In the past year I have hazarded a number of political predictions, some of which (like the prediction that in a McCain-Obama matchup the Iraq war would play for the Republicans) panned out, and some of which (like the prediction that Hillary Clinton would easily win the Democratic nomination) didn’t.
Now I would like to enter these treacherous waters again and venture another prediction: within a year of the day he leaves office, and no matter who succeeds him, George W. Bush will be a popular public figure, regarded with affection and a little nostalgia even by those who voted against him and thought he was the worst president in our history.
Yes, I know that right now Mr. Bush is associated with an unpopular and disastrously expensive war, with an economic collapse brought about in part by an administration that abhors regulation, with a spectacularly inadequate response to hurricane Katrina, with a precipitous decline in America’s reputation. After all, this is a guy whose name was never mentioned at the national convention of his own party, the guy that John McCain seems barely able to remember (just as after the Enron debacle Bush seemed barely able to remember that he ever knew Kenneth Lay).
But when Bush leaves office, he leaves behind all those liabilities, even though he had a large part in producing them. The war, the economy, the environment, the Middle East, a newly bellicose Russia — these will all be either McCain’s or Obama’s problems, and Bush will just be someone who shows up regularly and says mildly self-deprecating things about himself on the way to doing some good deed, perhaps in the company of his father and Bill Clinton.
What does Bush have to do? Not much, just be himself, not the wise and inspiring leader of the Western world — he never quite got that one right — but the amiable, funny, folksy and gregarious guy who tricked himself and the rest of us into thinking he was something more. Now he doesn’t have to do that. We’ll not be depending on him, so we’ll be free to like him.
And the fact is that he’s likable. I don’t mean on the superficial level of being someone you’d want to have a beer with. It’s deeper than that. He comes across as a basically decent man who is at peace with himself. Despite the fun poked at his verbal maladroitness, he is actually quite skillful (certainly more skillful than either Al Gore or John Kerry) in conveying his positions succinctly and persuasively. (He didn’t win two national elections — well, maybe one — by accident.) He may not be an intellectual, but he isn’t dumb and he is shrewd enough to play his “aw shucks” personality for all it’s worth. And he has a really good sense of humor (something Barack Obama seems to lack) and a comedian’s ability to make capital out of his own malapropisms. Putting aside the agendas for which he will no longer be held responsible, what’s not to like?
In addition, the road to rehabilitation will be shorter for him than it was for some of his predecessors. It took a while for Harry Truman’s feistiness to erase the memory of the 22 percent favorable rating he had at the end of his tenure. Richard Nixon had to make his way back from disgrace, and he did it being smarter than anyone else (he was, I think, the smartest president of the 20th century) and becoming an astute political commentator and historian. Jimmy Carter just continued being good and after a while it payed off in a Nobel Prize. Bush I’s basic, undemanding decency kept shining through after he left office. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan didn’t need rehabilitation; each would have won a third term easily and still could (even though Reagan is dead).
Of course, rehabilitation can’t begin until your term is over, which may be why Bush is acting as if his term is, in fact, over. Some think that either Henry Paulson or Nancy Pelosi is now president. There are still occasional foreign policy forays and talks with international leaders, but they seem more ceremonial than substantive. Bush remains the titular head of his party, but the party is running away from him, and he seems irrelevant to the political process. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for it allows him to appear to be above the fray as he prepares to exit or, rather, as he is already exiting.
How will he occupy his time? Roving ambassador? Baseball commissioner? University president? (Don’t groan; he’d probably be good at it.) I don’t know, but I do expect that one night in the not-too-distant future, some TV host will be calling for the drum roll and announcing, with pleasure and pride, “Heeeere’s Georgie.”
7 months ago