Don’t let ex-presidents off the hook

Did you see the wry news piece about the bold new style of the portrait painter who is actually former president George W. Bush? Or the one where Bush is actually exiled royal Daenerys Targarean on HBO’s Game of Thrones— you know, aggressive, war making, but doing it for awfully grand-sounding humanitarian reasons?

Bush, who will speak today at the LBJ library’s Civil Rights Act 50th anniversary celebration, as quirky new outsider artist is not new — it’s been an easy, amusing story for outlets from Vanity Fair to Gawker to write for the last year or so. And Commentary magazine, that robotically neocon staple, was simply predictably defending the 43rd president from a semi-serious liberal piece that first offered the Game of Thrones comparison in terms of similar hubris between W. and Daenerys.

Maybe there’s no deeper motivation than topical clickbait in some of these writings, but just speaking about a former president in these terms suggests that the much-touted Bush rehabilitation is coming closer. He’s funny Grandpa now! He stays out of politics, so we can’t stay mad! Maybe. But it’s important to consider that when the amnesiac praise of Bush comes, odds are it will also come for Obama once he’s out of office.

There’s a decent supply of criticism of presidents while they’re in office (though never enough), but the moment they leave we’re supposed to let it be. Yet, if we keep forgiving and forgetting our bad policymakers, particularly our presidents, how is anything supposed to change?

Last month in a speech responding to the crisis in Ukraine, Obama suggested that comparing the U.S.’s war in Iraq to Putin’s creepy strongarming in Crimea is offensive. That was a perfect encapsulation of the nature of politics — intention matters more than bloody end result.

The U.S. swears it didn’t invade for its own sake. It just invaded, destabilized, and started a civil war in another country — but it said it was for noble American reasons, so that’s all that matters. Putin is a Cold War throwback, so whatever he does is worse.

And lack of bipartisanship in DC? Hardly. Not when it comes to one administration excusing the disastrous policies of the previous one. The only thing more shocking than the amount of power politicians have over all our lives in this country might be how quickly we pardon them once they hand that power to the next fellow.

Further proving his new status as private citizen and painter, this week Bush even got to have his own mini art scandal when it was revealed that used Google images for the portraits he has painted. Other folks leapt to his defense, saying there is nothing untoward about doing that.

More importantly, it doesn’t matter that Bush could be worse at painting and has an off-kilter, endearing style. Just like it doesn’t matter if Barack Obama and his family take cute family pictures. Maybe Bush and Obama are nice people in private lives. They probably are. But acting as if presidents can suddenly meld back into an apolitical figures when they leave office is a great, big warning sign about how bizarrely and dangerously we treat politics in America.

It’s all a game — albeit a rough, zero sum one — so when you call “base!” and go back to the private sector, it’s all over. It would be unseemly to remain angry at God-awful presidents once they’re out of power.

But politics isn’t fun, or cute, and there are rarely consequences for any politicians who use people like puppets. Cynical, like Richard Nixon’s start of the drug war, or arguably more sincerely such as various feel-good economic boondoggles — it shouldn’t matter what you meant if the end result is disaster.

Bush did this with the war in Iraq most unforgivably, simply because you can’t fix dead and there are now a lot of dead American soldiers and Iraqis. He also increased spending to catastrophic levels (some conservatism!), sent the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to harass sick people in California, permitted torture and black sites, signed the PATRIOT ACT, and started the alarming National Security Agency (NSA) spying we are dealing with today. He was, in short, a bad president.

When Obama leaves office, we’ll have his wasteful stimulus, his mistaken economics, his short-sighted health care policy, his hypocritical drug war, and his rejection of his professed lefty civil libertarian values. Will that matter when he starts charming people on a new book tour as a private citizen? It seems doubtful.

Private citizen Bush is no longer a threat to Americans’ freedom, but our habit of forgiving and forgetting excessive executive power remains one. Nothing about presidents is apolitical, not their supposed charm, or their artistic talent. Denying ex-presidents the privilege of being a — God forbid — “hipster icon” seems a small price for them to pay for having had the pleasure of subjecting the country to their executive power without consequence.

Asking for some kind of response to lawmakers who treat people like pawns and puppets isn’t about a lust for vengeance. It’s more about asking whether there isn’t any kind of disincentive for power-grabbing that he people can put into place.

If presidents get excused because they meant well, or because it was “just” politics and policy, that means the deaths abroad, and the stolen money, resources, privacy, and freedom at home didn’t count. And it means that it will all happen again.


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