George W. Bush and the Literary Double-Take
I’ll come clean: I was supposed to write a different post for you, called something like “On the Emotional Incompetence of George W. Bush.” It was supposed to involve a video from the Dallas Police Memorial, when G. W. did this funny dance during the choir’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was going to examine Bush as a symbol of privilege and disaffection. Bush as a symbol of innocence—not innocence as a result of youth, but an intentional, almost belligerent desire to ignore the pain of others. It was going to connect this innocence to our culture, to white America, to our obsession with information and our struggle with the harder stuff of empathy and apology and listening.
The video I’m referring to is called “What Exactly Was Going on With George W. Bush At the Memorial Service For the Slain Dallas Police Officers?” It was published on Gawker, but I encountered it on the Facebook feed of a woman I worked with two years ago. In the video Bush stands before a singing choir, holding Laura’s hand on the right, Michelle Obama’s on the left. It seems a somber affair but he’s smiling, he’s swaying his arms. He gives a sort of finger point to someone in the audience. The writer of the article, in Gawker’s style of hyperbolic, kind of mean rhetoric, asks: “Did George W. Bush… know where he was?” (My immediate internal response: I bet he didn’t!) He describes Bush’s dance as “quasi-maniacal,” “like the one person at a music festival set who clearly took too many drugs.” (Me: Okay, a little harsh. But still, George W.—what a dummy!)
In fact, in the three minutes it takes me to watch/read this article, I go from having no thoughts about George W. Bush, who’s only in the news now for the occasional under-the-belt punch, to having lots of thoughts. Expressly:
Hey, I kind of hate this guy.
Also: Does he have any idea what’s going on?
Also (because now I’m feeling hyperbolic too, and self-righteous/mean): I should write about how wrong-headed this guy is.
Leading me to initial post idea above.
But first I decide I need to watch the full video. The post will come off sloppy if I haven’t done my research.
Then, finding said video, I watch G. W.’s preceding six-minute speech.
And watching said speech, holding a pen and notebook to record anything particularly wrong-headed, this is where I get into trouble.
Because the speech—it’s kind of beautiful. Bush quotes the Apostle Paul, in Timothy: For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of strength and love and self-control. “These are the best responses,” he says, “to fear in the life of our country.” He tells the families of the dead officers: “Your loss is unfair, we cannot explain it. We can stand beside you and share in your grief.” (He makes a joke about the Texas Rangers. He winks at the camera. He says nothing about Black Lives Matter or mental illness or mass incarceration.) I learn that he and Laura live not just in Texas, but in Dallas—that, even in the most removed sense of the word, this is his community. “Argument turns too easily into animosity,” he says. “Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” After this statement, he seems surprised when people start to applaud. The officers behind him applaud. Surprised by the accuracy of his statement, I look up the quote online, sure that he’s lifted it from someone else.
In other words, watching the speech, I go from waiting to indict to actually just watching, just listening. At a time of political unrest, of widespread distrust and aggression, this all feels strangely foreign: to listen without predetermined emotion. Outrage at the words of the bad guy. Head-nodding at the words of the good one. I still have no idea what the dance is about. (I skip to the end of the video, just to make sure that, yes, the funny dance does happen like I remember: the swaying arms, the pointing finger.) But in the act of trying to write a post belittling and dehumanizing G. W., in trying to demonstrate the ridiculousness of this tired, portrait-painting ex-president, I only succeed at cross-examining myself: the ease with which I see the worst in others, the speed with which I arrive at a sort of mental lockjaw—confident in my own perception, ready to debase another’s.
So, second post idea is this: What if this whole process I’m describing—from judgment to self-assessment to reinterpretation/humility—is literature at its best? By which I mean: what if our smartest, kindest, most complex and compassionate forms of art are precisely so dang valuable, so dang good, because they allow us a second look at the people or ideas we consider our enemies? I’m thinking about reading here (we meet characters, we form impressions, we’re forced to reexamine said impressions when characters continue to change/develop/act). But also writing: we set down a draft with intent to lambast, to mock or judge—or maybe only with the naïve belief that we can portray a human being without doing this. But the projection stares back. It glimmers with—something else. It asks for more complexity, for more humanity, for us to prod around in our incomplete first impressions.
If we learn to follow that glimmer we get the opportunity to exercise self-awareness—actually a misnomer since most of what we call “the world” is created within. Self-awareness is world-awareness. Awareness that a good 98% of what’s out there is a messy, incomplete, self-reflective projection of, well, us. I’m naming this like it’s easy. But I actually only experience this realization (god forbid embody it) in the smallest fits and starts, every once and a while, when a particularly demanding book or writing project sweeps in and forces my hand toward humility and reverence. It’s a really great feeling when it happens. It’s hard to make stick. For whatever cosmic reason the G. W. Foolishly Dancing Video does it for me, at least for a moment—opening a crack in the window.
And then, well, there’s a problem. Because even as I sit back, listening to him speak, realizing my error, there’s a voice in the back of my brain, distant but pretty upset and persistent, saying: Hit him where it hurts! He did horrible things! He started wars and bombed and sanctioned torture and wasn’t kind to gay people. He shouldn’t be let off the hook! It’s the same voice that, when I was twelve, brought me to the library on summer weekdays to practice LSAT prompts. It’s a voice I actually value because it’s concerned with stuff like justice and equality and treating others with respect. But here’s where it gets me into trouble: it tries to convince me that because it sees the errors of others, I am immune to said errors. It tries to convince me that since it can list the things G. W. did wrong, I’m somehow the better one. Morally superior and different.
Double-take Voice is counterbalance to LSAT Voice. It says: Yep, G. W. hurt people in ways he probably didn’t expect, and hey, guess what, so have you. It says: Maybe he looks back on those years and questions (even if for a moment, because, after all, he is a human being) if what he did was right. It says: Probably a good thing, all in all, that you’re not President of the United States.
Double-take Voice watches Bush dance at a police memorial and says: OK, that was weird, what context am I missing? And, as it turns out, maybe some. Like dancing at funerals I guess is common in the south? Also the point that the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a march, not a dirge. Also, the whole idea that levity, even joy, can be found within the midst of suffering.
When art truly forces us to consider all angles, to resist absolutes, to hold patience, to listen, Double-take Voice gets a little louder, a little more gently insistent, and we treat each other with a little more humanity. Or, that’s the idea. The hardest part, at least for me, is that once I walk out of the door, hit full-force by the hostility and distrust that holds tight to our culture, it can be hard to hold to that decency.