Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gone

Maureen Dowd compared George W. Bush’s departure from Washington to a moment from a science fiction movie.

It was the Instant the Earth Stood Still.

Not since Klaatu landed in a flying saucer on the Ellipse has Washington been so mesmerized by an object whirring through the sky.

But this one was departing, not arriving.

As W. ceased to be president, he flew off over the Capitol and across the Mall en route to Andrews Air Force Base, and then back to Texas.

I’ve seen many presidents come and go, but I’ve never watched a tableau like the one Tuesday, when four million eyes turned heavenward, following the helicopter’s path out of town. Everyone, it seemed, was waving goodbye, with one or two hands, a wave that moved westward down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial, and keeping their eyes fixed unwaveringly on that green bird.

They wanted to make absolutely, positively certain that W. was gone. It was like a physical burden being lifted, like a sigh went up of “Thank God. Has Cheney’s wheelchair left the building, too?”

A lot of people had a lot to say about the end of the Bush administration; some of it philosophical, some of it unprintable. I might as well add my two cents.

I never really hated him. That’s because in order to hate someone, I think you have to know them personally or actually care about him. There were many times when I was very angry and disappointed with him and the cavalier way he heedlessly romped through his terms in office, never leaving the campaign trail, never really showing the simple empathy that is required in human interaction. There are his defenders and his friends who say that Mr. Bush is fully capable of being engaged and empathetic, but that he doesn’t like to show that side of himself lest he be thought less of. Trust me, it was a talent he should not have cultivated, for he left us and history with the impression that he never really got it. He never seemed to grasp the awesome power he craved and held, and when his successor stood on the steps of the Capitol and showed in one speech a deeper and more capable understanding of the office than Mr. Bush ever showed in eight years, it seemed to pass him by like so many other concepts.

In a way, then, I’m sorry for him. He had tremendous opportunities on countless occasions, both in tragedy and triumph, and yet, like a recalcitrant schoolboy, he never applied himself. Unlike a lot of people, I have never thought George W. Bush to be a stupid man. There’s intelligence and intellect there, but it is untapped, or worse, ignored. Perhaps it is because he has always had everything handed to him, but we have had presidents before who had the same privileges and yet realized how much they had to give. If Mr. Bush ever realized the gifts he was given, he never put them to use. Instead he relied on the belief that if he failed there were no consequences for him — regardless of the others harmed — and so it never mattered to him. Even as he arrived home in Texas he expressed no regrets, and his ability to reflect is shallow and superficial.

For all the damage and loss that we have gone through in the last eight years, Mr. Bush has emerged apparently unscathed. His hair is a tad greyer, but that’s normal for a man in his 60’s. His stride — or swagger — is as unbroken as it was on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Unlike some of his predecessors such as Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt, the job did not break him. Not that anyone would wish that it would, for a broken man is not what we need, but neither did it seem to affect him. He seems unfazed by what he’s been through, which may speak to a certain strength, but it also tells us that he learned nothing, he regrets nothing, he takes away nothing. That’s a dangerous precedent for those who wish to follow him; the shallow and the weak or the incurious will point to his presidency and say with apparent approval that anyone can be president. We’ve already had a taste of that in the last campaign, and no one who admires Mr. Bush minds that the only qualification for serious consideration for the job is the ability to stir up a crowd in an airplane hangar and wink at the camera.

George W. Bush is gone from the stage, off to a pleasant retirement, free to muddle through the rest of his life. I hope that at some point it dawns on him exactly where he’s been, what he’s done, what he hasn’t done, and how many lives he’s touched. But if his past is any indication, it will never occur to him. That’s his tragedy, and ours as well.