THE arc of conservatism-to-collaboration these days seems to be as predictable in political, as the transit of Venus is in planetary, science. A major difference in the case of the 43rd President of the United States is that no black drop effect blurs the computation of his transition from rightist hero to RINO rat. It began as soon as he stepped on to Marine One to leave the White House in January 2009 and it wasn’t entirely his fault. Routinely likened to Adolf Hitler for eight years, when George W. Bush began cosying up to Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, few former admirers truly generous could begrudge him the respite. I was happy for him when he took up portrait painting and became a chat show favourite. As a Republican in the Oval Office, he necessarily endured a dishonest press, the mocking of his family, lies about his past, the rejection of his legitimacy, published fantasies of assassination and a campaign by Democrats to lose a war.
What started as a holiday from hatred, however, became a habit and then a mission. George Bush was no longer the name being associated with stolen elections, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, non-existent WMD or the near atomic excess deaths totted up by The Lancet. Vicious regime comedian Jimmy Kimmel loved him, as did America’s heftiest media and entertainment doormen. They waved him through to the left’s inner lounge as a reward for refusing to criticise the Obama Administration. Bush claimed his circumspection was born of respect for the Presidency but there was more to it than that. He couldn’t take any more abuse, let alone vendetta leaks, and – adopted Texas persona or no – he was still enough of a Yankee patrician to think good manners humble enemies. The flaw in the old New England starch – especially if a man is amending himself as much for inclusion as salvation – is that noblesse oblige can disguise mere vanity.
Nevertheless, contrary to the fallout from a fake news interpretation of his remarks at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, Bush has not become so craven as to liken Donald Trump’s supporters to 9/11 terrorists. “Without naming it, Bush seemed to condemn the Jan 6 insurrection at the US Capitol,” baited the Washington Post. “Without explicitly naming names, Bush compared the Al Qaeda attackers back then to the Capitol rioters,” invented the New Yorker. The offence given – by lying journalists, not the former President – was uncritically taken by Trump loyalists, some of whom have as vested an interest in intra-GOP brawling as the media. Because he has been acting the disinterested puritan for so long, it was hard to feel sorry for Bush. The references by an anti-abortionist to disregarded human life and defiled national symbols read, to me, as a condemnation of the statue-smashing, cop-shooting, courthouse-ramming, Democrat-incited murder inferno of 2020. That Bush hasn’t issued a clarification could be damning, yes, or it could just be more haughty self-preservation.
Either way, Shanksville is now a crossroads in the history of war and the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s aggressive response included hallmark themes of his 2016 campaign and national security policy as President. Specifically, the Iraq War as a catastrophe for which Bush and his advisers are permanently culpable and by which Republicans must be galvanised to return to their party’s once doctrinal isolationism. Trump believes Bush is exploiting the historically unremarkable protest at the Capitol last January to win crummy plaudits – perhaps to be seen as the “great and noble man” eulogised at Bush the Elder’s funeral in 2018. He has a case.
What does this mean for those of us who backed Bush during America’s worst years in Iraq? Isn’t it hypocritical to sashay away to Wilsonianism under a MAGA flag? The answer is yes – mostly. I saw the 9/11 attacks as so epochal that only a vast kinetic retaliation could reconstitute the global order of deterrence. What must be acknowledged is that however much Saddam Hussein deserved what he got, ousting him just to send a message was foolish. Sabotaging the war when it was underway, however, was even worse. The major lesson to draw from the Shanksville squabble is that honesty for a nation’s sake is more important than reputation for a man’s.