Nostalgia for George W. Bush is at an all-time high. It has been rising ever since Donald Trump launched his presidential run in the summer of 2015, and affection for one of the worst presidents in American history may have peaked over the weekend, when his presidential library released a three-minute video calling for unity and an end to partisanship.
“Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” Bush says, as photographs of Americans wearing masks flash across the screen and a symphony swells. “In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together and we are determined to rise.”
It was a rare public statement from the former president. It was also a barely disguised criticism of President Trump’s erratic, narcissistic response to the coronavirus crisis. Trump got the message loud and clear, quoting Fox News’s Pete Hegseth in a tweet: “Oh bye [sic] the way, I appreciate the message from former President Bush, but where was he during Impeachment calling for putting partisanship aside?”
For many, the dustup was a civics lesson: Even Bush, a terrible president, understands what the moment calls for. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker said that the video presented a “striking contrast to the messages of late from President Trump.” The New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote that it “struck a tone of unity that contrasted with the more combative approach taken at times by President Trump as the former president evoked the sense of national solidarity in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” Former Democratic Representative Katie Hill tweeted, “In a million years I never thought I’d be crying watching this, thinking how much better we’d all feel if Bush were president today. Wtf.” It was a sentiment echoed by a number of Democrats and Trump critics.
As many have noted, Trump’s abysmal performance is no excuse for rehabilitating Bush, whose disastrous leadership led to economic collapse and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the temptation to applaud Bush for his boilerplate patriotism also points to a larger failure to present meaningful alternatives to Trump, particularly when it comes to the “head of state” functions that the president is particularly bad at.
Bush’s video was part of “The Call to Unite,” a 24-hour livestream featuring Oprah Winfrey, Sean Combs, Bill Clinton, and a host of other celebrities. Clinton’s message struck similar notes: “We need each other, and we do better when we work together,” he said. “That’s never been more clear to me as I have seen the courage and dignity of the first responders, the health care workers, all the people who are helping them to provide our food, our transportation, our basic services to the other essential workers.”
Clinton was famous for his rhetoric; Bush often had trouble stringing a sentence together. He represents the lowest common denominator: If George W. Bush can do it, surely Trump can as well. That Bush is also not just a Republican but a member of one of the most Republican families of the past half-century is also seen as important: Intraparty criticisms garner more attention, even if Bush is not speaking for many Republicans at all. (The Lincoln Project, a new anti-Trump Republican group, has garnered similar attention from the media, despite the fact that it has no meaningful constituency.)
The point of using Bush as a counterpoint to Trump is to underscore all the things that Trump isn’t. He doesn’t try to unite the country or speak to common purpose. He doesn’t honor anyone’s efforts other than his own. He doesn’t consider sacrifice to be a virtue. He doesn’t reach out to anyone who isn’t 100 percent behind him.
These are valid criticisms of Trump. Trump is abnormal, a freak, violating the norms of common decency on an hourly basis. But it’s not that simple, especially when Bush is involved. In the warm glow of the media’s attention, Bush’s abysmal record—Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib—is obscured. It’s not always necessary to wrestle with a politician’s entire career, but in Bush’s case, it deserves more than a passing reference. The fact that Bush publicly pushed back against Islamophobia is important, but less so than the fact that his administration invaded two predominantly Muslim countries.
Lest we forget, Bush was an incredibly divisive president. He brought the country together for a fleeting moment after 9/11—then promptly frittered away all that goodwill by trusting his stupid gut and going his own way. He won reelection by slandering his war-hero opponent and stoking conservative fears about gay marriage. His line about being “a uniter, not a divider” was a long-standing joke. And his successor—who, for better and often for worse, seemed to genuinely believe in the ideal of national unity—rode a wave of anti-Bush fervor into the White House.
That this is the person who now stands for some halcyon political era says nothing good about either the Republican Party or the opposition. In this moment of crisis, there is an opportunity for Democrats to showcase the kind of leadership that they have promised to bring back to the White House. With the exception of Andrew Cuomo, they have failed to do so. Biden has spent the last two months in his basement and has only been in the spotlight to address the sexual assault allegations against him.
The Bush ad, in this context, should be a warning to Democrats. If you want to provide an alternative to Trump’s leadership, don’t turn to the person who was widely considered the worst president in recent memory before Trump came along. Promote an actual alternative to Trump—or at the very least, a Democrat.