Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Contenders: George W. Bush & Barack Obama (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last episode in the fascinating eight-part OZY Media/PBS series The Contenders: 16 for ’16 was shown last night and dealt with two candidates who, unlike 13 of the previous 14 profiled on this show, not only made it to the Presidency but served two terms: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It really didn’t tell us much we didn’t know about either of these people — though it was interesting, having seen the rough-and-tumble campaign Bush waged against John McCain in the all-important South Carolina primary in 2000 from McCain’s perspective in the show about him, to see the same event from Bush’s perspective and to see Karl Rove blandly deny that Bush’s official campaign had anything to do with the smears against McCain that led to his crushing defeat and the end of his hopes for that year’s Republican nomination, including the allegation that he’d fathered a Black child out of wedlock (the child was real, all right, but she was an East Indian girl McCain and his wife had adopted). The show briefly dealt with Bush’s wastrel past — I recall that when the BBC-TV series An Age of Kings was at last issued on DVD during the Bush Presidency I found myself making parallels between the Lancasters and the Bushes: George H. W. Bush was Henry IV, Jeb Bush was John of Lancaster (the younger son of Henry IV whom the king wished could succeed him) and W. was Prince Hal, later Henry V, who rose from a disreputable past as a tavern wastrel to become King Henry V, started a war against France, won some quick military victories (I joked I could readily imagine Henry V posing on the field of Agincourt under a banner reading, “Mission Accomplished”), and then saw the whole thing degenerate into a quagmire after a local resistance arose. I had an odd reaction to watching George W. Bush on TV — almost a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder seeing that Alfred E. Neuman mug and hearing that whiny, petulant voice again after having pretty much forgotten it in the nearly eight years since he left office — and having recently lived through this history it was harder for me to be objective about this program than it’s been about some of the earlier episodes (even though all the candidates profiled ran for President during my lifetime — Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was the earliest they depicted — and I was aware of them at the time). The filmmakers did try to rehabilitate Bush’s intelligence — he came off as dumber than he was, partly due to the malapropisms (the show included that delicious clip of Bush sympathizing with less fortunate people for their difficulties in “putting food on your family” — especially if they’re moving), which someone at the time argued were probably evidence that Bush was dyslexic (they’re apparently typical of the way dyslexic people fracture language; also Bush’s mother Barbara’s favorite charities were those dealing with dyslexia) and partly due to how heavily he cultivated the cornpone image.

Though he was actually born in Connecticut, Bush was brought to Texas by his parents at age three, and he worked hard to rid himself of the taint of a privileged New England background (while still having full access to the network of contacts his dad and granddad, U.S. Senator Prescott Bush — not many people realized that W. wasn’t a second-generation politician, he was a third-generation one! — had built up over the years) by spending a lot of time at his ranch at Crawford, Texas, working hard to get and keep a vocal twang, and dressing in blue jeans when he wasn’t shown hard at work protecting the nation from terrorist bad guys. W. spent so much time at the ranch, and his handlers always said he was out “clearing brush,” that the late Molly Ivins joked that that ranch must have had more brush on it than any other patch of land on earth! The show also hints (as I’ve long believed) that in all probability W. would have been a one-term president, like his dad, if it hadn’t been for 9/11 — of course it depicted the tainted election that gave him the presidency in the first place, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to pull the plug on the Florida recount that might well have given Al Gore the state, and the presidency (though as I’ve argued in these pages before, the real group that deprived Gore of the White House was the National Rifle Association, which ran “independent” campaigns against him in Tennessee and West Virginia — in an otherwise razor-close election Gore became the first major-party Presidential nominee since George McGovern to lose his home state, and that matters because if he’d won Tennessee Gore would have been President and Florida would have been irrelevant) — which gave Bush the opportunity to come off as stalwart defender of the national honor and revenge-seeker against the terrorists. My liberal friends continue to argue that had Gore been President when 9/11 happened, his response would somehow have been different — which I suspect is only partially true; Gore would have had the same imperatives of doing something to “stick it to the terrorists,” and would have got us into the same quagmire in Afghanistan, but would probably not have used it as an excuse to go into Iraq. (As I joked at the time to a pro-war heckler at an anti-war demonstration I marched in a few months after 9/11, “Where did the people who actually did 9/11 come from? Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Where did we go to war? Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s wrong with this picture?”)

The Obama segment focused on his ground-breaking status as the first African-American President — Bill Clinton had sometimes been referred to metaphorically as “the first Black President” but Obama managed to become the first really Black President — and it reminded me that in 1988 my then-partner John Gabrish, who usually didn’t talk about politics in philosophical terms, told me, “You know, I think we’ll have a Black President before we have a woman President.” I remembered that often 20 years later as we went through an election that seemed almost designed like a laboratory experiment to test his thesis! The story was uncomfortably timely because it presaged all the difficulties Hillary Clinton is having in sealing the deal with voters this year; though she won the Democratic nomination in 2016 that had eluded her eight years earlier (mainly because she re-won the votes of people of color that she’d lost in 2008 because her opponent was a person of color — and it was interesting to see a recent report from Nate Silver’s operation that Clinton’s support among Latinos in Florida is higher than Obama’s was eight years earlier but her support among Blacks is down), she’s still facing the same hardships: people don’t trust her, they don’t believe she really has their best interests at heart, and they’re put off by her apparent coldness and that carapace of reserve that’s served her well in the face of Donald Trump’s attacks but also makes her look stern and forbidding, like (a metaphor I used often when I wrote about this year’s Democratic primary campaign) a schoolmarm ready to rap you across the knuckles with a ruler if you were slower learning her lesson than she thought you should be. It’s also occurred to me that there may be a female version of the “Bradley factor” — the well-known rule of politics that a Black candidate will do five percent poorer in the actual election than in the last polls, representing secret racists who won’t vote for a Black candidate but won’t admit that to a poll-taker — that Donald Trump’s remarkable catch-up from 12 points behind in the October 20 Washington Post-ABC News poll to one point ahead (i.e., a statistical tie) in the November 1 edition of the same poll may simply represent the desire of many American voters to keep the presidency the exclusive domain of people with penises. 

I remember thinking on the night Obama won the 2008 election that he compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. the way Miles Davis compared to Louis Armstrong — Obama’s celebrated “cool,” his imperturbability even in the face of racially motivated attacks (the documentary included a clip of his Chicago pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in full cry saying things like, “God bless America? No, God damn America!” — though it didn’t include the most famous clip, in which he quoted Malcolm X’s line after the John F. Kennedy assassination that “the chickens have come home to roost,” meaning that white Americans were now pursuing political violence not only against Black Americans but against other whites as well — Rev. Wright gave credit to Malcolm X in the quote but most of the Right-wing sources that quoted him quoting Malcolm didn’t), seemed to be analogous to the evolution of African-American jazz from the bold, out-front statements of Armstrong to the calculated, studied “cool” of Davis. It seemed odd to be reminded of the huge outpouring of hope that greeted Obama’s election now that his presidency is just about over — he’s been a disappointment in many ways but I still like and respect the guy, and I think he’s done a good job under the circumstances he was dealt. He’s also in the political fight of his life right now even though he’s not on the ballot; when he says things like “I’m really, really into electing Hillary Clinton as the next President,” it’s obvious why — because if Clinton wins this year’s election Obama will have a legacy, while if Donald Trump wins he won’t because Trump has pledged to undo just about everything Obama has done in the last eight years!