The Decline of Bush's Villainy: Stanley Fish Called It

Here we are, a little over a year after President Bush left office, and sure enough Stanley Fish is right: the visceral anger and abhorrence of Bush has softened.

Bush may not be popular, per se, as Fish explicitly predicted, but he isn't the hated, demonic figure he was made out to be, and did become in the eyes of many, in the latter days of his White House tenure.

Fish, appropriately, lets us know that this is the case, and that he called it last year, in a New York Times column today. Without daily tracking polls of Bush's approval, it's hard to be scientific about this, but Fish's take resonates.

This is a phenomenon I saw coming, too--though I can't prove it with a back-dated column like Fish can--but for different reasons. Fish foresaw a post-White-House Bush unfettered by the policies he initiated, the public free to like him again for his human qualities without the expectations that go with being the leader of the Western world--expectations Bush never lived up to anyway (except, perhaps, in the period immediately following 9/11).

I thought the public would soften on Bush for another reason: the capacity of people to revise history with their own nuances, remaking it to suit their leanings. Anyone who has encountered a conservative insisting Nixon was a great president, for the sake of contrarianism and point-proving, should know what I'm talking about.

So my prediction is a bit different from Fish's. Mine is that one day, in the not terribly distant future, it will become vogue for neocons to go around claiming Bush was the best president in the history of the United States, despite the fact that, by the end of his tenure, some in the neocon movement had basically accepted that he was pure political baggage and should be disowned for his government spending, at least (though they still liked his tax cuts).

You could feel a Bush resurgence coming in his last days in office. After he had been beaten up daily, and quite viciously, by analysts and pretty much everyone with an opinion--after his approval ratings had hovered in the ballpark of record lows for two and a half solid years--there was a sense in Washington that there wasn't really anything left to say, that Bush was a fundamentally well-intentioned man who had screwed things up and gotten in over his head. He had made mistakes, and he was struggling in their aftermath to do what he felt was right.

The success of the troop surge may have helped. A big reason people hated Bush--and they did hate him--was the horror of Iraq and the news of U.S. troops dying and Iraqi citizens being found dead and tortured in Baghdad--and the impression that this all happened because of Bush's recklessness. With the situation in Iraq turning in 2008, the critics' beef with Bush became less grave.

But Fish points to more reasons that Bush hatred has tapered, namely the transference of that sentiment to Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney and the Obama administration's embrace of some Bush policies.

Indeed, some Bush policies have been normalized in the past year-plus. The use of waterboarding and reverse-engineered SERE interrogation techniques caused an uproar when they came to light under Bush; now they've been banned by President Obama, but would anyone be terribly shocked if the military's Joint Special Operations Command still uses some of those tactics in the field, or at Bagram? As of May 2009, CNN showed Americans supporting the Bush administration's harsh-interrogation techniques 50-46 percent. Public has similarly gotten used to the idea of domestic wiretapping: during the 2008 campaign, Obama signed onto a revision of FISA law that was opposed by the civil liberties community, which claimed it fell short on protections and wrongly offered immunity to telecom companies. Provisions in the PATRIOT Act, feared and despised as a whole by some in the Bush years, now get renewed by Congress with no fuss.

That's not to say history has proven Bush's policies, and their implementations, to be popular, and there are plenty that haven't been brought into the mainstream (document secrecy, opposing habeas petitions, and preemptive war come to mind). Bush is still seen as a bad president by many, but Fish is right: his truly likable qualities can now shine through more ably, and the sense of Bush's villainy is on the decline.

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