So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

Eight years ago, on inauguration day, I watched the festivities in my office as I tried out a new exercise bike. We had considered going to Washington for the ceremony as I had worked on the campaign, but my husband had a business trip to Chile and I didn’t want to go alone. So there I was riding that bike. I wasn’t in great shape but even so it seemed I was getting very tired very quickly. I remember thinking that it must be a combination of the grueling campaign and the even more exhausting recount–and I thought that now, with the inauguration, I might get some more sleep.

Ha. Famous last words. It turned out I was just pregnant with our first child.

As a result, I was very obviously with child on 9/11. I had been out of the country for much of the spring and summer and not really hard-wired into American politics. I was certainly paying attention and I was pleased with the people the new President had brought on board–some familiar names to me (Cheney, Powell) and some new ones (Rumsfeld, Rice). It’s funny now to think back to a time when I didn’t have a clear sense of who Don Rumsfeld or Condi Rice were. In any event, it seemed a big improvement over the Clinton-Gore years, and the President was achieving his legislative goals. But I was preoccupied with the little critter I was gestating, and with trying to organize myself professionally for the big coming change, and not as focused on doings in Washington, D.C.

Then 9/11 happened. Everyone has their story of where they were and what they were doing–mine isn’t particularly dramatic. It’s ironic that I was on the phone with my mother who was in New York and neither of us knew as the first plane hit because we had turned off the TV volume to talk to each other. She figured it out later when she looked out the window. I heard about it on the car radio driving to the gym and called my brother–we had a brief moment of panic because we couldn’t remember if my father was to be at the World Trade Center that day or the next day but as it turned out his meeting was to be 9/12. And then the second plane hit and I remember my moment of realizing it wasn’t a random accident but an attack. Then the plane hit the Pentagon. Then the plane went down in Pennsylvania.

It’s easy now to take for granted how relatively smoothly the government ran that day. Things could have come apart at the seams but they didn’t. The still-smoking Pentagon remained open for business. The President was back in Washington in a matter of hours. The Congress came out on the front steps of their building and sang. My most powerful memory is of the Battle Hymn of the Republic being sung a few days later at the National Cathedral with the noise of the bulldozers in Manhattan in the background.

Being pregnant was, in a word, fraught. I was never much into people touching my stomach and now strangers would come up to me in the street and pat me and wish me luck and say how great it was to see someone pregnant–to see the promise of new life amid all the violence and death. I referred to myself as the Circle of Life. I remeber sitting on the couch of our family room with a dear, very liberal, academic friend and having him earnestly tell me how culpable he thought Iraq was in 9/11. I remember even more liberal academic friends admiring the jaunty American flag I had attached to the attena of my car. I remember reading a Peggy Noonan column about all the American flags that people were sporting and how they would become frayed in time and eventually not be replaced.

I had my little girl as American soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan.

Noonan turned out to be prophetic, as the wave of patriotism that brought the nation together after 9/11 has scattered to the wind and the majority of the country rarely thinks of it. The President, of course, has not had that option as memories have faded and attention turned elsewhere. It will be interesting to see when–and if–we can come to resolution on the event and on the man who is inoxerably linked to it in the coming years.

9/11 is still unfinished business, as that hole in lower Manhattan attests. It’s like a cavity. We can’t seem to get it together to fill it. Lots of other memorials have been planned and executed during these past eight years–the WWII monument on the Mall and the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon, for example. So it’s not that we can’t build something at Ground Zero–I have come to the conclusion that we don’t want to. We’re still unsure about the meaning of 9/11 and so can’t figure out how to memorialize it. There was no such internal conflict at the Pentagon. As the Department of Defense saw it, it was attacked, its people were killed, and the next day the Department got up and went about the business of responding to this act of war. But New York was different. Was it just a one off–a random fluke? Or was it the beginning of something huge the scope of which we don’t yet know? Even more disturbingly, was it somehow our own faults?

These questions continue to haunt the country as we say good-bye to the leader who hauled us through that day and the difficult years that followed. The event came to define him, but if we can’t understand 9/11 how can we understand George W. Bush? I think that for me, as for most Americans, George Bush remains something of an enigma. Things that seem so clear to me–for example, why we went into Iraq and how terrible things might be for us now if we had not–don’t seem to occur to most Americans, at least in part because the President was never able to convincingly convey them. I can’t figure out why–we can blame a malignant press or an incompetent communications shop but Ronald Reagan had both those things and still managed to get his message across.

I am beginning to conclude that George Bush is both the creation and the victim of circumstance. After all, without the circumstance of 9/11 it seems this man may never have been required to grapple with far greater challenges than confronted his predecessor. And without the circumstance of the 2000 election and Katrina, he might never have morphed into the vicious characature that most Americans believe him to be.

In a way, having George Bush as our President during this challenging and unsettling period has been a luxury for America. Bad things have happened–the 2000 election, 9/11, Katrina, the financial metldown, that don’t have an easy scapegoat. So it’s been very easy for half the country to conclude he’s not really the President–should never have been President in the first place–and so not have to think seriously about what he has had to face or what he has tried to do about it. “Bush” became a convenient punching bag for a disgruntled peacenik who lost her son to war, for a city that had been a victim of neglect and corruption so long that it didn’t care any more who got hurt as long as someone paid, for a population that wanted to go back to a “peace dividend.” After all, Bush is a stupid entitlement kid who doesn’t really belong in the office. A spoiled brat. A simpleton. A frat boy.

It seems to me that blaming Bush has become a convenient excuse to avoid looking in the mirror. The picture of what we became, I would argue after 1988, is not a very pretty one. But in striking out at Bush we don’t have to look too closely at ourselves. We can buy into the easy fantasies that make it unnecessary to support the war in Iraq when times got tough–after all, Bush and Co. lied us into it. We don’t have to confront as a society how we let the corruption and racism inherent in the Lousiana political system leave the most vulnerable members of of their community incapable of dealing with a predictable natural disaster. The scene in the Superdome was Bush’s fault. We don’t have to own up to how each and every one of us are culpable for the current financial mess because we have been borrowing and spending so wildly beyond our means for years. That’s Bush’s fault. He should have stopped it. He should have created a system where you couldn’t get that second mortgage or were turned down for a car loan.

Our President turned into our own private Portrait of Dorian Gray–the image on whom all our excesses were visted while we remain pure and blameless. But now the tables will turn and Mr. Bush won’t be around for us to kick any more. He will be replaced by something even more smooth and flawless than our image of ourselves.

You know, I have never heard Mr. Obama talk about where he was on 9/11.

For me, in assessing the Bush presidency, the bottom line is that he brought us to the end of his term intact. There was no second successful attack. Like FDR after Pearl Harbor he took the fight to those who attacked us in Afghanistan and to those who might be a source of future aggression. An the result has been a protected homeland. That’s a tangible result for which I will forgive much, and I will never begrudge him my support.

Most who still harbor some respect for the President have given up on getting most of our countrymen to see what we see, and have moved on to the “history will judge him more kindly” meme. I tend towards that camp, although I’m not holding my breath. Such a reassessment will have to battle against all the “articles of faith” that have become accepted truths, and no one seems to care how illogical or short-sighted they are. History is a funny, fluid thing and the Bush who emerges in a decade or so may be no closer to the original than the rehabilitated, heroic Harry Truman of recent memory.

A serious reassessment will have to take into account the President’s real faults. Still to be puzzled out is why he would have the strength to attract two of the most experienced and serious elder statesmen in the Republican party to his cabinet, but ultimately keep counsel with the the least-experienced and weakest member of his administration? Why he avoided decision making because when he had to make decisions he could do so effectively and decisively? How could he stray so far from the fiscal conservatism that should be a bedrock of our party?

These are all difficult questions, and in the results of this most recent election, I think we see strong evidence that the country is tired of struggling with them. We don’t want to puzzle through the hows and whys of 9/11. We don’t want to recognize the fact that as a nation we were strongly in favor of toppling Saddam Hussein, and that our will has been done for better or ill. We don’t want to investigate who should have fixed those levies and when. We don’t want to think about the credit cards we snapped up like potato chips. We want to believe that the next eight years will not bring us disasters, be they manmade, natural or financial. Maybe that is the root of the “hope” everyone is embracing on the theory that as the hated Bush leaves, everything will change.

Maybe it will. And maybe there will be none of those pesky, unforeseen catastrophies to ruin our new golden age. But should the storm be gathering just beyond tomorrow’s rosy horizon, it seems to me we might find ourselves missing the man who has toiled on our behalf for eight years.

So while those sitting on Oprah’s comfy couch or on the chic swivel chairs at MSNBC might crow with delight that at last an “era of competence” is being ushered in (this observation courtesy of Kelly Ripa’s house husband, the former Matteo Santos on All My Children but other geniuses and experts have weighed in with similar sentiments), that we are finally going to be safe and fair and solvent and best of all, respected abroad, I worry that the reality Mr. Obama will confront next Tuesday is more daunting and frightening than they think. It might not be quite as effortless to save us from our own failings and weaknesses, or from the threats from outside, as Mr. Obama may make it seem.

As we move into this vaunted new era, I will say a prayer for the new President that he find the strength to turn his promises into reality. I would also like to say a simple thank you to President Bush. He has slogged through the muddy, unglamorous trenches for the past eight years, and he has done far more good than harm. It was quite a journey for me personally as now I look at two beautiful children who will, God willing, continue to grow up in our wonderful country with a greater respect for the sanctity of life, and with 50 million more people in this world joining them in freedom. I only hope that when his successor leaves the White House in four or eight years, we can say as much of him.

Thanks and Godspeed, Sir.