Eight years is a considerable chunk out of anyone’s lifetime—10.3 percent, in fact, of the U.S. life expectancy (77.8 years, as tabulated by the National Center for Health Statistics) and almost the same percentage of the time afforded us by the writer of the 90th Psalm (“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away”).
What to make, finally, of the presidency of George W. Bush? Brought to power by a corrupt and venal Supreme Court, within nine days of taking office he established Cheney’s secret National Energy Policy Development Group, which became the cornerstone of the most unprecedented kleptocracy in the nation’s history. Two terms and two wars later, he now heads back to Dallas—leaving Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans, the military, and ultimately the economy in shambles in his wake.
But as Bush exits Washington as the most loathed president of modern times, he is making the transition not only from public figure to private citizen, but also from actuality to metaphor. While the callowness, hypocrisy, empty ambition, political cynicism and aristocratic entitlement he has exhibited throughout his career can be viewed as garden-variety vices inscribed in the playbook of American politics, what sets Bush apart from the scoundrels who have made muckrakers’ lives worth living for the past century or two is his apparent immateriality. Despite having surrounded himself with inveterate schemers, sleazy self-dealers and outright thugs, Bush seems interested in neither money nor power as ends in themselves. Rather, his every step has been predetermined by a reflexive narcissism so colossal and suffocating that no amount of attention, short of the world’s center stage, could gratify it. His closest advisors are his most blatant sycophants; his notorious incuriosity and resistance to self-reflection most likely spring from the same insecurities that can brook no criticism or dissent, and that have transformed his personality over the course of eight years from garrulous glad-hander to prickly, peevish bore.
The problem of metaphor in the case of Bush is how to endow an enigma with cultural significance. To this end, Oliver Stone’s short-lived W offered little help. Stone’s portrait (a well-meaning but misguided chump) did not add up, not simply because it was wrong but because Bush himself doesn’t add up. He’s an uncompleted person, a walking, talking unexamined life who assumed the presidency as his birthright—a fundamentally anti–democratic delusion that led to untold damage upon countless lives (and although the genius of democracy arose too late to remove Bush from his perch of power, it was a wonder to watch as it kicked everything he represented to the gutter).
There is nothing Shakespearian about Bush’s rise and fall. For true tragedy there must be a quotient of grandeur and a moment of revelation; Bush is imprisoned by the same inner blindness that afflicted Oedipus before the herdsman confirmed his true identity—a petty tyrant incapable of grasping that he himself is the source of the plague devastating his realm—and it’s a fair bet that he will remain in that state for the rest of his life.
So how to approach a psychological black hole? Looking back at the art I’ve discussed in these pages over the past four years, the most effective political statements have been the most indirect: Suzanne Opton’s portraits of soldiers recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan; Sean Hemmerle’s photographs of border fences; Christoph Büchel’s mini-police state aborted by MASS MoCA ; Jenny Holzer’s silkscreened paintings of redacted government documents; Lynda Abraham’s water-torture machine titled “Compassion.” None address Bush directly, but rather the ripple effect of his actions.
It is then possible to conclude that despite the degradation that Bush has brought upon the nation’s reputation and soul, the absence of any defining characteristic beyond narcissism (such as Nixon’s paranoia, Reagan’s fatuousness or Clinton’s licentiousness) may reduce his symbolic content to zero: his true face is obscured by the mirror he’s gazing into. Yet, for someone who lives only to be adored, a fall into oblivion—absent the unlikelihood of a trial at the World Court—is the most fitting fate, equally intolerable and maddening.
The psalmist writes, “Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance./For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.” As the country turns its attention toward dismantling his legacy, Bush will likely spend his post-presidential years doing little more than passing away his days in idleness and wrath. It will be a tale to be told, but one too hapless and pathetic for anyone to want to hear.