There is one thing certain to go through Barack Obama's mind during the inauguration: at one point or another, while glancing at George W. Bush, he will consider the treatment that Bush got as president and hope to God he suffers nothing even vaguely similar.
It can be stated without fear of serious argument that no previous president has been treated as brutally, viciously, and unfairly as George W. Bush.
Bush 43 endured a deliberate and planned assault on everything he stood for, everything he was involved in, everything he tried to accomplish. Those who worked with him suffered nearly as much (and some even more -- at least one, Scooter Libby, was convicted on utterly specious charges in what amounts to a show trial).
His detractors were willing to risk the country's safety, its economic health, and the very balance of the democratic system of government in order to get at him. They were out to bring him down at all costs, or at the very least destroy his personal and presidential reputation. At this they have been half successful, at a high price for the country and its government.
Although everyone insists on doing so, it is impossible to judge Bush, his achievements, or his failings, without taking these attacks into account. Before any serious analysis of the Bush presidency can be made, some attempt to encompass the campaign against him must be carried out. I hope no one is holding his breath.
It's quite true that other presidents have suffered baseless attacks. Lincoln was generally dismissed as an imbecile, an unwashed backwoodsman, and an orang-outang (as they spelled it then). There exists an infamous Confederate cartoon portraying him with devil's horns and one foot on the Constitution. Next to no one at the time could have foreseen the towering stature Lincoln would at last attain.
Richard M. Nixon probably stands as the most hated president prior to Bush. But that was largely thanks to a relatively small coterie of east-coast leftists and their hangers-on, angered by Nixon's early anti-communism (which had become more "nuanced" by the time he took office, as the 1970 opening to China clearly reveals.). Nixon had the support of most of the country, the famed "silent majority", during his first term, and if not for his own personal failings, he would unquestionably have prevailed over his enemies. Difficult though it may be to believe, Nixon was only one paranoid slip away from being considered a great or near-great president
With Reagan, the coterie was even smaller and more isolated. His enemies continually underestimated him as a "B-movie actor" (which, by the way, showed a serious misunderstanding as to how the old studio system actually worked), and were just as continually flummoxed by his humor, his intelligence, and his unexcelled skill at communication. As the outpouring of public emotion surrounding his state funeral made clear, Reagan today stands as one of the beloved of all modern presidents.
Bush is alone at being attacked and denied support from all quarters -- even from many members of his own party. No single media source, excepting talk radio, was ever in his corner. Struggling actors and comics revived their careers though attacks on Bush. A disturbed woman perhaps a half step above the status of a bag lady parked outside his Crawford home to throw curses at him and was not only not sent on her way but joined by hundreds of others with plenty of spare time on their hands, an event covered in minute-by-minute detail by major media.
At least two films, one produced play, and a novel (by the odious Nicholson Baker, a writer with the distinction of dropping further down the ladder of decency with each work -- from sophisticated porn in Vox to degrading the war against Hitler in last year's Human Smoke) appeared calling for his assassination -- a new wrinkle in presidential criticism, and one that the left will regret. And let's not forget that tribune of the voiceless masses, Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 911 once marked the end-all and be-all of political satire but today is utterly forgotten.
While FDR was accused of having engineered Pearl Harbor (as if even an attempted attack on the US would not have been enough to get the country into WW II in real style), no president before Bush was ever subjected to the machinations of an entire conspiracy industry. The 9/11 Truthers, a mix of seriously disturbed individuals and hustlers out to pull a profitable con, accused Bush and his administration of crimes that put the allegations against Roosevelt in the shade, and with far less rational basis. These hallucinations were picked up the mass media, playing the role of transmission belt, and various fringe political figures along the lines of Cynthia McKinney.
But even this pales in light of the actions of the New York Times, which on its downhill road to becoming a weekly shopper giveaway for the Upper West Side, seriously jeopardized national security in the process of satisfying its anti-Bush compulsion. Telecommunications intercepts, interrogation techniques, transport of terrorist captives, tracking of terrorist finances... scarcely a single security program aimed at Jihadi activity went unrevealed by the Times and -- not to limit the blame -- was then broadcast worldwide by the legacy media. At one point, Times reporters published a detailed analysis of government methods of searching out rogue atomic weapons, a story that was no doubt read with interest at points north of Lahore, and one that we may all end up paying for years down the line. The fact that Bush was able to curtail any further attacks while the media as a whole was working to undermine his efforts is little less than miraculous.
As for his own party, no small number of Republicans (not all of them of the RINO fraternity) made a practice of ducking out on their party leader. Many refused to be photographed with him, several took steps to be out of town when he was scheduled to appear in their districts, and as for the few who actually spoke out in his favor... well, the names don't trip easily into mind. This naked pusillanimity played a large role in the GOP's 2006 and 2008 electoral debacles. Until the party grasps this, don't look for any major comeback.
And last but not least (I think we can safely overlook the flying shoes, which have been covered down to the last aglet), Bush is the sole American chief executive -- perhaps the sole leader in world history -- to have had a personality disorder named after him, the immortal Bush Derangement Syndrome. Few at this point recall that this was an actual psychological effort at diagnosing the president's effect on the tender psyches of this country's leftists. Was there a Hitler syndrome? A Stalin syndrome? The very existence of BDS says more about the left in general than it does about Bush.
What were the reasons for this hatred and the campaign that grew out of it? We can ask that question as often as we like, but we'll get no rational answer. All that we can be sure of is that Bush's actual policies and personality had little to do with it. Al Gore's egomaniacal attempt to defy this country's constitutional rules of succession merely acted as a trigger, giving the left a pretext to open up the attack. The same can be said about lingering bitterness over Bill Clinton's impeachment. While certainly a factor, it by no means accounts for a complete explanation. After all, did the GOP of the 70s go overboard in avenging Richard Nixon's forced resignation by working over Jimmy Carter? The best course was actually that which they followed, to allow Mr. Peanut to destroy himself.
As in all such cases, Bush hatred involves a number of factors that will be debated by historians for decades to come. But one component that cannot be overlooked is ideology, specifically the ideologization of American politics. It is no accident that the three most hated recent presidents are all Republican. These campaigns are yet another symptom of the American left's collapse into an ideological stupor characterized by pseudo-religious impulses, division of the world into black and white entities, and the unleashing of emotions beyond any means of rational control. The demonization of Bush -- and Reagan, and Nixon -- is the flip-side of the messianic response to Barack Obama.
There's nothing new about any of this. It's present in Orwell's 1984 in the "Five-Minute Hate" against the imaginary Emmanuel Goldstein, himself based on Leon Trotsky. The sole novel factor is its adaptation as a conscious tactic in democratic politics. That is unprecedented, and a serious cause for concern.
Being a Democrat, Obama has little to worry about, even with the far-left elements of his coalition beginning to sour on him. The ideological machinery is too unwieldy to swing around in order to target a single figure. Even if circumstances force him to violate the deeper tenets of his following, personal factors -- not limited to skin color -- will serve to protect him.
For the country as a whole, the prospects are bleaker. The left is convinced that hatred works, that it's a perfect tactic, one that will work every time out. They have already started the process with Sarah Palin, their next target in their long row of hate figures. They're wrong, of course. In a democracy, hatred is not a keeper, as the Know-Nothings, Radical Republicans, segregationists, Birchers, and many others have learned to their eventual dismay. But the process can take a long time to work itself out -- nearly a century, in the case of racial segregation -- and no end of damage can occur in the meantime. One of the byproducts of the campaign against Bush was to encourage Jihadis and Ba'athists in Iraq with the assurance of a repetition of Saigon 1975 as soon as the mad and bad Bush 43 was gotten out of the way. This time, the price was paid by the Iraqi people. But in the future, the bill may be presented somewhat closer to home.
And as for the "worst president in history" himself, George W. Bush has exhibited nothing but his accustomed serenity. Despite the worst his enemies could throw at him, his rehabilitation has already begun (as can be seen here, here, here, and here). He will be viewed at last as a man who picked up the worst hand of cards dealt to any president since Roosevelt and who played it out better than anyone had a right to expect. As Barack Obama seems to have realized, there is much to be learned from Bush, a man who appears to personify the golden mean, never too despondent, never too overjoyed, and never at any time overwhelmed.
Other presidents may encounter the same level of motiveless, mindless hatred, others may suffer comparable abuse -- but we can sure that no one will ever meet it with more equanimity than George W. Bush.