The President Of My Youth

I remember just a few things from the Clinton ’90s: Kosovo, Elian Gonzalez, and impeachment mostly. But most of the decade flew by under my radar as I concerned myself with more important things like the world champion Green Bay Packers and what colors I wanted for my braces. It was seventh grade when I finally paid attention to something that adults cared about: the 2000 election.

My social studies teacher, like every other at the time, had us involved with the election. We learned who the candidates were, what the Electoral College was, and how many votes you needed to win. My friend Ryan and I made up nicknames for the candidates: “Gush” and “Bore” were the favorites. We even got to “vote” on Election Day in our very own school-wide election. As my classmates voted I acted like a TV journalist gathering exit polls which I reported to my teacher. Then, I went into the booth and voted for George W. Bush.

It has been a little over eight years since that day. Times have changed and so has my vote; it went for Obama this year. Yet as I watch our 43rd president fade away into the background, I have mixed emotions. Sure, the country has gone to a tame version of hell, but my last eight years of life (my entire adolescence) were never without Bush in the White House. And in that time, I’ve gone through a plethora of feelings about the man.

First was apathy. I remember the 2000 election debacle vividly because my name was in the news every night thanks to those old voters in Dade County who couldn’t manage to push a paper dot hard enough. But once it was decided, I didn’t really care. Even after the terrorist attacks and Bush’s subsequent popularity surge, I was too young for him to make an impact on me.

In the meantime, everything bad happened: Katrina, the Iraq debacle, Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib scandal, Alberto Gonzales. Then the 2006 midterm elections went for the Democrats and I started to pay attention. I began to lean left. (Living in the ultraliberal Madison, Wis., certainly helped.) I read the Huffington Post and watched Keith Olbermann a lot, relying too heavily on their liberal outrage to dictate my political beliefs.

Their opinion of Bush was becoming mine too: I became increasingly convinced he was a scheming far right hawk hell-bent on jailing all dissenters and propagating through Fox News, all the while fleecing Middle America and laughing while major cities flooded and foreign countries burned. Arianna Huffington and Keith Olbermann continue to think this and said so throughout the 2008 election. It helped get Obama elected and Bush became a lamer duck in the process.

But ever since the election, my righteous anger has settled. I now think Bush is not evil but flawed, a tad misunderstood and, dare I say it, underappreciated. Sure, his “Bring it on” braggadocio and “Mission Accomplished” banner were mistakes. He dropped the ball post-Katrina and did not speak candidly about Iraq and WMD. His No Child Left Behind Act was misguided and his economic policies exacerbated an already growing problem.

Yet, despite all that, I don’t hate him. There was a time when I would have refused to shake his hand if I met him simply because of our differing political views, but I’ve moved on from that. Perhaps it’s pity, seeing him roundly crucified by the left for his mistakes large and small. Perhaps it’s because of our common Christian faith. Perhaps it’s because I’m beginning to get annoyed with liberals.

If I were to meet not George Bush the president but George Bush the father and family man, I think I would really like him. He’s a laid-back straight shooter who probably holds a conversation at a barbeque much better than he does at a press conference. He obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously and can withstand a brutal bombardment of criticism much better than most.

“George Walker Bush is not a stupid or a bad man,” writes Ron Suskind in Esquire. “But in his conduct as president, he behaved stupidly and badly.”

Because he behaved stupidly and badly, Bush will leave with comically low approval ratings. He has said repeatedly that history will hold his unpopular acts in higher regard than they are today. He’s right, to an extent. Presidents Lincoln and Truman made grave and consequential decisions that ended the Civil War and World War II, respectively. Bush is no Lincoln (far from him) but both men stuck to their guns. Bush has always stuck to his guns, no matter what. Even when things got bad, he “stayed the course.” It was simultaneously honorable and maddening.

History in fact will reveal if he was right to do so, but judgments of Bush cannot be written today with a clear head. The old wounds are still fresh and the animosity still potent.

Now we’ve got a new president to love or loathe. Let us learn from the last eight years to separate the man from the mission. Obama, like Bush, is a good man who will have to make tough decisions and live with the consequences forever. If we can discern the policy from the personal, I think we will all have fairer views of the people who take on the toughest job in the world.

George W. Bush may be crossing the finish line with a limp, but at least he finished the race. You’ve got to give him props for that.

2 responses to “The President Of My Youth”

  1. […] was inaugurated in 2009, I wrote a reflection about George W. Bush’s place in my life as “the president of my youth.” I was a junior in college then, and had just voted for the first time. It was my first and only […]

  2. […] its inception to do a kind of presidential postmortem for the outgoing commander-in-chief (see Bush and Obama), assessing both the political takeaways and my personal life during their […]