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The wholly undeserved rehabilitation of George W. Bush

All the former president needed to polish his reputation was Donald Trump — and a nation that overlooks the sins of powerful white men.

President George W. Bush delivering a televised address from the White House on January 30, 2005.LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images

As president, George W. Bush ignored intelligence warnings that might have averted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. He catapulted this nation into two long, costly, and destructive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He did nothing as Congress allowed the 1994 assault weapons ban to expire. His reckless policies helped facilitate this nation’s worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.

With a dismal 22 percent approval rating trailing him like a piece of toilet paper stuck to his heel, Bush left the White House in 2009. He was widely considered one of the worst presidents in American history.


If you’ve watched any of his recent interviews, you’d never know it.

While promoting his new book of oil paintings, Bush has been asked about Derek Chauvin’s trial, the current state of the Republican Party, and what he thinks about President Biden’s plan to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.

He’s now treated like an elder statesman whose sage observations might teach us something about the mysterious ways of the world. Yet the only lesson I see is a very old one: More often than not, America forgives and forgets the sins of powerful white men.

This is why Bush gets to spend more time talking about his retirement hobbies than his administration’s torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. When he recently gave Norah O’Donnell, the “CBS Evening News” anchor, a tour of his Texas ranch, they chatted about his tree farm, his art studio, and how Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform remains one of the biggest disappointments of his presidency.

While O’Donnell reassured viewers that Bush’s “trademark strut and salty humor are as strong as ever,” there was no mention of the former president’s own “big lie” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction as a mendacious pretext for war in Iraq.


Bush also criticized Donald Trump without naming him, but who is he kidding? Without question, 43 owes 45 an enormous debt of gratitude.

In his single term in office, the most recent former occupant of the White House probably committed so many crimes the presidential seal should have been a chalk outline. One of his more unsung offenses was making Bush, by comparison, seem honest, compassionate, and competent.

Out of the box, Trump was such an abomination as president (and we couldn’t then imagine how much worse it would get) that it “inspired” what O’Donnell called “a fresh appraisal of the Bush years.” And that appraisal was as quick as it was unwarranted. It’s like watching someone decide that after a neighbor kills their dog, the guy who set their house on fire maybe wasn’t so bad after all.

Not long into Trump’s presidency, actor Will Ferrell dusted off his Bush imitation for a televised comedy special, “Not the White House Correspondents Dinner.” As he strolled to the stage, it seemed as if the audience was cheering both for Ferrell and the resurrected specter of a less atrocious Republican in the White House.

As if less atrocious weren’t still atrocious.

Americans had, in retrospect, eight years to judge the second Bush presidency. And when it was done, the verdict was clear — most couldn’t wait to see him go. Bush’s terrible record hasn’t changed. Neither has this nation’s preference for collective amnesia over accountability.


What Bush allowed at Abu Ghraib makes him a war criminal. He stoked cultural wars over same-sex marriage in 2004, the year Massachusetts became the first state to legalize it, and endorsed a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples in an appeal to conservatives. His inept federal response to Hurricane Katrina led to more death and tragedy in the Gulf states, especially Louisiana.

Bush suffered no punishment, and now gets to enjoy his emeritus years being portrayed as thoughtful and avuncular. It’s a disservice to history and dishonors every person who suffered due to his ill-conceived policy misadventures.

Still, just wait. If Bush’s tainted reputation can be polished for posterity, it’s inevitable that the same will happen for a powerful white man who, as president, largely ignored a deadly pandemic and attempted to overthrow democracy.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.