When Will Ferrell resurrected his SNL impersonation of George W. Bush on Samantha Bee’s Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday, his opening line said it all. “How do you like me now, huh?” Ferrell/Dubya slyly asked, drawing cheers from an audience of people who’d once have sooner eaten smegma sushi than imagine a day when they’d miss Bush 43’s presidency.
Interestingly, Ferrell wasn’t even lampooning Dubya. He was just serving as 43’s fantasy conduit, voicing the invidious comparisons to our current POTUS that Donald Trump-phobes would love to hear the real George W. Bush spout in public (and that, in fact, it’s not at all hard to imagine him venting in private). Even Ferrell’s tried-and-true spoofs of Bush’s famously adversarial relationship to English syntax had the peculiar effect of making Dubya himself seem in on the joke—that is, too self-aware to be convincingly stupid. It didn’t hurt that the real Bush’s verbal stumbles now seem like outtakes from King Lear compared to the average tweet from Mar-a-Lago.
The whole, deft point of Farrell’s routine was to evoke nostalgia for a bygone day when liberals innocently took it for granted that 43 would always be the worst president of their lifetimes, while sneakily putting Dubya on blue America’s side as a Trump-basher. The crowd’s reaction was unmistakably affectionate, and the affection wasn’t only for Ferrell. It was for Bush.
Nobody had a better reaction to Trump’s inaugural address: ‘That was some weird shit.’
Appearing on ABC’s This Week the day after Bee’s special, Nancy Pelosi didn’t go quite that far. But after mistakenly calling Trump “President Bush,” she clapped her hand to her heart and said, “I’m so sorry, President Bush! I never thought I’d pray for the day that you were president again.” Notice that she wasn’t just apologizing for the mix-up; she was implying that Dubya himself would be insulted at being confused with Trump. You’d bet anything she was right about that, too.
So have things gotten to the point where all sorts of Americans who used to hate his guts can find George W. Bush endearing? Yep, because that’s what having Trump as a successor can do for an ex-president’s reputation. It’s not as if anybody’s re-evaluating Dubya’s often disastrous White House track record, from his misguided and mendaciously sold invasion of Iraq to the flubbed 2005 non-response to Hurricane Katrina that kept his poll ratings anemic for the rest of his second term. Thanks to those and other botches, we won’t wake up anytime soon to revisionist historians proclaiming him a misunderstood genius. He’s just turned out to be hard to hate, at least if you’re not Iraqi or a resident of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. If we need somebody from that era who can plausibly incarnate remorseless evil, isn’t Dubya lucky that Dick Cheney’s still around?
From beatifically bopping along to “The Battle Hymn of The Republic” at last year’s memorial for slain Dallas police officers to being outfought by his own rain poncho at Trump’s inaugural, Bush has become our most weirdly Chaplinesque ex-POTUS. Among the other members of the world’s most exclusive club, his 92-year-old father is largely out of the public eye, Jimmy Carter is still tirelessly playing virtue’s apostle to the heathens, and Bill Clinton is just a pain in the ass. But Dubya is, pure and simple, goofy. He often seems pleasantly surprised to realize he was ever president at all—"So that’s why I’m up on this stage!? Damn.“—let alone a historical figure of some consequence.
No matter how much damage it caused, his cowboy arrogance in office now seems more than ever like over-compensatory play-acting, not to mention a role he blatantly lost interest in after the “thumping” of the 2006 midterms. These days, he comes across as an amiably modest, even downright sheepish sort of fellow—the only one of our ex-presidents who’s visibly miles happier out of office than he ever was in it. (Clinton will likely still be trying to claw his way back into the White House when Chelsea is a grandmother and he’s been in his grave for decades.) Besides, nobody had a better or more accurate reaction to the American-carnage blather of Trump’s inaugural address. “That was some weird shit,” Bush reportedly muttered as he exited, although he may have been talking about his battle with the poncho.
Bush always had some decent impulses; he did go out of his way not to demonize Muslims after 9/11.
And then, of course, there’s Dubya the painter—a self-reinvention so daffily unexpected you’d have to have a heart of stone to resist its charm. His first two paintings to go public were psychologically fascinating; a befogged self-portrait in a bathroom mirror, a forlorn view of his own toes in a tub. Predictably, everybody snickered, and then one art critic after another declared that they were kind of good, which they are.
He’s also gotten better since, and there is certainly nothing like his artwork in America’s political folklore. It’s an inarticulate man’s attempt to understand his own presidency by non-verbal means, from the portraits of world leaders that resemble depictions of half-forgotten schoolyard playmates (they all look like superannuated children) to the paintings of disabled Iraq War veterans collected in Portraits of Courage. The latter project may reflect a classically Bushian moral obtuseness, because guilt about launching the wrongheaded war that tore up their minds and/or bodies plainly isn’t in Dubya’s emotional repertoire. But he is, no matter how obliquely, accepting responsibility, and that’s something.
It’s easy to forget that Bush always had some decent impulses—which he seldom acted on, because Cheney was always there to quash them. But ineffectual decency is better than no decency at all. He did go out of his way not to demonize Muslims after 9/11 and try to push through a relatively humane compromise on immigration reform that never became law.
If it hadn’t been for Osama bin Laden, he might be remembered as a mediocre, fecklessly well-meaning, unremarkable president, not the fatefully susceptible one who got us into the gynormous Middle East mess we’re a long way from being out of. Maybe it’s because they understand this that the Obamas were always so protective of him, above all in the famous photograph of Michelle embracing a blissed-out George like a compassionate mother. Try to imagine her hugging Trump that way, and suddenly nostalgia for Dubya makes a whole lot of sense.