It’s not a stretch to say that ex-President Bush has carried himself with the utmost dignity in his final two months in office – going beyond what previous outgoing administrations have done for the new guy. From expediting security checks for now-President Obama’s nominees to giving him national security briefings in Chicago, the Bush team gave the new administration everything it needed to hit the ground running. So far, no reports of the letter “H” missing from the White House keyboards either. You’d think Number 43 could get some respect on his way out of office.
Not on the National Mall, from what I saw and heard from others.
I walked across the Memorial Bridge to the Mall from Arlington to see the inauguration, and was running late. Listening to the NPR broadcast from the Mall, I heard loud boos following the introduction of Bush and some Republican leaders as they approached the platform. Loud enough to be very apparent on my headphones, and for the New York Times live-blogger to notice, though I can’t say how widespread it was.
Getting to the other side of the bridge, I noticed a giant inflatable statue, but didn’t bother to look more closely, as Obama was a few minutes into his speech and I didn’t want to miss it. The rest of the ceremony was fine, mostly memorable from my perch at the Reflecting Pool for the brisk commerce that was still going in merchandise bearing Obama’s visage (and especially his family’s). As I headed back to the bridge, I noticed a crowd forming around that inflatable statue. It was George W. Bush in a Saddam Hussein-in-the-town-square pose, and a group of yucksters “tore” it down and threw stuff at the statue (no shoes, oddly enough). Talk about an apt comparison, huh? It wasn’t lighthearted – it was just mean-spirited. Apparently there was another inflatable Bush statue dressed in a flight suit up the road that other sore winners had their way with. Heckling also followed the ex-president as his helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base took off, the Times reported. (You can see photos of the inflatable Bush and mostly crowd shots in my Flickr set.)
Meeting up later with friends who were much closer to the West Lawn, I learned of some drunken heckling, this time of George H.W. Bush and Barbara, calling her a “racist grandmother” and yelling “Go back to Houston!” Not the respect that an ex-First Family deserves.
Why does this bother me so much? Protesters have always dogged leaders. You could say this heckling was rather mild, although I’m sure that the 25,000 cops in town and Secret Service roaming through the crowd tamped down expectations of what people could get away with.
Here’s the thing. It’s hard to think of a recent president leaving office more unpopular than Bush did. Two wars, financial crisis, and some of the more interesting debates about the breadth of executive power we may see for a while. Yet this is a man who had no blueprint for what to do after September 11, which like it or not, is still the foremost thought in the mind of any official tasked with protecting this country. You can argue with what Bush did, whether Iraq was a good move or at least will turn out to be a relatively successful country in a region brooding with oil money and disaffected young men. But clearly he was operating out of his convictions about what a leader should be doing, and those decisions in some way clinched him a second term. His oft-quoted examples were Churchill and Truman, leaders during extremely difficult and controversial times of war who left office with a “Kick Me” sign on their backs. Surely this is a man who risked everything to do what he thought was right, to protect the American people – to take his oath of office seriously, and as a side effect took some bad advice from people with their own agenda. I’ve long thought Bush’s biggest problem was his excessive loyalty to officials who should have been shuffling along. But let’s not forget the context in which he governed.
The treatment of the outgoing 43 by the incoming 44’s biggest fans has made me almost nostalgic for the painfully earnest media coverage of the past few weeks, highlighting the “historic” nature of the inauguration to no end, perhaps because pundits and anchors have nothing original to say (shocking). The endless paeans to our non-ideological president led to believe that maybe, just maybe, Obama’s candidacy had summoned the “better angels of our nature” for a wide swath of America. From what I saw and heard today, I guess that was premature.
I’m a tech journalist who’s making a TV show about a college newspaper.