done with, say, Richard Nixon—the definition of crafty and cunning (and non-rehabilitated). If Trump is following similar patterns now, it hints at what may come for the remainder of his presidency and after.

Bush is testing the waters with this public relations strategy, seeing if the world is ready to forgive him, and the world seems all too ready to take that inch and transform it into miles and miles. Yet, in redeeming Bush, one must acknowledge that it sets a precedent that could someday redeem Trump. While that day may be far down the road, it is important that we as a political culture begin asking ourselves now if we could live with that possibility.

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