Life without Bush What's a liberal critic to do without his most beloved target?
Oft is the question asked of me of late, either a bit sneeringly and with a spittle-flecked tone of right-wing "take that"-ism, or gently and ironically, with prodding humor and genuine curiosity overlaid with all sorts of Obamafied goodvibes: Now what, Mr. Liberal Columnist?
The Bumbling One has left the building. The banal demon has been forcibly sucked back into the horror-movie canister from whence he escaped eight years ago, and reburied in the back yard of your darkest Ann Coulter nightmare. Dubya, W, Shrub, the Decider, Chimp, Junior, Boy King, Smirk, he ambles no longer across the stage of our collective outrage. The easy punch line is no more.
It raises the ultimate question for anyone in my line of work: What's a left-leaning columnist (or satirist, political cartoonist, opinionator, et al) to do without the best and finest target in a lifetime? How will I ever survive without the Shrubster to kick around so effortlessly? Where, pray tell, will I ever find such a wicked wealth of material again?
It is no trivial query. As everyone from Jon Stewart to Steven Colbert to Maureen Dowd knows, Bush and his cadre of flying monkeys presented a beautifully, frighteningly, wondrously easy target, so rich with absurdities and shamefulness and uncanny, phlegmy evil, it was a bit like a foot fetishist at a pedicure expo, an alcoholic strolling through Oktoberfest. How could you not get completely drunk on the whole obscene spectacle of it?
Ah, but they say with great wealth, comes great responsibility. Such a surfeit of fertile topics also presented a troubling problem: There was simply too much material, too many stories deserving of attention and indignation. Outrage Fatigue became a national pastime, Bush Burnout a common lament. Turns out a glorious glut of the same kind of material is often just as bad as a dearth. The relentless negativity made everyone -- including me -- quite frequently sick indeed.
Which leads me to my ultimate answer to all those queries, all those who want to know what it feels like to have this wildly generous, epic Republican gravy train lurch off into the sunset once and for all.
I reply thusly: Oh sweet Jesus, thank you, thank you, thank you. And good riddance. I am thrilled that it's over. Like you cannot believe.
Here's the thing: While it was often tremendous amounts of fun -- and also hugely rewarding, in terms of response and awareness-raising -- to repeatedly expose and satirize Bush as the destructive cretin he so obviously was, it was also a deeply toxic practice, openly dangerous to mind, spirit and soul alike. Much like working with spent nuclear fuel rods every day, or in an anthrax lab, or a place where they test NASCAR cologne on baby chimps. Spend enough time in that room, you're bound to get cancer. Not to mention inexorably depressed.
A few years ago I wrote a column in response to a distraught reader who asked why I wasn't writing more about the latest massacre in Rwanda (or maybe it was Darfur, or Haiti, or...). My reply was simple enough: I just couldn't. There was no way I could write about the various atrocities of the world every single column and still hope to keep my heart, my humor, my sanity intact. It was just too painful, too lopsided, like manning the phones every day at a rape-crisis hotline. Gratifying and helpful, yes, but do it long enough and the world quickly turns bleak and hateful indeed.
What's more, I've always tried to use my column's eccentric range to remind anyone who'll listen that there's far more to life than its ugly underbelly, than man's inhumanity to man and Dick Cheney's inhumanity to everything, despite what we're led to believe by the loudest headlines. After all, as the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is a Bush, everything looks like a Katrina.
So then. The Bush Years, you can say, were a wonderfully mixed blessing. On the one hand, I shall forever be perversely grateful to Dubya and his cronies for the electric boost their abundant abuses gave my career, for helping me discover new and creatively humorous ways to write about the ugliest issues of the day, for showing us all what utter failure and misprision look like at the highest levels of government. History deemed Nixon to be perfectly awful. History is still sitting in stupefied shock over Dubya.
On the other hand, I can't help but exhale a big sigh of unfettered joy at finally being able to put down that armor, lower that particular sword, take off that heavy coat of topical obligation and breathe a bit more freely, both personally and professionally.
Truly, for all those years it was often ridiculously difficult to wake up in the morning and read the newswires and not feel appalled by something ugly and nefarious recently inflicted upon the world by the worst administration in modern history, to such a degree that I found it impossible not to vent that frustration on the page. To be an opinion columnist, to see and feel what was going on in the world and merely shrug it off, to stay lukewarm and moderate and perky? Inconceivable.
It now feels a bit like the journalistic equivalent of completing a rough tour of duty in a land of acrimony and intolerance and Donny Rumsfeld's greasy fetish dungeon. "Exhausting" doesn't begin to cover it. "Relieved" seems inadequate. Ecstatic? Liberated? Shocked and awed? That's more like it. God knows I don't ever want to go back.
Except, of course, when using Bush as a reference point, an acid test, a new kind of perfect punch line. Discussing the Bush Years as a thing we endured, a dark chapter finally completed, that insane car crash we miraculously survived, and contrasting it to the new Obama Method? Oh, hell yes. Referring to Bush in the past tense? I can get used to that.
Will it now be a bit more challenging to find other equally rich veins of material, now that the tone has changed and Obama is already proving to be so solid, so deeply intelligent, misprision-free, so absolutely, diametrically opposite of everything BushCo stood for? Maybe.
Then again, no. The bad/good news is there really is no shortage. There is always plenty of corruption, abuse, atrocity, plenty of secretly gay pastors and gluttonous CEOs and gay-hating Repubs and yes, even humiliating Dems to go around.
But make no mistake, while my overfed inner cynic is sad to see Bush amble off to the ranch, I don't plan on carrying that level of cynicism and outrage forward. Bush was a special case, requiring special amounts of controlled indignation to meet his level of nonstop maltreatment. The Obama Era will, it's already obvious, have no such tone, no such fire hose of malevolence and outright idiocy, and will thus require no such blistering response.
And while I certainly don't plan to switch gears entirely and sing a new, feel-good, warm 'n' fuzzy song with this column, I do certainly intend to relish playing with a new color palette, to look elsewhere for inspiration and tonal shift, and fully add my voice to the joyous global mantra the planet is still shouting from the rooftops: "Bush-free since 2009!"