Opinion

A new devil of the moment in the White House

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Looking back, they seem like hazy years that I barely remember. Quaint, almost, in retrospect. I was younger, I actually had hair, and I didn’t really understand everything that I saw. But still, I remember.

A different man occupied the White House, but so much of the rhetoric about him sounded the same.

The president was George W. Bush, and the years were the early 2000s. I began his term as a college student, and I ended it a man with a career living 700 miles away from where I grew up. In between, I saw a lot.

I saw him become the most popular president in American history, and then slide slowly into becoming the most unpopular president in history. I saw major legislation passed, war, party switches, bitter infighting and scandal. It was an eventful eight years.

Throughout it all, one thing remained consistent: George W. Bush was evil incarnate to his political adversaries.

It is cliche to say it now, but there was no question that for a majority of his presidency, Bush was the most divisive chief executive in modern American history. His defenders went to the mat for him in a way I’ve never quite seen before, spinning quite literally anything and everything he did as a positive.

It didn’t matter what he did, he was defended. Even if similar actions under a Democratic president would have led to universal protestations of big-government socialism run amok.

On the other side, to his opponents, it equally didn’t matter what he did. To them, he wasn’t just wrong, he was a brain-dead, hateful, arch-conservative ideologue who was intentionally trying to ruin the country because he hated poor people, women and ethnic minorities.

It didn’t particularly matter that many of his education and health care policies were something they would have cheered had they been proposed by President Bill Clinton.

It didn’t matter if he did what they so often called for in creating new departments and bureaucracies.

It didn’t matter that he attempted to push through an immigration reform bill that boiled down to blanket amnesty, or that he tried earnestly to reach out to black churches and talked passionately about trying to fix the education system to help lift African Americans out of poverty in inner cities.

It didn’t matter that he almost single-handedly saved millions of lives in Africa with his PEPFAR, or President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, program.

None of that mattered. He wasn’t just wrong, he was evil.

I remember seeing the Hitler signs at protests. I remember the “not my president” chants. I remember the jokes about alcoholism and cocaine. I remember the dismissive way that he was portrayed as a dunce with a two-digit IQ. I remember the frequency of the racist-sexist-bigot-homophobe accusations. I remember the disgusting things that were said to and about me because I was a Republican in the Bush era.

And I remember my impression of him in that period, an impression that I still hold to this day. To me, Bush was a good, decent and honorable man who cared about his country and everyone in it, who had not even a whisper of racism or sexism in his heart. A man who pursued several good, and several very flawed, policies in pursuit of his goals to make his country better.

Interestingly, today, it seems those very people drawing the Hitler mustaches on Bush 10 years ago are coming around to my perspective on the man.

And what is the source of this “strange new respect” for the one-time devil?

A new devil in the White House, of course, and a new person for them to draw mustaches on, and Bush’s willingness to distance himself from that new devil.

Now, suddenly, liberals are pining for the “dignity” and “respect” that Bush represented. They long for his attitude toward immigrants, and his willingness to work with them. They crave how “presidential” the man they once mocked as a reckless, mindless cowboy actually was. And his post-presidential approval rating goes up.

Which makes one ask two very important questions.

First, should we ever let ourselves allow contempt for the politics of a president to infect our opinion of the person themselves?

Second, once the current anti-Christ leaves the Oval Office, how long before the “strange new respect” phenomenon reaches him?

You laugh, but would anyone have believed 10 years ago that Nancy Pelosi would ever say that she misses George W. Bush, as she did earlier this year? I think not.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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