We’ll never know whether Germanicus, the highly accomplished Roman general, was mortified by the actions of his spawn, the insane and insanely destructive emperor Caligula. Or whether he was even more humiliated that, on top of that particularly notable contribution to imperial history, his grandson Nero would later strive valiantly to best the family high-water mark for sheer degenerate depravity. We won’t know because Germanicus had the good grace or the good fortune to die before either of them came to power.
Not so George H. W. Bush. He’s still very alive, and there’s little he can do to avoid the shame of having fathered the boy who nearly ruined America, and may yet still do so in his remaining 17 months as the country’s emperor. Back in the day, of course, the shamed father would have removed himself to the garden shed or some other suitable location on the family compound and "done the right thing" to avoid the stinging stigma of responsibility for a mess now so large it makes the Exxon Valdez look like a stopped-up toilet in comparison. But I guess Poppy finds denial a more convenient route.
The Bushes and the Walkers, and certainly any fool dumb enough to carry the moniker George Herbert Walker Bush, are the bluest of American blue bloods. And so it is tempting to think that they have always been so completely in it for themselves that it doesn’t much matter to them that their progeny has single-handedly almost wrecked a republic two-plus centuries old, and one, moreover, that is the reigning great power of its day. As long as they can check out at the Carlyle Group cashier’s window on their way to Dubai, who cares if a country of 300 million goes down the toilet?
And yet Poppy, like the Kennedys and Al Gore and John Kerry, went to war – the front lines, no less – when it was expected of them, risking life and limb. This is no small deal, reckless youthful abandon notwithstanding. Joe Kennedy never made it home. JFK, Poppy and John Kerry each had close brushes with death in battlefield action. This business of risking one’s own life for queen and country is not exactly the sort of thing you might expect from a completely self-interested cad who could care less about the fate of the nation. Of course, a more cynical take is that some or all of these lads, destined for a life of pre-planned greatness, took a calculated gamble, knowing that a heroic war story, if they survived, would catapult them ahead of the pack on the way to their personal rendezvous with destiny.
I don’t doubt that that motivation was lurking in there – somewhere in the mix with machismo, peer pressure and impressing chicks back home – when these guys marched off to war. I do tend to doubt, however, that this instrumental approach to personal ambition was the sole or even primary motivator for this group. After all, the risk was very, very real, as the death of Joe Junior, whose successful rise to the pinnacle of American political power and glory was all mapped out for him, emphatically proved. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and, ahem, a couple of clowns named Bush and Cheney would later prove that you could still make it to the top without a military resume – and even defeat war heroes along the way – if you had the requisite combination of smarts, hunger, luck, skill at lying, and an instinct for the jugular. So why risk it all on some patriotic fantasy scripted for the hoi polloi?
My sense, honestly, is that Poppy Bush is many things – with most of them on the political and fatherly fronts more than a little distasteful – but that he is nevertheless also a believer in America and a patriot. If so, ouch. That’s gotta hurt. Because that means he cares about the country, he believes in its tropes, and he must know at some level, a level hard to suppress sufficiently deep enough, that he is the guy who gave the world the guy who is wrecking it all.
In fact, we know he knows, because it was revealed in a recent New York Times article that people walk up to him all the time and say how much they appreciate and like him, but, um, er, uh, like what the f*ck happened with your kid, man?
That is no small blow to the heart, of course, as both a father and a patriot, but the problem certainly extends beyond the Papa and the Mama Bush (somehow I suspect rather fewer folks have the courage to say that to Mrs. Bush, and thus risk the famously terrible Wrath of Bar). There’s everyone in the family, to start with, not least of which poor Jebby, who’s stuck watching the stock of "Bush", the brand, sink lower every day, until it joins the looming fate that his brother’s policy on global warming has relegated to small island nations in the Pacific with an elevation (today) of about four feet. At this rate, pretty soon now a guy named Jeb Bush will have about as good a chance at getting elected president as a one named Jeb Hitler. Poor dude. He was the guy who was always supposed to be president, not Calamity George, the family screw-up since day one. Ain’t that a kick in the pants? There’s all kinds of ways to lose the presidency, lots of which are completely out of your control, but to have your own brother do it for you? Little Bro’s got to be wondering if even Rove could figure out a way to pull off selling these damaged goods. Maybe a name change, eh? "Vote Jeb Smith for president, a great guy you’ve never heard of before!" I dunno. Doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
And then there’s Boy George, himself. Clearly, he too has got the denial thing down to a fine art. No doubt a lifetime of practice will do that for you, especially when the stakes are so high. When you’re the black-sheep clown-prince child of a father and grandfather whose lists of business and political accomplishments (however skanky) run from here to China (pun intended), you better at least be excellent at fooling yourself, since you can’t accomplish anything else that remotely compares. The other alternative, honestly acknowledging what a disaster you are, is too horrible to contemplate. Most people don’t have the constitution to take a blow that big and get up off the ground again, least of all this perfectly pampered perennial punk of perpetual perfidy (Agnew lives!).
And, actually, such self-deception is not really all that difficult to pull off, especially when you’re president. What you do is surround yourself with people who always tell you what you want to hear, and then scream at and humiliate anyone who ever strays even slightly from that path. That will take care of just about everyone who’s a Republican (except for some of those selfish careerists in Congress who oddly value keeping their jobs over reinforcing W’s fantasy world, but they bought the whole package long ago, and there’s no going back). And, of course, for the odd staffer like Colin Powell or Christie Todd Whitman who are strangely only willing to bend over nine-tenths of the way, there remains the defenestration defense. There aren’t too many problems that a well ventilated room on the tenth floor won’t fix. Anyhow, then you make sure that you only speak at events with pre-selected sycophants and Kool-Aid Drinkers in attendance, or military personnel unable to candidly address their commander-in-chief. You also want to scare the crap out of the press (easily done) so that they’re afraid to ask you any questions even remotely relevant or challenging, and then do the same with the Democrats (even easier), so that they never seriously challenge your authority or power, even when your job approval ratings are in the mid-20s. And finally, hire Dick Cheney to always be around reminding you what a bad dude you are. Plenty bad man. The very baddest of the bad. That’s what Dick says, anyhow.
That’s a pretty effective formula, and by all accounts it seems to have produced considerable success. I believe George Bush when he says that he sleeps well at night. And appearances suggest that he is still having the binge party of his life as The Decider, choosing from the menu of options that Cheney puts before him on all the big issues. Like on Iraq, for instance: Invade the country on a Monday, invade on a Tuesday, etc. Lots of options – so what if they all seem so similar? Cheney must have good reasons for lining them up like that.
But, alas, all is not so well in the kingdom. The good king’s people are not content, and sometimes there is no masking that. Maybe it is even Laura or Poppy who bursts the bubble with the occasional infuriatingly off-script honest reminder of truth, who knows? In any case, it always seems to creep in, around, under and over the barricades, like the flood waters in New Orleans – and with the same potential for damage.
This, then, is where the last line of defense comes in, the final, impenetrable barrier between George Bush’s egg-shell fragile sense of self-worth and the awful truth.
"Patriotism", so Samuel Johnson famously argued, "is the last refuge of scoundrels". Turns out he was wrong. It’s actually the second-to-last. Without question, we’ve seen a lot of scoundrels these last years, a lot of scoundrelism, and a whole lot of the use of patriotism as a refuge from the fallout to these scoundrels’ scoundrelism. And for four or five years, it actually worked pretty well. Problem is, it’s worn mighty thin, and something else is now required – a last, last refuge of scoundrels.
Enter history. What a perfect alibi. The only one potentially better is religion – this nightmare has been god’s will all along, doncha know? But most Americans aren’t yet angry enough at their deities to buy that one, though it has already been discreetly run up the flag pole more than a few times. Hardly anybody saluted, though. Quite a few hurled. So that leaves history instead, which – like religion – has the wonderful attribute of complete unfalsifiability, at least in this lifetime.
Here’s how it works. The public, world opinion, historians uncharacteristically willing to comment before a half-century has gone by, even members of his own party – they’ve all got it wrong. Only George W. Bush – you know, the guy who got gentleman’s Cs in college, the guy who spent forty years as a drunk, the guy who invaded a deeply divided Muslim country without knowing that there even was such a thing as Sunnis and Shiites – only this wise seer across the millennia got it right. Only this prophet (or is it profit?), unheralded in his own time, this erudite scholar of Big Picture History, was able to see this biggest of big pictures.