Gloriously Empty Serenity

Those ten years down in San Pedro, at the harbor, were fine – the massive Port of Los Angeles is fascinating, there’s a small fishing fleet too, and there are all those long docks and shadowy warehouses that show up as other sinister port cities in many a movie. It really is a hard-edged blue-collar place, where Joe Hill organized the dockworkers in 1910 or so, and still full of Croatians and Greeks and Norwegians – a working port. That Korean Peace Bell is cool too – but it was time to move on. Even if the place is part of the City of Los Angeles, within the highly imaginative city limits we have out here, it’s a full twenty miles south of downtown, all by itself, an afterthought. Nothing much happens there, so in October 1994, it was off to Hollywood – where everything happens – twenty miles up the way and six more miles to the northwest. It was like reentering the real world, the furnace where the culture is continually being forged, again and again – or something like that.

That was a mistake. Hollywood isn’t like that at all. Hollywood is a place where history hangs heavy in the air. In front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater the impersonators walk back and forth – the not-quite Marilyn Monroe, the not-quite Charlie Chaplin, the fake Elvis and two or three attempts at Michael Jackson. The dead are walking there, stepping on the footprints and handprints of other dead once-famous stars in the courtyard there. It’s kind of spooky, and then there’s the architecture – perfectly restored rococo movie palaces and apartment buildings from the twenties, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne fantasies from a few years later, and bold heroic WPA stuff from the thirties, along with two early Frank Lloyd Wright houses – his Hollyhock House and the Ennis House – sitting above it all. Moving to Hollywood was like stepping into the past. The past is what you see all around you, and architecture matters. You’re the actor. It’s the set.

That’s why the Los Angeles Times has an architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, who examines the sets we built for ourselves in the past – the spatial reality we invented – and who is building what now and the reality that it establishes. That’s why his most recent column was so interesting:

What do neo-classicism and neo-conservatism have in common?

That’s the question at the heart of the design by New York’s Robert A. M. Stern Architects for the George W. Bush presidential library, set to open to the public May 1 on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

The $250-million complex holds the president’s archive as well as a museum, restaurant, auditorium, policy institute and foundation. Officially known as the George W. Bush Presidential Center, it is carefully and cannily contextual, like much of Stern’s work.

The new building establishes a spatial reality:

The building, like the Bush presidency, aims to stay resolute even at the expense of some nuance. Perhaps the emblematic line of that presidency, after all, came in early 2002, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Bush said, “You’re either with us or against us; you’re either evil or you’re good.”

“America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause,” Bush said in his second inaugural address. “My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America’s resolve and have found it firm.”

The resolve of Stern’s architecture here is also unyielding, and in certain spots excessively so. This is especially true in the public entrance plaza, with its three-sided colonnade of squared-off pillars.

This outdoor room has unavoidable and frankly unnerving connections to the architecture of muscular state power. It has echoes, fairly faint but altogether present, of authoritarian landmarks of a much grander scale, among them the 1959 National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the buildings Adalberto Libera and other architects designed for Benito Mussolini in Rome.

The White House is a pleasant neo-Colonial mansion with a touch of Tara and the Capitol Building is stately, but this is neo-Fascist blunt smugness – although Hawthorne isn’t quite that blunt himself. He simply sees the sets people build for the particular movie they think they’re in, or the world as they imagine it – which may be the same thing. Bush’s world, however, is not the world we see anymore. Stern’s building is a reminder of something we’d just as soon forget.

That won’t happen as this is Bush’s week – this presidential library complex down in Texas will be dedicated Thursday – with Obama and all living former presidents present for the big event. Bush is a happy man, if not a serene man, as the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen explains here:

I envy few people – maybe Nelson Mandela for his indomitable courage, maybe Philip Roth for his abundant talent, maybe even George Clooney for how much he seems to enjoy being George Clooney. I add, tentatively and for different reasons, George W. Bush. The man has the serene self-confidence of a divine-right monarch. Day or night, he seems to sleep well.

Cohen cites what Bush told the Dallas Morning News – “I’m comfortable with what I did. I’m comfortable with who I am. … Much of my presidency was defined by things you didn’t necessarily want to have happen.”

Cohen is amazed at Bush’s shrugging at what he didn’t necessarily want to have happen:

Yes, like your presidency.

Bush, however, lacks irony… or something. Another man in his position might stare at the ceiling at night, seeing the number 4,486 – the number of American dead in Iraq – blinking on and off. The death toll for Iraqis is much less exact – maybe as high as 1 million, maybe as low as about 100,000, still a pretty big number. The war enabled Iran to increase its regional influence, and the sheer senselessness of it so demoralized the American people – and the Obama White House – that we shy from foreign commitments. This is a ceiling plastered with rebukes.

But there is more. The war in Afghanistan was botched. Troops and attention were diverted to Iraq so that Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history, its purpose as impossible to remember or find as the Taliban itself. I must, before moving on, mention the U.S. economy, which at the end of Bush’s presidency was the worst since the Great Depression. Sleep vexed Macbeth but not George W. Bush.

Cohen wonders how such serenity is possible:

A likely answer presents itself in yet another recent interview, this one granted to Parade magazine. Laura Bush joined her husband and confirmed that he had taken up painting. “Well, George actually gave up cigars,” she said. “Who knew that he smoked them, but he did. He gave them up when we moved back [to Texas] and he was desperate for a pastime. So John Lewis Gaddis, the historian from Yale, happened to be in Dallas and they were talking. George said he was looking for a pastime now that he was home, and [Gaddis] said, ‘Well, read Churchill’s book “Painting as a Pastime.”‘ And George did.”

Never mind that Churchill smoked cigars and painted at the same time – he was a genius after all – but let us instead reflect on how, for Bush, smoking a cigar was a pastime. I can see him now, filling the hours, lighting the stogie, blowing on the ash, watching the smoke spiral to the heavens, putting the band on his little finger…. my God, this could consume hours and hours, depending, of course, on the cigar itself. Painting could not fill half that time. By now, the man must be at his wits’ end.

This is absurd:

Even now, some await the Great Vindication of George W. Bush. The about-face on Harry Truman is a supposed precedent – and clearly this is what Bush thinks will happen. Maybe WMD will emerge from the Iraqi desert. Maybe all the economic data were wrong. In the meantime, Bush is at ease with himself – always his gauge for right or wrong, smart or stupid. Among the many things he lacks is self-doubt. It is a gift.

That’s not nice, but Dan Drezner makes an attempt at listing some reasons why George Bush’s legacy may improve over time, like this one:

First, he’s been a great ex-president. For such a polarizing political figure, it’s remarkable how successfully Bush has receded into private life.

Kevin Drum summarizes the rest of this list:

Reason #2: The Republican Party has gone so crazy that Bush looks almost good by comparison. I’d buy that one too if Bush himself weren’t substantially responsible for this shift.

Reason #3: Bush responded halfway decently to the 2008 financial collapse. I guess so, though as near as I can tell, Bush himself played almost no role in this. He was clueless about what to do and just let his economic team run the show.

That’s it, that’s all Drezner has, as Drezner ends with this:

At best, George W. Bush was a well-meaning man who gave the occasional nice speech and was thoroughly overmatched by events. At worst, he was the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era.

Am I missing anything?

The question answers itself, and Jonathan Easley captures the essence of what we have here:

Former President George W. Bush said he feels “no need to defend himself” over the high-profile decisions that marked his two terms in office, saying he will leave those judgments to history.

“There’s no need to defend myself,” Bush said in an interview with USA Today. “I did what I did and ultimately history will judge.” …

“I’m happy to be out of the limelight. I truly am,” he said. “My life is obviously much simpler than it was in the past, but in many ways the simplicity creates contentment.”

“Some people get confused about my desire not to have the klieg lights shining on me, but eight years is plenty to be in the lights,” he said.

In an interview last week, the former president also expressed hopes that his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) would run for president.

Jeb might like the lights. They’re kind of cool, and as Bush does not speak of policy or goals, it seem that’s all the presidency is to him – that and those things you didn’t necessarily want to happen.

That may be mindless emptiness, but Chris Cillizza summarizes the new data:

Almost as many people (47 percent) approve of how Bush handled his eight years in office as disapprove (50 percent), according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. That’s the highest approval rating for Bush since December 2005. Bush’s approval dipped all the way to 23 percent in Post-ABC polling in October 2008 and was just 33 percent in January 2009 when he left office. (His approval rating was below 40 percent for 26 consecutive months before his term ended, the longest streak of sub-40 presidential ratings since polling began in the 1930s.)

And, what’s fascinating is that it’s not just Bush’s overall job approval numbers but the intensity measures. In the new Post-ABC poll, 34 percent say they “strongly” disapprove of the job he did while in office; that’s the lowest strong disapprove number for Bush since January 2005.

Cillizza sees how this could happen:

It’s likely due to a well-documented trend when it comes to the public and their politicians: No matter how much people dislike someone when he/she is in office, the longer that person is out of office the more difficult it is to sustain that dislike. We have very short collective political memories. …

That collective forgetting goes double for Bush, who, more than any recent president has stayed out of the public eye since leaving office. He is rarely quoted on any subject and largely eschews any attempts – beyond his memoir – to analyze what went right and wrong with his presidency.

Plus, to the extent there is any news about Bush, it tends to be on the personal side. His father’s illness (and recovery) and his daughter’s newborn daughter are the sort of stories that paint a softer portrait of Bush and one that is far easier to like.

Saying nothing about anything helps quite a bit here:

Given the current direction of Bush’s numbers, it’s uniquely possible – heck, it’s likely – that by the 10th anniversary of him leaving office in 2018, a majority of Americans will approve of the job he did in office.

Paul Waldman is on that path:

Let’s think about it this way: How do you feel about Bush? If you’re like me, your contempt for him isn’t what it once was. Back in the day, I took a back seat to no one when it came to displeasure with him. But I’ll admit that in the four years since he left office, my own feelings toward him have softened. Not that I now think he was anything other than a terrible president, but I’m not actively mad at him anymore. My rational judgment hasn’t changed, but my more emotional feelings have dissipated somewhat.

That’s partly because of the rise of the Tea Party and its takeover of the GOP, which made Bush look like a moderate by comparison with the lunatics who are now exerting so much influence over his party. But more than that, I think, is the fact that he’s just not in our faces every day. If you were a liberal in the 2000s, Bush was pissing you off all the time. But give the guy some credit: he hasn’t initiated a disastrous war or bankrupted the government in years!

Right, but still one must be fair, but then not too fair:

Nobody could argue he did nothing good; for instance, he put resources toward addressing the AIDS crisis in Africa, knowing that there was little domestic benefit to be had. And from what one can tell, in person Bush was usually a nice guy. But we shouldn’t let the mists of time make us forget all the awful things he did, too. Presidents have to be judged by their actions and the effects those actions have on the country and the world. Bush’s eight years in office were a string of disasters – and not little ones either. His disasters were grand and far-reaching, from the hundreds of thousands who died in Iraq to the squandering of trillions of dollars to the abandonment of New Orleans during Katrina. A few years later those things may no longer make us boil with rage. But we shouldn’t forget them.

One can calm down and mellow-out, but one needn’t be stupid about things, unless you’re the Washington Post’s resident conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, who offers this:

Many of his supposed failures are mild compared to the current president (e.g. spending, debt). Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11. People do remember the big stuff – rallying the country after the Twin Towers attack, 7 1/2 years of job growth and prosperity, millions of people saved from AIDS in Africa, a good faith try for immigration reform, education reform and a clear moral compass.

And, it turned out that the triumvirate of Iraq-Iran-North Korea really was the Axis of Evil. Unlike the current president, who’s played politics with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Bush took huge political risks to back the surge in Iraq, which worked. He is responsible for one of the most popular and fiscally sober entitlement plans, Medicare Part D. He did not foist a grandiose unpopular and exorbitant program like Obamacare on the public. And then there were his tax cuts, 99 percent of which were approved by the most liberal president in history. Even the TARP program, reviled by conservatives, can be credited with helping to calm the markets and stabilize financial institutions.

Ed Kilgore says it will be interesting to see if other conservatives follow Rubin down this road:

Their recent disdain for Bush, after all, was partly opportunistic (why saddle yourself with the downward trajectory of his presidency?) but partly ideological: according to a very frequently repeated (if sometimes indirect) conservative account, W. and his minions convinced Republicans to sell their birthright of ideological rigor for a mess of swing-voter pottage that failed politically as well as morally. It’s become something of a litmus test for “movement conservatives” to denounce No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, the spending levels associated with W’s second term, everything he did or agreed to in response to the housing and financial disasters – along with the very rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism” – as serial betrayals of the Reagan Legacy by that great family of traitors, the Bushes. And many if not most conservatives consider the gradual accommodation of today’s Republicans to proposals for comprehensive immigration reform a fresh betrayal first performed by Bush, even if others consider it a painfully necessary adjustment to demographic reality.

Kilgore suggests Rubin was seduced by the approval numbers. Let’s see how Jeb does, and Andrew Sullivan gets down to specifics, like that business about Bush keeping us safe:

Does 9/11 not count? The biggest national security failure since Pearl Harbor – resulting in more than 3,000 deaths? After the president was explicitly warned about its likelihood a month before it happened? Can you imagine what Rubin would be saying if a Democrat had presided over that?

And the idea that many of Bush’s supposed failures are mild compared to Obama’s massive spending and the debt seems odd to Sullivan:

By far the biggest factor in today’s debt are the unfunded wars Bush launched and lost, the massive tax cuts which took us from surplus to deficit, a spending spree on Medicare, and a collapse of the economy which occurred on Bush’s watch after eight years of negligent regulation of Wall Street. This sentence is therefore almost perversely deceptive.

Sullivan is not as impressed with Bush as Rubin is:

Credit where it’s due: Bush’s speech to Congress after 9/11 was extraordinary. The original reaction? Not so much. He didn’t return to Washington in that crisis. He panicked. And Cheney went bonkers. Yes, his record on AIDS in Africa remains a great legacy. But the economic growth under Bush was relatively anemic, despite the huge increase in demand caused by the tax cuts. He failed on immigration reform and on social security reform. His education reform has not survived. And the first American president to authorize and defend torture is not a man I would regard as in possession of a “clear moral compass.”

Rubin, however, did offer this:

To the left’s horror, it turns out that most of his anti-terror fighting techniques (e.g. the Patriot Act, enhanced military commissions, Guantanamo) were effective and remain in place. Even the dreaded enhanced interrogation, according to two CIA agents and the former attorney general, contributed to our locating and assassinating Osama bin Laden.

Sullivan:

Seriously?

The rigged military commissions have managed to prosecute 7 terror suspects successfully. The civilian courts – which Bush disdained – have convicted almost 500 in comparison. 84 prisoners at Gitmo are on hunger strike; and it has become a rallying cry for Jihad across the globe. Prisoners there were subjected to brutal torture, their meetings with lawyers are bugged and secretly recorded, and the reputation of the United States as a civilized country has been forever tainted. Maybe soft power doesn’t exist in the mind of Rubin. But Bush did more to destroy America’s soft and hard power by trashing one and over-using the other – and failing to achieve anything of value in return.

Then torture. Note the lack of any discussion about its morality. Note the absence of any mention of the Constitution Project’s report that definitively found that Rubin’s term “enhanced interrogation” meant without question torture. Note the refusal to acknowledge that those with the most information, the Senate Intelligence Committee, have emphatically denied that torture helped get bin Laden. Note also no mention of the fact that Bush had eight years to find and capture or kill bin Laden and failed. Obama found and killed him in three years. We get two CIA agents and an attorney general arguing that their own torture worked. And they have no vested interest in believing or saying that, do they?

Sullivan is not impressed:

The country Bush broke is still broken. And the cost in terms of human life and tax-payers’ dollars still looms over us all. And yet some like Rubin still do not see the failure staring at them in the face. Because they cannot. Late-era neoconservatives can never admit error. They do not have the intellect for it.

Oh hell, they never thought much of intellect in the first place. They just built this guy a library complex that feels like the last sort of place you’d want to read anything, the kind of building that discourages anything like thoughtfulness, if Christopher Hawthorne is right. All you can do is submit or walk away. People build these things for the particular movie they think they’re in, or the world as they imagine it – which may be the same thing. Bush’s world was smug and serene, and empty.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Gloriously Empty Serenity

  1. Rick says:

    Lest that Jennifer Rubin historical rewrite catch fire, we need to set the record straight:

    1. “Many of his supposed failures are mild compared to the current president (e.g. spending, debt).”

    First of all, debt is only a problem if you’re a conservative who’d rather not give the matter much thought; and Obama’s discretionary spending has been nearly nil, the spending you’ve seen has been the result of the economic downturn’s causing the automatic safety net to kick in. Had the safety net not done that, our economy would probably be as bad as Europe’s right now, where the austerians have had their way much more than in this country.

    2. “Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11.”

    Not sure what 9/11-scale attacks she’s referring to, but unlike Bush’s tenure, Obama had no 9/11. Not only were the Clinton transition team’s attempts to warn the new Bush administration about al Qaeda rebuffed, specific warnings about bin Ladin wanting to attack were ignored.

    3. “7 1/2 years of job growth and prosperity…”

    Unemployment under Bush went from slightly over four percent when he took office, to almost ten percent when he left — just under a six-point rise; Obama took it from there, down to about seven-and-a-half — an almost three-point drop. An overall decline in unemployment, not a rise.

    4. “… and a clear moral compass.”

    His War in Iraq demonstrates a lack thereof.

    5. “And, it turned out that the triumvirate of Iraq-Iran-North Korea really was the Axis of Evil.”

    Which could not have happened without the help of Bush. He shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, since that helped empower Iran, and as for North Korea, we wouldn’t be in the situation with them that we now are had Bush not scrapped the gains of the previous administration.

    6. “President Bush took huge political risks to back the surge in Iraq, which worked.”

    As much as I favored the idea of the surge at the time, it really didn’t do squat, since the violence had already subsided by the time the surge took place. And by the way, don’t forget that Bush started that stupid, wasteful and meaningless war in the first place.

    7. “He did not foist a grandiose unpopular and exorbitant program like Obamacare on the public.”

    True enough. Bush did absolutely nothing to try to solve the problem of the millions of Americans deprived of adequate healthcare in this country. Obama gets the credit for that.

    8. “And then there were his tax cuts, 99 percent of which were approved by the most liberal president in history.”

    (FDR approved the Bush tax cuts?)

    Okay, forget that. The Bush tax cuts did nothing good for America, they only helped put us in the hole we’re in now. They were mainly tax cuts for the rich, and apparently only the rich saw gains — most of which, I suspect, they spent not on helping the economy but instead invested in risky CDOs and other investment “instruments” invented by Wall Streeters.

    There’s more to say here, but who has the time?

    Rick

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