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Why I miss George W. Bush more with every passing day

President George W. Bush was “America Best,” not “America First.”
President George W. Bush was “America Best,” not “America First.” File photo

In February 2010, just about a full year after President Barack Obama took office, a series of billboards mysteriously popped up along Interstate 35 in a town called Wyoming, Minn. They showed a photo of a waving President George W. Bush, flashing a cheeky grin, above copy that said, “Miss me yet?”

The meme quickly caught on and soon plastered car rear bumpers, T-shirts and posters. But despite the viral spread of “Miss me yet?” merchandise, it turned out that the answer was decidedly: No. America didn’t miss him.

He left office with a 33 percent favorability rate, according to Gallup. By 2010, it had recovered only to the mid-40s.

But in the years since, Bush has nearly doubled his popularity. A CNN poll from January 2018 has his approval at 61 percent. In just the two years since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president, that number has climbed six points.

The Washington Post’s Roxanne Roberts recently explored some of the reasons for the newfound admiration, including the simple benefit of time, a reconciling of the complexities of the Iraq War, and the fact that Bush has remained fairly quiet in recent years.

“Time has done the reputation of President Bush a lot of good,” says Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, which recently awarded Bush the Distinguished International Leadership Award. “The longer time goes on and his presidency is reassessed, the better he looks.”

Of course, it could be argued that the “Miss me yet?” meme could be revived in the wake of Trump, as more and more Democrats are discovering their untapped affection for their former enemy. According to a January 2018 CNN report, “most of Bush’s climb back to popularity came from Democrats and independents.” Among Democrats, his favorability in February of 2009 was a mere 11 percent. It’s now 54 percent.

I know I’ll be called an establishment cuck for this, but after almost a year and a half of Trump’s antics — his tweets, his bullying, his lies, his lack of intellectual curiosity, his brittle inability to withstand scrutiny, his angry, uninformed blurting, his hostility toward valued democratic institutions — it’s hard not to miss Bush.

You can hold Bush accountable for his policy decisions — and criticize his decision to invade Iraq — while acknowledging that Americans didn’t know just how good they had it. And now, the differences stand in stark relief.

There are the little things. Bush could laugh at himself. His self-deprecating sense of humor was famously disarming. He wasn’t too proud to take a joke, nor was he punitive about jokes at his expense.

And while he could be pointed, he was never mean. A universe away from berating a war hero or mocking a disabled journalist, the meanest Bush ever got was in his penchant for nicknames, from “Hurricane Karen” for adviser Karen Hughes, to “Pootie Poot” for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri says of his friend, then as much as now, he is “a person who doesn’t have to be critical of everybody else, a person who understands how big these problems are, a person who just has a sense of the right way to conduct yourself as a former president.”

While W. could range from inartful to inarticulate at times — his gaffes are notorious — Trump makes a daily virtue of his own ignorance and insists anyone who points out his willful ignorance is “establishment.” When it’s clear Trump is wrong, rather than admit or correct it, he simply calls it “fake news.” That habit has trickled down to his communications shop and surrogates, and it’s an embarrassing display.

Perhaps more importantly, Bush was “America Best,” not “America First.” He was hugely patriotic and optimistic about America’s role in the world, but not in service of denigrating other countries or cultures. His tremendous commitment to the international AIDS crisis was, for him, an opportunity to help developing nations while elevating America’s leadership.

In 2018, with Trump as a backdrop, it’s no wonder we are increasingly open to reimagining Bush’s historic “awfulness,” and remembering how he wasn’t so bad, after all.