George W. Bush is history’s greatest monster you’d like to have a beer with. He’s a fun-loving, DUI-acquiring, shit-kicking everyman like you—a self-defined cowboy who slurred his way through Yale and into his stolen role as the former Leader of the Free World.
Miles away from his much-maligned presidency, he currently exists as an affable, inoffensive talk show guest, the kind who takes relish in presenting Jay Leno, America’s Former Late Night Leader, with semi-competently rendered portraits of himself. In spite of this we have not forgotten, nor forgiven, his misdeeds. We (and by “we,” I mean “I,” because I’m the one writing this) still hate him with every fiber of our beings. We, however, aren’t docents at his presidential library and museum. In the interest of checking out his apologists’ fun spin on revisionist history, I decided to visit the museum, located, naturally, on the campus of Dallas’s Southern Methodist University.
The first thing I witnessed, after walking by the “Freedom Registry,” was the sight of children on a field trip being shuffled through a metal detector. I have visited many presidential museums in my time, up to and including Richard Nixon’s. This, however, was the only one I had been to that required the frisking of its visitors. Nixon had enemies—a whole list of them, in fact. But in fairness, Bush’s enemies list is countries—his own included—long. I could understand the man’s paranoia.
An exhibition of childlike paintings of world leaders, titled The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, was where I began my tour. Portraits of Bush’s cronies, displayed among tchotchkes given in friendship, hung alongside glowing reviews of his character. Tony Blair was quoted as saying, “I’ve admired him as a president and I regard him as a friend. I have taken the view that Britain should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with America after September 11th... I am proud of the relationship we have had.”
The Dalai Lama, perhaps due to his infinite capacity for kindness and forgiveness, said, “I really love him. Really.”
I was informed that, in spite of his horrific nature, Vladmir Putin acted totally cool to us post-9/11, and so we should probably give him a break.
I was told that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdhullah, regardless of the fact that he runs one of the most ass-backward countries in the world, “established a strong personal bond” with Bush and, therefore, isn’t as bad as I think he is. As I stared at the “art,” a child remarked, “The paintings are all good, but some of them are creepy.” I concurred.
In the corner, a docent asked children whether they knew what diplomacy meant; she then struggled to define it in spite of their overwhelming lack of interest. They, it seemed, were even less interested in learning than Bush. I visualized Condoleezza Rice doing the same as he licked Cheetos dust off his fingers and transfixedly stared at a television playing Fox News like a bro watching the big game in a sports bar. Unlike the president, the children didn’t really need to learn what diplomacy was. In spite of it all, they were still going to graduate, 'cause no child left behind, right? The “No Child Left Behind” section was the only one kids paid attention to, incidentally, because it had a climbable school bus to horse around on. It was conveniently located next to the downer that was the 9/11 memorial.
Signs informed me that faith had helped Bush find the strength to stop drinking. That “the role of government is to create an environment in which the entrepreneurial person… who works hard and dreams big can realize his or her dreams.” (Which was a quote by Bush, spoken over 20 fucking years after Reagan expressed exactly the same sentiment.) An exhibit touted his “experience” as a failed businessman and lauded the fact that he was the only commander-in-chief to have ever earned an MBA.
The Decision Points Theater allowed me to tackle the tough choices Bush made during his administration, the implication being that he actually made any of the choices in question—that he is capable of making choices that don’t involve what cowboy hat to wear in order to prove how salt-of-the-earth he is or what shade of carmine he needs to use in order to capture former Australian prime minister/major league asshole/trusted ally John Howard’s bloated, reddened visage.
The theater could select from four key “decisions”: Threat of Saddam Hussein, Hurricane Katrina, the Surge, and Financial Crisis. We chose Saddam. Breaking news occasionally jutted in and prevented us from listening to our advisers, the reliability of whom we voted on. We had but four minutes to decide the fate of the nation. I’m sure the same applied to the big man too. And by “the big man,” I mean Dick Cheney. One breaking news clip told us we had found Saddam’s WMDs… as if they actually existed. WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING, AMERICA! it implored. TO THIS DESPOT WHAT DONE TRIED TO KILL DADDY BUSH!
We, as a theater, sought a new UN resolution. Bush didn’t. “Before 9/11,” Bush explained afterward, “Saddam was a problem America might have been able to solve. But after 9/11…” He then dropped the mic, picking it up only to remark, “The world was made safer by his removal.”
I played again. The Hurricane Katrina decision involved whether or not to invoke the Insurrection Act. Breaking news footage described lawless hoodlums roaming around New Orleans with guns. There was no talk of sending food, or water, or helicopters. Just to stop these black guys from killing one another. (Reports of rampant violence post-Katrina were mostly exaggerated, but that makes for a less exciting game.) In the museum’s incredibly small Katrina section, Bush is absolved of all guilt. Fuck Kanye West, it implies. George Bush totally cares about black people! He’s hugging a sobbing one in this photograph!
As I watched a video about how Bush totally didn’t steal the 2000 election and how Al Gore was acting, at the time, like a little bitch, an old woman probably named Dixie shook her head in reverence at the sight of former adviser Karen Hughes. “She was great, wasn’t she?” she marveled. The same former Southern Belle then called Gore a “jerk.” Greatest Generation or no, I wanted to slap her. She smelled like baking powder, as did everyone else there. Anyone who wasn’t a child forced to be there was in a wheelchair, pushing a wheelchair, or pushing the age in which they’d need a wheelchair. AND THEY VOTE. You don’t. You probably should. They loved to talk, in quiet tones, among themselves about political policy, as if they knew what the fuck they were talking about. Even Dubya knew more.
"DID YOU KNOW?" A placard asked. “Before 9/11, federal anti-terrorism efforts were hampered by rules that discouraged the sharing of information between intelligence and law enforcement officials.” But don’t worry… the USA PATRIOT ACT FIXED IT! Thanks, 43!
A sassily worded sign read, “President Bush nominated Justices to the Supreme Court who understood that the role of the Court is to respect the balance of power by strictly interpreting the Constitution, not drafting new laws to advance a personal or political agenda.” Because when I think agenda-less, I think Samuel Alito.
The hubristic weight of placing Dubya’s museum in the same city where John Kennedy’s assassination took place was not lost on me. One of the divine ironies of Bush’s administration was that, in spite of the ire his presidency illicited, no one ever attempted to kill him. He was, it seems, too stupid to suffer, as evidenced by the lighthearted video near the end of the tour, hosted by his equally vacant daughters, that poked a bit of fun at his legendary inarticulateness. If you can’t laugh at yourself, the video asked, how do you expect people to see you as a leader? Wait, what?
The gift shop, filled with $60 leather embossed notebooks with Bush’s signature on it, $20 guides to his exhibition of paintings of world leaders, $50 polo shirts and golf memorabilia, was more offensive than the 9/11 Museum gift shop everyone recently got their panties in a twist about. Mostly because if 9/11 had never happened, this shrine wouldn’t. We wouldn’t have been scared enough to reelect him for the first time.
On my way out, I was presented with the words “Now we go forward—GRATEFUL FOR OUR FREEDOM, FAITHFUL TO OUR CAUSE, and confident in the future of the greatest nation on Earth.” A “9/11: Never Forget” magnet, affixed to the back of an enormous truck parked sideways, taking up far more than its share of space in the parking lot, was the last thing I saw. Don’t worry, I thought. I won’t forget anytime soon. How could I?