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Time Warp

George W. Bush Makes a Brutal Return to Our Psyche

The former president’s recent Ukraine-or-Iraq invasion gaffe was a high-test dose of accidental honesty—and painful nostalgia.

Former President George W. Bush grimaces as he stands behind the lectern in the White House Press Room.
Aude Guerrucci/Getty Images
Former President George W. Bush

This week, former President George W. Bush detonated a nostalgia bomb in my brain: In the midst of criticizing the Russian government in a speech in Dallas on Wednesday, Bush said the following: “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” He then stopped, shook his head, and said, “I mean, of Ukraine.” And under his breath, as if there was no microphone, cameras, or audience in front of him, he muttered, “Iraq, too.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought, “There’s absolutely no way he just said that.” And in an instant, the gaffe takes me 17 years back in time. I just got home from school, and I should really be doing my precalculus homework, but instead I’m sitting at the desk in front of my family’s charcoal-gray Dell, where I take out a list of phone numbers to call on behalf of former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. I’m not old enough to vote, live on Long Island, and honestly hadn’t heard of Senator Kerry until this year. But I’m a pissed-off high school senior, and my biggest preoccupation at the moment is making sure George W. Bush isn’t reelected president. So I pick up the cordless phone and start dialing.

“Hi, my name is Marisa. Do you have a minute to talk about John Kerry’s campaign for president?” A new AIM message pings on the computer monitor and I glance at it, but I don’t have time to answer because I’m in the middle of important business, far beyond mere college applications. I’m performing my civic duty, certain that my calls—and the pins on my backpack that I purchased from Kerry’s website—will rid us of Dubya. Never mind my classmate who derided my “Kids for Kerry” pin, reminding me, “Kids can’t vote.” If I can convince these strangers on the other end of the line that it’s time for new leadership in the White House, we’ll save the country. 

Now it’s 2022, and you know how this story ended. More than 20 years after 9/11, most Americans seem to agree that the Iraq War was wrong; the consensus among elites also seems to be that Bush wasn’t so bad (particularly as compared to Trump). This probably shouldn’t be surprising: They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Bush has gone to some lengths to make himself mostly absent in his postpresidency. But then he goes and admits his complicity in a destructive and purposeless war in what has to be the most Dubya way possible: a verbal gaffe. 

In his brief remarks Wednesday, Bush, who in recent years has become mainly known for his quiet retirement, his charming paintings of pets and historical figures, and his occasional palling around with Michelle Obama, did something that I never thought would happen in my lifetime. He stood before us inadvertently admitting that the invasion of Iraq was the very thing that few of the “adults in the room” had the courage to call it at the time: unjustified. Brutal. 

I wish I could say that I took pure satisfaction at the slip of the tongue, but hearing Bush’s semi-confession was, in its own way, brutal. It was like my brain left my body, hurtling back through time to 17-year-old me. It wanted to tell my younger self that the thing I most wanted the people in power at the time to admit had finally tumbled out of the septuagenarian’s mouth.

It all seems hopelessly naïve now, me thinking that through sheer force of will I’d prevent Bush from winning a second term. But in 2004, on a steady diet of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and New York magazine (in print), I was so sure that even though I was young, the adults in this country were able to see things for what they were: that President Bush had brought our country into a war in Iraq under false pretenses. Kids just months older than me were being sent across the world to a country most couldn’t find on a map, ordered to risk their lives on a mission that was ostensibly about protecting American democracy at home. 

But while we’re thinking about the past, let’s speak honestly about it. Coming of political age during George W. Bush’s presidency was like learning about healthy relationships from Gone Girl. The orderly and just government we learned about in elementary school and the Constitution we were trained to revere in our civics classes suffered a body blow in the 2000 presidential election. An apathetic populace grinned and shrugged as  a man who got sworn in on the strength of an anonymous opinion from a conservative Supreme Court earned the power to make war. The person you were supposed to admire—the president!—was a nepotism hire who could barely string a sentence together. 

It’s easy for some to look back on the Bush years through a Trump-colored filter and remember him fondly. Bush was a so-called “normal” Republican who kept his corruption neatly buttoned up behind folksy rhetoric and some patriotic flair. With Trump, America has spent more than half a decade at the receiving end of a firehose of loud mind-numbing nonsense and never-ending deceit. Bush didn’t have a Twitter account to saddle the public with his every thought or an itchy, desperate need to be in every headline or top every cable news package. 

There was an easy way to be a Bush critic back then: You could laugh at his goofs and feel superior to the silver-spooned black sheep of the Bush family. But the fact remained that he was commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces and we were a country at war. A vocal and brave minority took a harder route: They hit the streets to oppose the invasion and the false pretense under which it began; they inspired young folks like me to speak out about the evil being perpetrated in our name. 

But it wouldn’t prove to be enough: Under the hypnosis of American Idol and Napoleon Dynamite memes, the country reelected the most dangerous president in a generation with a yawn and a nod, and wise adults didn’t save the day. It was Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and similar liars who got elevated and prevailed. To this day, those who knew the score from the start, understood that the Second Iraq War was wrong, and fervently opposed it have never really enjoyed their day in the sun. If anything, the people who touted and supported this great folly still possess more political capital than those who got it right. Bush’s latest gaffe is all we get for our troubles.

Back in my 2004 time warp, I’m sprawled out on the pullout bed in my family’s computer room as CNN blinks on the screen, the volume almost inaudible. There’s a new episode of America’s Next Top Model on later, but I’m not sure if I’ll be in the mood to watch. I skipped school today because yesterday was Election Day, and John Kerry lost, and everything I spent the last year hoping for has been ground to dust. I’ve applied to two colleges in Washington, D.C., but I’m not sure it’s really the place for me because, as my brief lifetime has taught me, politics is nothing but heartbreak and cynicism. I think about 9/11 happening during my first week of high school and the sad playlist my best friend sent me on Limewire to ease the pain. I wonder if this is simply how the world works. And I was probably right.