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Exit, Pursued By History

George W. Bush’s first day of retirement from electoral politics will look just like his days as a politician. Upon leaving Washington on Inauguration Day, the former president’s first stop will be at a rally in his childhood hometown of Midland, Texas. As unnatural as a Bush rally may seem these bleak days, the plan ensures that news coverage of Barack Obama’s triumphal arrival will include at least a few clips of his predecessor addressing a joyous crowd.

Officially, the event is being dubbed a “welcome-home event” meant to bookend a send-off gathering held in the same spot eight years and three days earlier. But the real parallel is with another rally, one that took place even as the 43rd president’s 2001 inaugural parade was preparing to head up Pennsylvania Avenue. After watching Bush get sworn in, Bill Clinton headed to Andrews Air Force Base, where a crowd of supporters had gathered to cheer him. “So you see that sign there that says ‘Please don’t go’?,” an exultant Clinton asked after listing his presidential accomplishments one last time. “I left the White House--but I’m still here.”

The Bush administration knew it, which is one reason that--despite the new president’s inaugural address “commitment to principle with a concern for civility”--his presidential staff kept trashing Clinton as if it were still campaign season. Within days, stories leaked about Clintonites swiping White House silverware on their way out the door. The accounts turned out to be mainly untrue. Of course, no one noticed the clarification, since Clinton’s non-vandalistic exit behavior gobbled up the headlines. Still, the Andrews rally and the stolen-stemware stories underlined the terms of that succession: There’d be no grace from the new guy, and no deference from the old.

Eight years later, with another new president promising another new age of civility, and another departing chief executive staging one more rally for posterity, will things be different? On the face of it, Obama might have less incentive to knock his predecessor off his presidential pedestal. Clinton ended his term with approval ratings in the sixties; even after Marc Rich outrage hardened into a season of Clinton fatigue, the public could compartmentalize tawdry behavior from competent presidential management. Bush, by contrast, is Mephistophelian in his unpopularity. Could some leaked post-inauguration allegation about his leaving the seat up in the executive toilet really do any more damage?

It wouldn’t hurt to try. Obama should save the civility shtick for Republicans he’ll have to work with. As for the guy retiring to Texas, the new administration should ensure he remains the useful foil he was during the 2008 campaign. That starts with letting nothing--not public amnesia, not nostalgia, and certainly not a statesmanlike gesture from the White House--lift him from the PR cellar. When the new crew opens up the books on Bush’s government, they ought to let every embarrassing detail out. And whenever there’s an international event that calls for dispatching an ex-president, they ought to steer clear of 43. (How did Bush use his well-respected, youthful predecessor during his first term? Other than making him a member of the U.S. delegation to East Timor’s independence party, not much at all.)

There’s no guarantee Bush will remain this loathed forever. After next week, bad employment figures and reports about failed initiatives land on Obama. Historically, feelings about presidential performance tend to rise as the performances drift further into the past. Obama’s successes--at extricating us from Iraq, or stabilizing the economy, or at tamping down the political vitriol--could wind up rehabilitating Bush precisely because his failures might no longer seem like failures (and, as John Heilemann pointed out recently in New York, because Obama would be retaining at least some of Bush’s late-stage policy changes with regards to Iraq.) It’s a paradox, because the strength of Obama’s appeal as an energetic, thoughtful, and smooth operator depends in large part on voters contrasting it with his passive, rigid, incompetent predecessor.

Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for decades; Republicans kicked around Jimmy Carter for a dozen years. If Bush’s successors play their cards right, Democrats could use his legacy as a thumb on their side of the scale for a generation. After all, Bush represents a perfect synthesis of failed presidencies past. Like Hoover, he’s blamed for inaction in the face of economic crisis. Like LBJ, he’s tied to an unpopular war and the government dishonesty that maintained it. Like Nixon, he’ll go down as a polarizing dirty trickster. Like Carter, he’s shunned by his own party. And with a week to go, there’s still a chance that he’ll leave office in a blaze of controversial pardons like Clinton.

As Obama prepares to take the oath, his supporters speak of him alongside Lincoln and FDR. Aspiring to the company of the immortals is admirable. For the shorter term, though, it might be helpful to have people think of Obama next to Bush. And, as they do so, to remind them of just how disastrous the 43rd president really was.

Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming One Nation Under Dog.