W’s Return

Yesterday former President George W. Bush returned, briefly, to the national stage.  He was campaigning for his brother, Jeb Bush, who is hanging on for dear life and hoping to make a good showing in the South Carolina Republican primary.

According to press reports, the former President gave a short speech that endorsed his brother and described some of the qualities, like integrity and judgment and character, that he believes are needed in a good President — implicitly drawing a contrast with the blustery bombast of Donald Trump, without mentioning Trump or any other Republican candidate by name.   “W” also recounted some memories from his former campaigns in South Carolina and added some of his trademark self-deprecating humor.

Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush Campaigns With Brother George W. BushIt was a bit jarring to see news reports of George W. Bush at the podium.  I hadn’t seen him for a while, and of course he looked older, and thinner.  Since he left office seven years ago, former President Bush has consciously avoided the public eye and maintained a pretty consistent non-partisan, apolitical tone.  His speech yesterday sounds like more of what we’ve come to expect from him in his post-presidential years.  He was there to support and help his brother, but he did it without attacking other candidates by name or, for that matter, mentioning President Obama or criticizing the Obama administration.

George W. Bush remains a figure to be mocked and reviled among some on the left side of the political spectrum; seven years later, he’s still blamed by many, inside the Obama administration and out, for virtually all of our current problems.  Now Donald Trump has joined in, by repeating the debunked conspiratorial theories that the Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to maneuver us into an unnecessary war and ignored clear intelligence that America would be attacked on 9/11.

Through it all, former President Bush has publicly remained above the fray, no doubt believing that, having served in the nation’s highest office, former Presidents shouldn’t engage in rancorous partisan politics or bash their successor on talk shows.  It’s an old school approach that speaks of personal humility and properly recognizes the dignity of the presidency.  His ego obviously doesn’t compel him to stay in the media spotlight.  Instead, he’s taken to painting, he’s written a book about his Dad, former President George H.W. Bush, and he’s focused on charitable and humanitarian efforts.

Yesterday, George W. Bush listed some of the qualities we want in our President.  I think the former President’s personal conduct since he left office illustrates those qualities — and draws a pretty sharp contrast with the vulgar, egotistical, limelight-loving loudmouth who currently is leading in the polls.

 

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Worst Of The Worst

Recently we were at a cocktail party when a group of us got into a discussion about a taboo cocktail party subject:  politics.  The debate was about one of those topics that just about every adult American, from the beginning of the Republic to now, has chatted about at some point — namely, who was the worst President in their lifetime.

Our friend The Activist staked out a bold position; she says it was George W. Bush, hands down, and she later sent me a link to a New York Times piece that made the argument that he was even worse than Richard Nixon.  It’s a somewhat familiar argument — sure, Nixon was a duplicitous crook, but he was a foreign policy wizard who has some “historic achievements” like opening relations with China, whereas in the writer’s view (and The Activist’s as well) Bush was a colossal disaster from beginning to end.  I’m a bit skeptical of the argument, and not just because I think no one could be worse than a President who lied, covered up, broke the law, abused his office in countless ways, and ultimately resigned in disgrace.  I also note that the article was written in 2007, while Bush was still in office, and I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to have any kind of perspective on a President until years, and more likely decades, after his term has ended and the long-term consequences of his actions become clear.

I think it’s still too soon for anyone to objectively assess George W. Bush.  It’s interesting that, almost eight years later, he still provokes such disdain that intelligent, well-meaning people would passionately argue that he was worse than Dick Nixon.  I suspect that, some years from now, historians will treat him more kindly., whereas Nixon will remain at the rancid bottom of the barrel

I also wonder:  if we’re talking about awful Presidents, where does Jimmy Carter rank?  I would never argue that he was worse than Richard Nixon, of course, but anyone who lived through Carter’s one term will recall the terrible and pervasive feeling that the country was lost, somehow, and there really wasn’t a captain at the helm.  The economy was stagnant and wracked by ever-growing inflation and high interest rates and high unemployment, on the international front the Iranian hostage crisis made it seem like the United States was a powerless colossus, and Carter’s decision to retreat to Camp David to ruminate about the national soul rather than show leadership in the face of adversity left the country baffled.

At the end of Carter’s presidency, the United States seemed pretty hopeless.  Even at the worst moments of George W. Bush’s presidency, I never caught the same whiff of desperation that existed in the last year Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office.

Viewer Preparation For That First Presidential Debate

President Obama and Mitt Romney are busy preparing for their first debate, set for October 3 at the University of Denver.  With the first debate less than a week away, that means the rest of us need to prepare, too.

For all of their build-up, the debates usually are a yawner.  We’d like to see something shocking, spontaneous, hilarious, or intensely revealing, but it never happens.  Wouldn’t you love to see a candidate take a chance and do something to shake things up, like Mitt Romney coming onstage wearing a top hat and monocle in a humorous bid to deflate the “out-of-touch rich guy” mantra?  Of course, no candidate wants to take the risk that a bold effort or answer might backfire, so they play everything close to the vest.

As a result, for every memorable debate moment — like President Reagan, in response to a question about age, promising not to hold Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” against him, Mike Dukakis’ robotic answer to a question about his wife getting raped, or Al Gore invading George Bush’s personal space — there are countless hours of tedious blather.  Adding “new” formats, like a “town hall” where “ordinary citizens” ask screwball questions, hasn’t changed the dullness quotient.  Does anyone remember anything about the Dole-Clinton debates in 1996, the Bush-Kerry debates in 2004, or the Obama-McCain debates in 2008?

What do viewers need to do to get themselves ready for the debates?  First, go to the grocery store and buy the biggest grain of salt you can find.  You’re going to need it for the silly pre-debate expectations management game and the post-debate spin and posturing.  Second, and speaking of the post-debate spin cycle, every viewer should do some preparatory eye muscle exercises, so they don’t harm themselves by uncontrolled eye-rolling in response to an outlandish claim that one candidate or the other committed the most awful gaffe in the history of politics.  Third, laying in heavy supplies of Five-Hour Energy, coffee, and Jolt Cola is a good idea, to help you make it through the droning “serious” question about education policy by a camera-hungry member of the panel of reporters and the equally droning answers of the candidates.

And during the first debate I predict every viewer will check their TV for mechanical failure at least once, because moderator Jim Lehrer’s sober visage will not have changed.  No need for that:  Lehrer, who pursuant to federal law has moderated every president debate since the Hoover administration, isn’t actually alive, but instead was manufactured decades ago when animatronics hadn’t progressed to the point of allowing nuanced facial expressions.

Time to get ready, America!