(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2008)
Is there any easier way to fill space, time, arguments, nightmares, than to get onto the presidency of George W. Bush? “Failure” hardly seems like the right word, carrying as it does the implication that some form of “success” might at least have been possible. Has there ever been anyone in such high office who so begged the question of why he wanted the job in the first place? He doesn’t seem to relish the pure process and possibility, like Clinton did. He’s never seemed guided by any unshakeable Reagan-ish principles or qualities. It’s not that he sought the job after decades of gradually ascending public service, like his father. I don’t think there’s a better explanation than the clichéd one, that he was born in a milieu where the presidency presented itself in much the same way as you and I might set our sights on an office promotion.
Bush Doesn’t Care
Bush’s view of America is forged in contradiction. He obviously believes (albeit that it’s a complacent, unexamined belief) in the country’s essential endurability and flexibility; he believes that good government generally stays out of the way (remember all that mush at the beginning of his first term about the “CEO President”?) But then after 9/11, rather than choosing to cast Al Qaeda as sordid criminals, he extrapolated a single wretched event into an epoch-defining “War on Terror,” on the premise that radical Islam posed a more substantive and immediate threat to the life of the average American (and there are 300 million or so of them, remember) than anything else. Accept that starting point (and it’s easy to forget how many did, for a year or two), and everything else follows – a foolish war based on willfully joining vaguely connected dots and on grandiose theories neurotically forged in meeting rooms; wanton disregard for basic values and rights; an utter lack of focus on all other wants and needs (New Orleans being only the most visible example).
Kanye West had it half right when he said Bush doesn’t care about black people. I don’t think he cares about anyone, not in any way that matters. I don’t think he’s smart enough to care; I don’t think his concept of the job presents that as a flaw or an absence. There’s never been any sense that he view himself as the ultimate custodian of, to say it again, 300 million people. He knows only process, politics. He must surely be the most reactive President in history – I can’t remember the last time he proposed anything even mildly interesting or diagnostic and then followed through on it (by contrast the list of claims and supposed ambitions – from his straight-faced labeling of himself as a “good steward” of the environment, to announcing a target date for a manned mission to Mars – is endless, like a kid’s musings on what he might be when he grows up). There’s little inherent dignity to the man.
No doubt he’s sincere in his religious faith, but I’ve never really believed, despite his rote appointment of right-wing zealots to every available position, that he’s fired up by the right wing agenda. I’m pro choice, but I understand the repugnance of pro-lifers: of course if life begins at conception, then nothing could be more offensive than abortion to God’s plan, and to the spiritual health of the country forged within it. But to feel that anger you need, again, to care. Whether it’s Supreme Court appointments or tax cuts, Bush doles it out with weary resignation, as if some small part of him yearned to cut loose and find his inner liberal. It’s certainly possible, if you screen out all else, to view him in sorrow rather than anger. But then you remember the consequences of his fecklessness. I don’t believe all the ills of our time are directly his fault, but it’s controvertible that virtually every decision he’s ever made might as well have been designed to undermine our collective fragile balance.
I wrote the other week about how Bill Maher’s Religulous, a scatter-shot expose of why all religious believers are nuts, just didn’t seem to me very relevant to what should be on our minds right now. It’s satisfying, in a way, to say much the same thing about Oliver Stone’s W. The film is careful and quite accomplished in its way, but remarkably lacking in impact. This is good, if it’s an advance notice of how easy it’ll be to forget about the man, but then we would have found that out in a few months anyway. But isn’t Bush’s presidency a phenomenon from which an artist should extract something potent? If we merely forget, how will we learn?
By mentioning Bush’s father only in passing, I may have omitted a key piece of this puzzle, that his political career, and his grotesque handling of endeavours such as the Iraq war, needs to be read in the context of an Oedipal narrative with the first President Bush – that his parents always expected more of his younger brother Jeb, and that he feels driven to avenge his father’s loss to Clinton at the end of his first term (a loss attributed in this theory to failing to take out Saddam Hussein at the end of early 90’s Gulf War). Well, I just don’t know. Stone’s movie certainly sees that as The Key, contriving numerous (mostly dull and repetitive) encounters marked by the older Bush’s disappointment and reserve. At times, it’s easy to forget we’re watching a movie about the Presidency – it could be any narrative of a guy fighting for self-actualization, and discovering nothing’s ever enough.
Sorrow Over Anger
Coupled with Stone’s own loss of fire (as with his last film World Trade Center, this only intermittently feels like the work of the man who made JFK and Natural Born Killers), the chosen approach conveys a consistent melancholy. The film inter-cuts highlights of Bush’s halting progress from silver-spoon idiot to ultimate power, with scenes from the Presidency itself, mostly focusing on the discussions leading to the decision to invade Iraq, and on the initial realization that it wasn’t going to work out as they hoped. Stone weaves in various classic Bush misspeakings along the way. Josh Brolin is a pretty good (but again, not very interesting) Bush; the other actors span the gamut from near savage (Thandie Newton’s evisceration of Condoleezza Rice) to barely being there at all (Scott Glenn’s weirdly affectless Donald Rumsfeld). James Cromwell as a blandly authoritative Bush senior is the most disappointingly knee-jerk casting.
I think the film should have been way more colourful, messy, contradictory, and flagrantly offensive, But then maybe it wouldn’t matter: you’d always end up reviewing the man more than the movie. Except that the movie, at worst, would only represent a couple of squandered hours. The man embodies a much greater loss than that.