George W. Bush is like America’s wacky sitcom uncle and I’m tired of it. I think you should be, too.
To be fair, I don’t think too many people are giving the former president a complete pass. I would hope no one is out there rolling out the red carpet for him and blowing trumpets. But there has been a disturbing amount of sugarcoating, from his quirky painting career to his sudden clapbacks against the current administration I’m just wondering…um, why? And are we doomed to keep doing the same?
To take it back a little, Bush’s legacy is probably best remembered through the lens of Saturday Night Live and comedy specials. Remembering the former president as a doddering old man is easier than keeping track of massive economic recessions and fake wars on terror. For better or for worse, the media treated Bush like a joke even before his final term had expired. I lost count of how many comedians developed whole routines around the Commander in Chief and his pals, never mind the bizarre sitcoms and animated specials.
Satirizing leaders is a tradition that stems back as far as Ancient Greece, but it’s a little uncomfortable laughing at someone who directly caused the deaths of so many people both abroad and at home over capitalist greed. It just sends the message that it’s okay to laugh at terrible things happening to groups you don’t belong to — black and brown folks, people with disabilities, immigrants. Sure, in the meantime there were high profile protests and charities by musicians and actors. But the pushback against those was easy because we didn’t have to take Bush seriously. He was just some dopey old man, right?
Unfortunately, we did not laugh Bush out of office and when his final term came to an end, he disappeared out of the public spotlight. Save for a few obligatory appearances and whatever that whole painting thing was about, Bush hung back around the outskirts of memory like a dimly remembered bad dream. Sure, his legacy of racial and class tension was still in place but it was time to switch targets to mock. And then something peculiar happened.
When asked to comment, Bush said something negative against current president Trump.
Gasp! A high profile Republican said something negative about another high profile Republican! The GOP is imploding! Oil the skids! Is clapping back against someone that is so blatantly intent on destruction really the point where we’re taking everyone back in? Especially from someone that was equally bent on it?
Actually, that re-emergence was timely as America is in another situation where we’re failing to laugh out a president who was already quite embedded in pop cultural consciousness (SNL references still in check!). I remember catching some of Stephen Colbert’s election night special, which quickly grew surreal and uncomfortable when it became clear Trump had blustered himself right into presidency. Why? We’ve been clowning Trump for near thirty years! How could this happen? It was all fun and memes until it became real. Fortunately, it seems even through the caricatures we are taking Trump far more seriously but that doesn’t mean holding his predecessors in a different light. Because that’s how we came to this point.
If you think it’s an odd hill to pick for a fight, it’s not. The nostalgia for Bush has been coming for a few years from both Democrats and Republicans, and it’s a little scary and a lot insulting to those of us still bearing the scars of his policies. There are those that will tell you the inexperienced and dangerous Trump makes Bush look like a walk in the park, except it doesn’t. All Trump is doing is continuing Bush’s rather dystopic legacy of oppression with the backing of his followers and Republicans who are lockstep with him no matter how much exasperated ballyhoo they lob to the press. The threshold can’t be this low. For this upcoming voting season, remember part of resisting is not giving in the urge to strap on rose-colored goggles and say, “that wasn’t so bad”. Because it was and still is, and all the dark chuckles in the world won’t change that.
Photo credit: U.S. Army/Creative Commons