Cold Comfort

Can We Forgive the Bush Administration?

After Mass every Sunday, my family would gather in the dining room of the big old house my dad had grown up in. Not to eat, mind you, but because that was where they’d moved his mom after she fell and broke her hip, and where he and his siblings met weekly to kick around ancient, prewar slights. How soothing to Grandma’s angina these sessions must have been-always with the drama, as A. J. Soprano used to say. It’s in reaction, probably, that I am both alive to every cocked eyebrow and an unusually poor holder of grudges, which are an awful lot of work.

Yet in this season of presidential pardons, pardoning the president remains a challenge; I not only haven’t managed it but actually seem to be losing ground. (Of course, George W. Bush doesn’t care what we think of him, but why would I want to be walking around mad? How tedious, and with all the world heading to Washington to party, how out of sync.) As Bush heads off to clear brush in an endless August of the happy retirement I have so long wished for him, what chafes?

For one thing, he’s supposed to be irrelevant, yet there he is, handing out oil leases and undermining worker protections as if his only care in the world were inflicting the maximum damage before January 20. There he is, too, in tears over his own goodness as he promises to “sprint to the finish’’ of his second interminable term.

For years, I kept my feelings in check by picturing him as a little boy, waiting for his baby sister Robin to come home from the hospital, because no one had told him that she had died, so that when his parents’ car pulled into the driveway, he was looking for her and wondering why she wasn’t there. Only, I’ve worn that trick out; it’s stopped working, and I think that’s because on Bush’s way out the door, I would more than ever like to hear him say that he was wrong about Iraq. And it couldn’t be clearer that he isn’t going to.

“A lot of people put their reputation on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein,’’ he told ABC’s Charlie Gibson. “It wasn’t just people in my administration. A lot of members of Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington, D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence.’’ I must interrupt this nonsense to assert that this is simply not true: I was working on a profile of Kofi Annan for Newsweek as we were ramping up to invade Iraq, and was told by everyone from the lowest-level functionary to the guys on the top floor at the UN that there were no WMDs in Iraq—and that, oh yeah, Iran posed a far more serious threat. So when Bush says he only wishes that “the intelligence had been different,’’ all I can say is: So do we all, Sir, so do we all.

Similarly, he insists that the economic meltdown was set in motion “before I arrived,’’ and assures us that “every day has been pretty joyous,’’ that he sees himself as the “comforter-in-chief,’’ and hopes to be remembered as someone who “didn’t sell his soul.’’ May he live forever and know the judgment of history.

But, for the rest of us, how to let go of the Bush years? I asked fifteen friends how they were doing with that, and my favorite response came by e-mail, from a progressive activist: “No way will I forgive him, I want him for treason! Blessings and peace, J.’’ Both therapists in the bunch said they’d found that avoidance works pretty well: “I never give him any energy at all, period,’’ said one of them. “That’s how I have dealt with him for the last eight years.’’ And a friend who’s an academic said that while he might—might—“be able to look him in the face and perhaps even make small talk, I can’t forgive because it’s the worst administration in American history.’’ One of the most kindhearted people I know said that in order to get past her Bush-related anger she’d just read the Christian novel The Shack—about a man whose daughter is murdered. He is invited by God to the spot where the crime occurred, where he eventually finds compassion. According to the book, my friend said, “We just need to practice the mantra ‘I forgive you’ over and over. But will our children forgive us”—for the problems Bush’s decisions have bequeathed them?

Several people said the Oliver Stone movie W. had helped them jury-rig a little empathy, and one mentioned the book Bush on the Couch in that same vein—though honestly, I don’t think I could crack open a Bush book right now even if every third page were a treasure map. But of the fifteen friends I polled, only one—a poet, and the one nonbeliever—said she had given the president a pass. Her secret? “I don’t think he ever wanted the job,’’ she said. “It’s the people around him I can’t forgive.’’

Published in the 2008-12-19 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of

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