Now that Obama has been president for over five years, has the statute of limitations on Bush-bashing finally run out?
It’s true that Bush is no longer the intense and primary focus of the left in the way he was when he was president, or during the first couple of years of the Obama administration, when every problem in America was ascribed to his evil or to his stupidity.
It’s also the case that the left goes from one useful strawman/demon to another, and instead of Bush we now hear about the all-powerful climate-destroying Koch brothers, the horror of Christie’s lane closings, and the enduring but covert racism of all Republicans. As each possible GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential nomination comes to the fore, he or she will be duly vilified in turn with the goal of destruction of that person’s reputation and viability as a credible candidate.
But that does not mean that the left has forgotten Bush or memory-holed him. In fact, an editorial that appeared about a week ago in the NY Times about Obama’s foreign policy, where the editors had offered some mild and tepid criticism of Obama, offers an excellent example of the way Bush is used these days. As early as the editorial’s second paragraph, the editors felt the need to add the following:
It is paradoxical that, in key respects, Mr. Obama is precisely the kind of foreign policy president most Americans and their allies overseas wanted. He rejected the shoot-first tendencies of George W. Bush, who pretended to have all the answers, bungled two wars and asserted an in-your-face American exceptionalism that included bullying allies. We know where that got us.
That’s hardly ignoring Bush; it’s giving him pride of place. He is still brought up quite a bit now, but it’s nearly always in this particular way, a method which actually demonstrates how very successful the attacks on Bush over the years have been. Now his name is just added to a speech or an article almost as an aside, in order to counter any possible criticism of Obama or Democrats: whatever the problems today might be, of course Bush was worse. The idea is that Bush’s awfulness is so well-proven, so completely obvious and accepted, that it’s a self-evident tautology that no longer has to be argued or supported, merely accepted by all thinking persons: we know where that got us, and we wouldn’t want to go back there now, would we?
Once a meme has passed into the public domain as an accepted truth, whatever it may be, there’s no need for the left to argue for it any more. It can merely be brought out like a flag and waved, and everyone knows what it symbolizes.
This is nothing new, and one of the earliest and most successful examples was the war in Vietnam. To this day, the left considers the formation and then the ossification of public opinion on that war one of its greatest triumphs. To demonstrate how it works, take a look at what happened to writer John Updike when he took an ever-so-slightly-hawkish stance on Vietnam, originally stated by him in 1966 and restated in an essay he wrote in 1989, describing the flurry and consternation it caused in the literary and larger world at the time.
Updike died in January of 2009, and shortly afterward (on January 29, 2009) I witnessed a tribute to Updike on the Charlie Rose show that featured a panel composed of Updike’s editor Judith Jones, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and the New York Times Book Review’s then-editor Sam Tanenhaus, in which the latter casually mentioned, amidst the praise and reminiscence, that “of course, Updike was on the wrong side about the Vietnam War.”
That phrase “of course” was particularly telling. To Tanenhaus and the others, Updike’s wrongness on Vietnam had been proven so conclusively that there was no need to argue or revisit any of it anymore — or even perhaps to read or quote Updike’s actual essay, which was brilliant. Vietnam’s history and meaning had become a shorthand reference to which all thinking people could nod sagely and feel good about their own rightness and righteousness.
It’s also significant that Tanenhaus didn’t merely say, “Of course, Updike was wrong about the Vietnam War.” He said, “Of course, Updike was on the wrong side about the Vietnan War.” The emphasis is not on the war itself nor on the argument Updike advanced, although my guess is that Tanenhaus would lose that argument handily. It’s on the separation of people in the U.S., and in the literary world, into two camps: the pro and the con, the right and the wrong. It’s about membership in a group of — well, I’ll let the incomparable Updike say it, since he wrote about it so much better than I could:
The protest [against the Vietnam War], from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment; Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas. These privileged members of a privileged nation believed that their pleasant position could be maintained without anything visibly ugly happening in the world. They were full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders, the business-suited hirelings drearily pondering geopolitics and its bloody necessities down in Washington.
You may as well just read the whole thing. Because, of course, there’s no “of course” about it, even though the left would have us think so.