A couple of weeks ago I posted up a site that allowed you to post your goodbye letters to Bush.
This is mine:
Goodbye, President Bush.
Goodbye, President Bush.
Goodbye, President Bush.
Goodbye, President Bush.
Goodbye, President Bush.
As you ride off into the sunset of whatever life is left to you, I find myself wishing many things. I wish, for example, that I believed in the afterlife described by my childhood priests, so that I could imagine the orderlies in Hell preparing you a bed. Which would be chained to the wall by the way, and you chained to it, as a hurricane bore down upon you.
I wish I believed in the courage of Congressional Democrats to investigate and prosecute the wrongs you directed be done in America’s name.
I wish I thought we’d figured this out, and would be smarter the next time some shallow snake-oil salesman comes by to tell us government sucks and we should elect him so he can prove it.
I wish I could cling to some notion of cosmic justice that would give you yours threefold back again, so that at least you wouldn’t get to stand around and smirk that once again, you lazy, fratty asshole, you’ve gotten away with something.
Most of all, though, I wish you had been a better president. I wish you had done the job well. Contrary to the arguments made by your defenders, I didn’t root for you to fail. I never did. I greeted your installment by the Supreme Court with exhaustion and resignation, and your first few months in office with general skepticism, but I never thought, “Boy, I hope he just falls on his face and kills a lot of people and wrecks our economy and blows holes in the sand for five years.” I thought, “Maybe it’ll be okay. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
And when 9/11 happened I said to myself and those around me, Democrats all, “Well, let’s see what he does now.” My life has not been devoid of stories about unlikely heroes arising from feckless halfwit princelings, so I was prepared for that to happen. Hopeful, even. Who doesn’t want everything to be okay? Who doesn’t recognize that you being a terrible failure would hurt us far more than it would hurt you?
I wish you had done the job. I wish you had found and tried and executed Osama bin Laden, and rebuilt Afghanistan the way we should have decades ago. I wish you had given us real security, not this dance of removing our shoes and putting lotion in a baggie. I wish you had told us to conserve and sacrifice, not spend and eat. I wish you had listened to those in the armed forces and those in Congress and those on the street when they said, don’t invade Iraq. I wish you had listened to Iraqis, afterwards, when they said, help us stop the looting and violence.
I wish you had listened to the Gulf Coast’s people when they called out for help. I wish you had listened to the sick and their doctors when they asked you to grant research to cure their disesases. I wish you had listened to women when we said, we value our autonomy.
I wish you had listened to us all when we said we are more than this, we are better than this, ask us and there’s nothing we won’t give you. I wish you had had faith in us equal to that which we placed in you. And I wish you had been worthy of what we wanted from you, and from ourselves.
I wish you had done and been all of this, but you didn’t and you weren’t, and so what we’re left with are the memories of the dead, the horrors of the living, with boarded-up houses and empty streets, a place so broken we barely recognize it anymore. It’s hard to imagine punishment fitting for that. It’s hard, having wished all this for you, to wish anything more, but I do:
May you live a life of quiet contemplation of every single one of your failures. May you live a life hemmed in by those you hurt, in a cell physical or otherwise, papered with the faces of your dead. May you be sheltered from the rain of rotten tomatoes and sour heads of cabbage by a small, broken umbrella. May you be gnawed upon by the hunger you fostered in the poor, chilled by the cold from which you refused to shield the homeless, beset by the illnesses you refused to help cure, subjected to the indignities you inflicted upon others.
May your life be long, and healthy, and full of everything you gave to America and the world. May you come to know exactly who you are. May you come to recognize the face in the mirror each morning.
May it give to you a fraction of the nightmares you deserve.
No love at all,
by voters who wanted a leader who would never, ever change his mind for
any reason whatsoever, and who confused that with leadership. Or voters
who wanted a godly man as a leader, which turned out to be a man who
thinks that god talks to him in private. Or voters who decided that
they would never vote someone smarter than themselves into that office
and that beer and hot dogs was the way to judge someone’s suitability
in leading the so-called free world.
The blame must also be
shared by those in the Republican Party who let a fanatic and
out-of-touch neoconservative faction take over all practical policies,
thus turning them into one the greatest engineered social and political
experiments of our times, with a death toll in the hundreds of
thousands (at least). That fanatic and out-of-touch neoconservative
faction, with its free-market religion, also had its hands in kneading
the dough from which our current recession was baked. So when we don’t
get our daily bread, remember why not and avoid that same mistake in
And the blame must surely be shared by the
Democratic Party, too, those who sat quietly, triangulated furiously
and cowered helplessly in the shadows while trying to save their own
political careers from oblivion. Never mind that the country itself has
turned towards Oblivion on its arc through history.
Last but not
least, the media (with few exceptions) has spent the last eight years
pressing Bush’s head against its collective bosom, instead of alerting
us to the dangers of the heedless policies of the government. It took
several major disasters for any of that to change. I hope the media
stays on their toes and aggressive in the future, even though it will
look as if Obama is getting a shabbier treatment than Bush did. Indeed,
I hope that all future presidents will get a shabby treatment from the
press, if by ‘shabby’ we mean a vigilant and critical stance.
An informed, engaged, empowered, energetic citizenry would not have allowed this to happen. Could not have allowed this to happen. I’m not calling everybody lazy; I’m calling the club of the most of us paralyzed, so unaccustomed to such staggering incompetence that when it came, all we found ourselves able to do was stand open-mouthed in shock at the brazenness of it.
And when the shock wore off, when it became “okay” to express doubt again, to express opposition again, to say things like Bill Maher and Natalie Maines said, well, by then it was too late, wasn’t it? By then they were dug in, and those of us who did stand up, who did yell and scream, who did march and write and call, who did actuallyvote, especially in 2004, who did try to stop this from continuing, didn’t stand a chance. Understand I’m not saying I’m not glad we did it, because people, on balance you’re gonna get screwed anyway so you might as well act like grown-ups if for no other reason than you need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror in your cell, but we were pushing against the granite cliffs of the earth trying to move it, by the time we tried at all.
I hesitate to make lessons out of the Bush presidency. I don’t think horrific things that happen are supposed to be assigned a purpose that makes them okay. That’s cheap, and exculpatory, and gross, when those who truly paid for Bush’s folly are still coming home in boxes, still trying to rebuild their houses, still learning how to walk again. I don’t think I get to tell them, “Here’s what you suffered for, this greeting card I’m about to impart.” But if we do not learn, then why go on? Why keep working and fighting and marching and calling and writing if we do not change and grow and push upward?
If there is a lesson here, it is that hesitating, even for two seconds, in the aftermath of a crisis and granting extraordinary deference to those who we should always regard with skepticism, to hold back even for a moment, is to hold back too long. To talk even for a moment about political expediency in matters of lives and war, imprisonment and torture, to talk even for a moment about it being unwise to speak out against injustice, to advise anyone even for a moment to hold his or her tongue because it would upset people, is to blight the soul of this country, no more, no less.
There have been examples of great courage in the past eight years. Examples that I cannot forget. I remember the week before the Iraq war began, andprotesters shut down Lake Shore Drive here in Chicago, stopping traffic with their bodies to try to stop what was coming. I remember being jammed into the Cook County Clerk’s office, covering the marriage equality march that had begun outside and ended with people sitting on the floor, holding hands, quietly insisting, “Marry us, or marry no one.” I remember standing outside a polling place in 2004, having cast my vote for John Kerry, thinking, “This man has taken a lot of crap on our behalf and I do not feel like we deserve it.” As it turned out, we didn’t. I remember watching Richard Clarke testify before the 9/11 commission. I remember hearing Chris Dodd stand up against FISA. I remember readers of this blog slamming hammers into drywall. I remember Denver and Grant Park and Washington, DC.I remember this.
But the examples that will stay with me are those of great cowardice. Great hatred. Great fear. Smallness. Divisiveness. Rage. Contempt.
I remember watching, horrified, as Katrina struck on the Gulf Coast,
and as Bush strummed his guitar and ate cake with John McCain. And I
remember driving around in a van with Scout and Mr. A and the First
Draft Krewe, around the streets I’d seen on television, two years after
the storm, and I remember how quiet it was. I remember asking someone,
are you allowed to take down the markings on the doors, that say if
bodies were found inside the houses or not, and a man who lived there responded, “allowed?” and laughed, because there was no one to tell anyone the outlines of this world anymore.
I remember pulling a fax off the machine, at my newspaper, that said theBush administration’s legal argument in an INS case was that the judicial branch of government had no jurisdiction to “second-guess” the decisions of the executive in matters of national security. I remember handing it to a colleague to read, asking, “Does this say what I think it says?” I remember it being 2003, and nobody caring all that much that the administration was breaking the law. I remember it being 2005, and suddenly everyone discovered separation of powers and the administration’s lawlessness, and I remember thinking, “This has been going on so much longer than you think it has.” I remember that being the beginning of the end of it, for me, the end of being able to convince myself it was going to be okay.
I remember hearing Michelle Malkin and John Hinderaker call journalists murderers and terrorists. I remember Liberal Hunting Permits. I remember Rope, Tree, Journalist. I remember the Freepi calling me an ugly whore. I remember all the fights I had with people I thought were my friends. I remember all the fights I had with my family. I remember how it became okay to say that war heroes shot themselves, families of the dead were hookers and pimps, interfaith marriage was weird, gays and atheists were evil, poor people were whiners, and most of all how there was nothing, literally nothing, you couldn’t say and get away with it, so long as it was meant to silence somebody trying to speak out.
The heroism doesn’t erase that. It doesn’t salve or soothe it. It doesn’t make it okay, and you know why? Because we barely know who the heroes are yet. There are stories that haven’t been told because they can’t be and won’t be, for years. My grandchildren will be hearing the recently declassified tales of all those who were silenced and stifled these long eight years, and coming home from school and saying, “Did you know?”
Did I know? No. I hoped. I believed. But I didn’t know the full fury of what had been done in my name. These things stain forward in time, discoloring everything. We can’t absolve anyone today. Bush may be getting on a helicopter and he may be flying away from us, but what he’s leaving behind we hardly know about yet. I am not happy, today. I am not relieved, today. I am still enraged. I am still afraid. I am still jumping every time the national phone rings, still jerking away every time somebody reaches out, still sure that, like the last eight years, the next eight will be a trick of some kind.
If Bush leaves a legacy, at all, that is it: The after-image of fear and suspicion, like the ghost of a light bulb lingering in the darkness after you close your eyes, like a national retina burn.