A prankish fate put George W. Bush in the oval office to keep America stupid. The nation was far from ready to see where it was going in the 21st century, and he was just the figure to keep it that way, with his void of curiosity, his allergy to reading, and his panderings to wealth-worshipping, Ponzi-loving, science-hating Jesus cultists. He goes out of office broadly regarded as an object of horror and loathing while the nation, now facing wholesale bankruptcy, struggles to imagine a plausible future, like someone who has just awakened from a cheap red wine drunk into the grip of a vicious hangover.
GWB was reputed to be an appealing personality off-camera, relaxed among his cohorts, full of fun, warmth, jokes, and nicknames. He was not quite as bad on-stage as his critics complained -- his natural obtuseness sometimes came off as candor -- but he was programmed by handlers with a range of poor locutions that eventually amounted to a world-view. For instance, the idiotic "war on terror," which served mainly to portray our adversaries as abstractions. His insistence on the term "victory" when speaking of our situation in Iraq actually fooled even his worst critics into thinking we were engaged in a "war," when for years it has been more accurately an awkward and lethal occupation.
I never believed that GWB actually tricked the nation on the "weapons of mass destruction" rationale for invading Iraq. Rather, the nation fooled itself into thinking that the war, in the first place, was anything but an act of vengeance for the gross injury of 9/11. After a couple of years, the public adopted the stupid narrative that they were "lied to," rather than recognizing the difficult truth that 9/11 had to be answered with lethal force, that international hostilities are far from wholly rational, and that Saddam Hussein got whacked because he was the Arab head-of-state who was the best candidate for getting whacked. A nation in thrall to psychotherapy, and self-esteem building programs, and the "win-win" bullshit of business Babbitry, couldn't imagine a tragic dilemma when one was staring them in the face.
GWB won reelection in 2004 -- running against the weak John Kerry, "a haircut in search of a brain," as Kevin Phillips put it so memorably, who was not smart enough to pander successfully (though he tried) to the dominant, Jesus-soaked Nascar fans who inhabit the Moron Crescent that runs from West Virginia south through Dixie and then west into Idaho. GWB was still riding pretty high when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the swamps and beaches east of Lake Ponchartrain, and the president failed to direct anybody to so much as air-drop bottled drinking water for survivors dying on rooftops and highway overpasses in New Orleans. The Left, once again, adopted an idiotic narrative to explain the event -- that Bush acted to punish African-Americans -- when plain incompetence combined with grandiose expectations for a televised happy ending to instead produce tragedy.
The fiasco in New Orleans was matched by the apparent failure to police Iraq back to stability, making the whole project appear feckless and futile, and GWB began his long swoon into discredit. But two other conditions were intensifying in the background, one the consequence of the other: peak oil and peak credit. As the primary resource of industrial capitalism reached its all-time production peak in 2005, the managers of the US economy allowed borrowing-from-the-future to replace productive activity as the basis for everyday life.
GWB barely acknowledged this compound problem. He asserted that America was addicted to oil, but he failed to take the idea a step further and say that our vaunted "way-of-life" could no longer be taken for granted. If anything, he endorsed the popular idea that a suburban lifestyle and WalMart consumerism was a Jesus-driven entitlement, and his circle in governance did everything possible to replace the industrial economy with an economy based on suburban land development and credit card spending -- which was enabled by fantastic experiments in finance that proved to be nothing more than an impenetrable web of swindles.
Those swindles began to unwind in 2007 and they now threaten to sink the USA as a viable enterprise. Their exact extent and nature still remain obscure, like the algorithms used to engineer the "alphabet soup" of fraudulent securities and recondite derivatives. In this stupendous failure, GWB is joined by his cohorts and minions in Republican polity, whose flamboyant misfeasance continues to make the credit blow-up worse by the minute. He leaves his successor, Mr. Obama, a predicament so dismal that the secession crisis of 1860 begins to look like a mere procedural quarrel in comparison. And despite the temporary crash of oil prices, the peak oil problem still looms very large in the background and has barely begun to work its hoodoo on what's left of the US economy.
The same prankish fate that elevated GWB may end up excusing or papering over his current ill-standing. Decades from now he might be remembered as the last national leader who presided over an orderly transition of power in a cohering federal system. The fickle public that longs for the last symbolic photo op, when Mr. Obama waves at the helicopter bearing GWB into the Texas gloaming, may soon turn on the new president for failing to return them to the Blue Light Special nirvana of days gone by.
To me, GWB will remain the perfect representative of his time, place, and culture. During his years in Washington, America became a nation of clowns posturing in cowboy hats, bethinking ourselves righteous agents of Jesus in a Las Vegas of the spirit, where wishing was enough to get something for nothing, where "mistakes were made," but everybody was excused from the consequences of bad choices. The break from that mentality will be very severe, and we may look back in twelve months and wonder how we ever fell for the whole package. The answering of that question will occupy historians for ages to come.