It was all downhill from there.
It began, of course, with anger. "Bush Derangement Syndrome" as Charles Krauthammer cheerfully named it, ushering in a line nearly as captivating as the way we all add "-gate" to things to hark back to Watergate (and perhaps, not as unfortunate as turning "Bork" into a verb).
If the Bush presidency lost its way, I'd say it did so before it even began. The way was lost when the election wasn't won, but rather decided. You could, even go back and say the way was lost much earlier, when Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain, and his people responded with a campaign of such brutality in South Carolina that people were honestly amazed.
I think, in those campaign moments, we saw what we were getting. And then we got it.
Look, we could belabor the points. We could list all the things - so many things - that went wrong. We could, still, be angry; though honestly, I think most lefties gave up on anger for anger's sake long ago. Now we're just angry at the results: the waste, the losses, the damage... the wreckage.
I tend to think of George W. Bush as rather Tom Buchanan-ish; you know... The Great Gatsby. The way, as Fitzgerald points out, that the rich are careless, and break things. And after they break things, they retreat into their money, or their carelessness... and expect others to clean up.
People call him dumb; I don't think he's a stupid man... but he's no genius. Rather I think he is what he was: a poor student, an incurious man, defensive about not knowing what he doesn't know. Frustrated by people to whom it comes easily. A callow, sarcastic man, at heart, who, having settled on a simplistic view of things, can't really stand to have those worldviews challenged. Who made the office smaller by being... well, small. Small minded. Narrow ambitions. Unconcerned about the things that didn't interest him. Protected by the loyal retinue whose loyalty he demanded, expected as the price of admission into his circle. Loyalty above all. Loyalty to the end.
It was the smirk, really, that did him in - the smirks and the grimaces and the eye rolls and all the ways he wore is feelings on his face which gave such lie to his words. He wore his emotions in his expressions and his expressions told you what his words couldn't. That may make for truly humanizing moments, knowing that he was deeply affected by military deaths and injuries. I don't doubt his sincerity, in that regard. I just think leadership is about less crying, and more work. This was leadership by emotion, on a feeling, and it's the object lesson in just how feelings aren't facts. Was any mistake as far reaching as his standing next to Vladimir Putin and saying he just knew - felt - that this was a good man?
By sheer force of emotion - not will - he remade the Republican Party in his image: anti-intellectual, inconsistent, too concerned about the image, and not enough about the details. He replaced conservative ideals with cant, and then doubled back and destroyed the cant by, as his family does, wavering in the face of failure. He called himself a strong believer in free markets... and engineered the largest government takeover of the banking industry. He called himself a compassionate conservative... and then let the Gulf Coast drown.
And he lied. He lied about getting into war, then he lied about staying in the war, then he lied about getting out of it. He lied - and still lies - about 9/11 (Saddam Hussein... not involved). He lied when it would have been just as easy to tell the truth.
And really, I suspect... he lies to himself. It's easier that way.
In the end what's so sweet, and so sad about stuff like the "he's an avid reader" tales that Karl Rove tells - even now, to puff up the man who used to be his boss (now that's loyalty) - is that it hardly matters. If Bush reads, and I'm willing to buy it, up to a point, it seems clear that he's not getting out of reading what we kind of wish he would: an idea, an alternative... something... anything new. That's the thing about image over substance - it's not the reading that would prove him Presidential; it's what he does with what he learns.
And there we are... back to all the wasted time re-explaining the obvious.
I'm not mad at Bush; I don't hate him. That seems more effort than what's needed. He's failed. His Presidency is a failure. We know it. He knows it. At best, he's been maneuvering for a "history will be my judge" argument that's as presumptuous as it is misguided: History can be the judge, but we will be the jury. And that's what will inform the history.
I don't think he had the potential for greatness in him. I think in those early days, when Washington's political types - as they like to do - fancied a possibility of "compromise" and "working together", they were only fooling themselves. Surely, we'd say, he won't do the extreme polarizing thing... just before he went and did it. That's a sign, I think, one that dawned on most of us at one point or another. I know, by 9/11, I had no illusions about what we were dealing with, and just how not great he was, and was capable of being. Some people thought 9/11 would be his call, bring him to his better angels, his potential to be the great leader. It didn't... because he didn't have that to begin with.
It's kind of sad, but there it is. And I think that's the burden he's borne for so long - failing to meet a greatness he never planned to meet. It's an unfair expectation... if only he knew how to tell us not to expect it. And really he kind of did - the constant lowering of the bar... that was the clue - wasn't it enough that he could read a complete sentence? Wasn't it enough that he managed not to look bored meeting a world leader? Wasn't it enough, surely, that after presiding over the worst terrorist act to occur on our soil... it never happened again? Don't the bare minimums count for something?
Well yes, they do count... for something minimal. And that's what we're letting go of, right now. Goodbye to the lies, and the pretty pictures, signifying nothing. Goodbye to that nice, yet deeply resentful lady you brought with you, and the dangerous schemer you gave free reign as your Vice President (the one, really, who deserves the anger). Let history be your judge, as if the distance wll obscure all the things you touched and managed to destroy. Not even the stuff you broke on purpose - the stuff, like the future of the Republican Party that you broke just because it had to be about you. Retreat to the safety of your money, and your things and the loyal attendants who will clean up the aftermath... and the carelessness that's needed to never let all the wreckage trouble you in years to come. Goodbye to all of that, President Bush. And thank you for proving that the minimum is not nearly enough.