George W. Bush will not be giving speeches on behalf of his brother anytime soon. In fact, if the Republican establishment has its way, Dubya won’t be anywhere near a camera for the 2016 election. (Who could forget his five-minute boilerplate video, shown in lieu of his attendance at the 2012 Republican National Convention?) His disappearance from the national spotlight is a strange phenomenon in contemporary American politics. Under normal circumstances, Bush would take his place along other ex-presidents as a national figurehead of some influence, especially with his brother as a presidential candidate. Yet, his deafening silence is indicative of not only his disastrous administration, but the GOP’s attempt to erase him from the country’s memory.
This upcoming election marks the latest great GOP purge of history. The disappearing Dubya isn’t a coincidence. It’s part of a larger trend of former Republican presidential candidates being faded to black by the party whose mascot, ironically, is the elephant, an animal known for memory and longevity. In contrast to this systematic erasure, the Democrats trots out its winners and losers every four years. We still hear from Jesse Jackson, Al Gore and Bill Clinton—and John Kerry, of course, is a key part of the Obama administration. It’s presumed that when President Obama finishes his last day in office, he will also be a public figure working both internationally and within the party.
Compare that with the last few Republican presidents and candidates, and it seems like the parties are playing by different rules. Nobody has pulled a more thorough disappearing act than George W. Bush.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, Democrats and independents do have functioning memory cells. They can recall two disastrous wars, mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina, the war profiteering of Vice President Dick Cheney, rampant Wall Street deregulation, and huge tax cuts for the rich that helped the national debt to balloon out of control in tandem with defense spending. Unlike Reagan, there is no health reason for Dubya’s lack of public appearances. In fact, he is still around and healthy as a horse, perhaps due to all his vacation time as president. (Bush holds the title of all-time great presidential vacationer, clocking in at more than 400 days of R&R.)
The RNC solution to a mountain of damning evidence is a campaign to erase and displace—that is, erasing Bush from the public memory and displacing as many disasters as possible on to Obama. This is a test of the RNC propaganda machine to see how many people they can get to believe whatever they want. Case in point: Almost as many people blame President Obama for the Hurricane Katrina fiasco as the president in office at the time. Anyone with a smartphone and opposable thumbs could figure out that Obama was not president during Katrina and had nothing to do with the aftermath. But if you can alter the memories of 40 to 45 percent of Louisiana Republicans through constant propaganda, the whole country can’t be far behind. It’s a great way of being wrong: erasing enough people’s memories and, therefore, never learning from bad decisions.
The philosophical roots of erasing Bush from GOP history exists with neoconservatives and their patron saint. Leo Strauss is the neoconservative philosopher and darling of the Republican party. Strauss coined such semi-comical terms as reductio ad Hitlerum (comparing your opponent to Hitler). He also advocated civic mythologizing as more important than fact-based history in order to establish a new age of American exceptionalism. As a post World War II reactionary against Communism, Strauss devised radical theories about rewriting history. Ironically, his approach of bending and altering history was similar to Stalinist purges of records and erasing dissidents from public archives. Straussian philosophy toward governing is Machiavellian. It is devoid of fact-checking and puts a priority on selective arrangements of facts to support civic mythology.
Let me be very clear: Straussian as well as neoconservative philosophy intentionally combines fact manipulation with religious fundamentalism for political expediency. The result is to make American capitalism and hegemony seem like a pre-ordained sign of God’s pro-USA neoconservative feelings. This feat of combining secular patriotism with irrational religious fervor can only be achieved by erasing any past conservative blunders that would call into question our divine favor. Neoconservatives clearly see Bush as one of the biggest errors in contemporary history, for not only the party but the country.
If Reagan is an empty suit to be filled like exaggerated feats of heroism in a conservative piñata, Dubya is a dark political vortex that sucks away light and hope for another Republican president. Financially, militarily, diplomatically, and by every managerial standard of leadership, Dubya is a presidential tragedy brought to you by conservative philosophers. His two terms were devastating in every major category of judging a president. There wasn’t one element of government that escaped being damaged or compromised by his policy. By the time Bush left office, it was very easy to buy into the mythology that government doesn’t work, because it was many of his advisors who helped wreck the system so thoroughly that a sense of hopelessness pervaded.
Sadly, the great Dubya disappearance might be working. In last year’s Gallup poll, George W. Bush had a positive rating for the first time in eight years. Granted it was only 49 percent favorable, but it’s still better than when he left office. And he owes the uptick in approval all to the fact that he has not been seen in six years.
What is surprising is that when he was in office the GOP establishment couldn’t get enough of him, tying their party’s fate to his misguided policies. Now that his policies have had time to show results (No Child Left Behind, Clean Air Act, cutting taxes for the rich and promising growth), it’s Democrats who are desperate to remind the country of the results of Bush’s policies, because we are still suffering from the consequences. If some neoconservatives have their way, the former president — as a man, legacy maker and political symbol — will simply fade away. It’s our job as historians, journalists and citizens to not let an amnesiac fog descend over one of the worst presidents to run this country.
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to being a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School, he has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre.