George W. Bush's Sci-Fi Disaster
In retrospect, George W. Bush’s presidency could be viewed as a science-fiction disaster movie in which an alien force seizes illegitimate control of a nation, saps its wealth, wreaks devastation, but is finally dislodged and forced to depart amid human hope for a rebirth.
There was even a satisfying concluding scene as a new human leader takes power amid cheers of a liberated populace. The alien flees aboard a form of air transportation (in this case, a helicopter), departing to the jeers of thousands and many wishes of good riddance.
After Bush’s departure on Jan. 20, 2009, the real-life masses actually had the look of survivors in a disaster movie, dressed mostly in ragtag clothing – ski caps, parkas, boots and blankets – bent against the cold winds trudging through streets largely devoid of traffic.
My 20-year-old son, Jeff, and I made our way home from the Mall to our house in Arlington, Virginia, by hiking across the 14th Street Bridge, part of the normally busy Interstate 395, except that only buses and official vehicles were using it on Inauguration Day.
So, the bridge became an impromptu walkway with clumps of half-frozen pedestrians straggling across it, over the icy Potomac. Jeff and I picked an exit ramp near the Pentagon, clambered over some road dividers, and worked our way to Pentagon City where we’d parked the car. It took much of the afternoon and evening for the cold to work its way out of our bodies.
Everyone I’ve talked to who attended Barack Obama’s Inauguration had similar tales of transportation woes – standing in long lines in freezing temperatures, frustrated by jammed subway stations, walking long distances – but no one was angry. Remarkably, police reported no Inaugural-related arrests.
Despite the grim economy and other havoc left behind by Bush and his associates, Inauguration Day 2009 was filled with a joy that I have rarely seen on the streets of Washington, a city that even at its best is not known for spontaneous bursts of happiness.
But there was more than joy that day; there was a sense of liberation.
An estimated 1.8 million people braved the frigid temperatures and the transportation foul-ups to witness not only Obama’s swearing-in, but Bush’s ushering-out. They not only cheered Obama and other favorites, but many booed those considered responsible for the national plundering, especially Bush and the wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney.
Watching the Jumbotrons
Jeff and I were part of the crowd standing on the frozen Mall nearly 14 blocks from the Capitol. We watched the Inaugural events on one of the many Jumbotrons, which showed scenes inside the Capitol building as well as on the outdoor podium.
So, when Bush arrived or when Cheney was wheeled into view, many people booed and heckled. Bush was serenaded with the mocking lyrics, “Na-na-nah-na, na-na-nah-na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” One group near us started singing, “Hit the road, Jack.”
Some Georgetown students next to Jeff tut-tutted the failure to show more deference to the departing President and Vice President, but most people either laughed or joined in. To them, it seemed that taunting Bush and Cheney was the least that could be done, since the pair had been spared impeachment and, so far, any other accountability for the harm they caused.
But what was perhaps more striking was the absence of any noticeable protests against Obama. Surely there must have been some placards somewhere protesting something, but I didn’t see any in the seven hours that it took for Jeff and me to get to the Mall, wait for the Inauguration and then make our way back to Arlington.
The contrast to eight years earlier couldn’t have been starker.
Like all disaster movies, there has to be an early, ominous scene – and Jan. 20, 2001, was it, a grim gray day of icy rain when George W. Bush was to become the new American President.
That morning, I was with my other two sons, Sam and Nat, as we made our way to a spot along the Inaugural parade route, a sequence that became the opening chapter of our book, Neck Deep, which chronicles many disasters of Bush’s presidency. We wrote:
The rain pelted down in icy-cold droplets, chilling both the protesters in soaked parkas and the well-dressed celebrants bent behind umbrellas to shield their furs and cashmere overcoats.
Drawn to this historic moment – a time of triumph for some and fury for others – the two opposing groups jostled and pushed their way through security checkpoints, joining the tens of thousands pressing against rows of riot police lining Pennsylvania Avenue.
After taking the subway from Arlington, Virginia, the three of us joined the crowd crammed into a block of 13th Street, on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, near the point where Inaugural parades bend in their grand procession from the U.S. Capitol, turn right at the foot of the U.S. Treasury and then veer left before passing in front of the White House.
To our right was a stone expanse called Freedom Plaza, where temporary viewing stands had been erected for invited guests. To our left stood a twelve-story building, with the red awnings of a CVS pharmacy on the ground level and rounded balconies of corporate offices on the floors above.
The elegantly attired Republicans squeezed their way through the angry crowd of drenched protesters to the VIP stands or to those rounded balconies, which offered protection from the rain and an unobstructed view of Pennsylvania Avenue below.
The Republicans had come to cheer the new U.S. President, George W. Bush, privileged scion of a powerful political family who nonetheless ended his gerunds by dropping the “g” to convey the populist image of a Texas wildcatter.
Bush was replacing President Bill Clinton, a Democrat who had survived an impeachment battle over a sexual dalliance with a former White House intern. To Bush supporters, the new President would bring back the warmly remembered propriety of his father, President George H.W. Bush.
One of George W. Bush’s biggest applause lines of Campaign 2000 was his vow to restore “honor and dignity” to the Oval Office.
Day of Infamy
But other Americans believed Jan. 20, 2001, was a day of infamy for the American Republic. It was the first time in 112 years that a popular-vote loser was to be installed as President of the United States – and then only after he engineered an unprecedented intervention by political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Five Republican justices had stopped the vote count in the swing state of Florida, where Bush’s brother, Jeb, was governor and other Bush loyalists oversaw the election, which then was awarded to Bush by 537 votes out of six million ballots cast.
So, on that cold, wet January day, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Washington, shouting angry slogans and waving handwritten anti-Bush signs.
The protesters were convinced that Bush had stolen the presidential election and, in so doing, had disenfranchised the plurality of citizens who had cast their ballots for Democrat Al Gore.
Some signs were addressed directly to Bush. “You’re not my President,” read one. “I know you lost,” said another. One sign had just two large letters, “NO.” To these Americans, Bush’s ascension to the nation’s highest office was a travesty of democracy.
Some Republicans in the balconies shouted “Sore Loserman!” down at the crowd, reprising a taunt that right-wing activists had coined to bait supporters of the Democratic ticket of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman during the Florida recount battle.
But the bullying tone, which had characterized the Republicans during those bitter days of November and December, was gone. They seemed taken aback by the size and ferocity of the anti-Bush crowd. Some protesters shouted back up to the balconies, “Jump! Jump!”
The anti-Bush protesters pulsated with the fury of a people who had been robbed of something irreplaceable, like some precious heirloom handed down reverentially through generations and which was now gone.
It was as if the protesters sensed they represented the “posterity” that the Founders had envisioned when they laid the cornerstones of a democratic Republic almost 225 years earlier.
Many in the crowd – like the three of us – had gone into the streets that rainy day to bear witness against a violation of the most basic covenant of democracy, that the choice of leaders must be left in the hands of the voters, even when the margins are as narrow as they were in Election 2000.
Though few protesters could have seriously thought they had any chance of reclaiming the nation’s democratic legacy that day, they acted as if their presence could at least negate the nodding capitulation of the wise heads of Washington.
That acquiescence to a Bush restoration had crossed party lines to include senior Democrats in Congress and extended into the editorial offices of major American news organizations. Many pundits and politicians acted as if it were a quaint notion that the candidate with the most votes was the one who was supposed to win.
That bemused complacency of the elites contrasted with an uncompromising anger in the streets. As Bush took the oath of office, becoming the 43rd President and completing his extraordinary power grab, the growing fury of the crowd built toward a crescendo.
Rather than cheers for the new President, the capital echoed with resounding chants of “Hail to the Thief!”
As Bush’s limousine began the traditional slow-moving ride down Pennsylvania Avenue, some protesters mocked Bush with a chant of, “Oh, no! Gore’s ahead, I better call my brother Jeb,” and the more succinct slogan, “Gore got more!”
Though the size and intensity of this protest against an incoming President were unprecedented at least since the Vietnam War, little of the chaos and drama along Pennsylvania Avenue found its way into the mainstream coverage of Bush’s Inauguration.
The major news media approached the event mostly with the hackneyed template of a new President taking office amid a celebration of democracy.
There was little said about Bush losing the national popular vote by more than a half million ballots or how he had clung to his narrow victory in Florida only by the grace of tortured legal logic from five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nor was there much commentary about how the anti-democratic election outcome – and the heavy police presence to prevent anti-Bush rioting in Washington – gave the Inauguration the feel of an American state of siege.
Instead, Washington’s “conventional wisdom” was all about the need for healing, for rallying around the new President and for putting the national bitterness – of both Election 2000 and the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency – in the past.
Many Washington insiders felt private satisfaction with the outcome. They had despised Clinton and were pleased by the defeat of his sidekick Gore.
At pre-Inaugural dinner parties around Washington in January 2001, there was open nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when integrity and honesty supposedly ruled. A favorite Washington comment in anticipation of George W. Bush’s Inauguration was that it would “put the adults back in charge.”
So, there was little tolerance for the full-throated complaints of the thousands of demonstrators waving protest signs and shaking their fists at the Inaugural parade. TV anchors and political commentators treated the protests as a tasteless nuisance, when the demonstrations were mentioned at all.
It would take more than three years for the fuller historic picture to be put into focus by Michael Moore’s documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Moore highlighted dramatic Inauguration Day scenes of protesters surging through the streets, scuffling with police and egging Bush’s limousine as it descended from Capitol Hill toward the White House.
“The plan to have Bush get out of the limo for the traditional walk to the White House was scrapped,” Moore said in narrating the footage of masses of Americans decrying Bush’s tainted victory. “Bush’s limo hit the gas to prevent an even larger riot. No President had ever witnessed such a thing on his Inauguration Day.”
From our cramped vantage point on 13th Street, we couldn’t see the egg-throwing incident which occurred several blocks to our left. But we did notice the presidential limousine and security vehicles speed up, hurrying past both those Americans who came to honor Bush and those who stood in the rain to heckle him.
After the limousine rushed past, the crowd experienced a few moments of confusion as the facts of Bush’s hasty passage rippled back through the protesters.
Soon, the reality of Bush’s presidency began to sink in bringing with it a pang of disappointment to many demonstrators. What many of them saw as an American coup d’etat was a fait accompli.
The bedraggled protesters shouted a few more choruses of “Hail to the Thief!” and slowly began to disperse.
Surveying the Wreckage
Now, eight years later, a fuller measure can be taken of what Bush’s power grab meant for the United States – the federal debt ballooning, the economy in freefall, unemployment skyrocketing (along with bankruptcies and foreclosures), environmental degradation, two open-ended wars, and the nation’s image around the world soiled by torture and other official crimes.
It’s also increasingly clear how narrowly the American Republic dodged a bullet, one fired by Bush operatives who saw Bush as a leader who would transform the U.S. political system into a virtual one-party state with a “permanent Republican majority” and Democrats kept around as a cosmetic appendage.
In furtherance of that goal, Karl Rove and other Bush political aides collaborated to politicize the Justice Department, install ideological judges on the federal bench and exploit a powerful right-wing media apparatus as a means of bullying dissenters – all to ensure that GOP power could survive any serious challenges.
There was a feeling of incipient totalitarianism, too, as post-9/11, the Bush administration wiretapped communications and explored ways to “data-mine” the electronic records of virtually anyone who operated in the modern economy – what the Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, called “Total Information Awareness.”
At times over the past eight years, it seemed like only the bravest Americans – whether in politics, journalism or other walks of life – dared to stand up to the Bush/Republican juggernaut. Even entertainers who uttered critical words about Bush – like the Dixie Chicks – faced career reprisals and, in some cases, death threats.
It is a tribute to those courageous Americans who stood up to Bush and his henchmen during those dark times that this wave of totalitarianism was turned back, albeit at an extraordinary cost to the United States and the world.
So, when nearly two million Americans rallied on the National Mall on Jan. 20, 2009, they were not there just to celebrate the Inauguration of Barack Obama. They were there to witness the departure of Bush and Cheney.
In a sense, the humans were there to make sure the aliens really did depart – and to celebrate the survival, and possibly the renewal, of a great Republic.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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