During his eight tumultuous years in office, President George W. Bush has been portrayed in popular culture as a hubristic cowboy, a puppet of Dick Cheney, and the worst mangler of the English language since Shakespeare’s Dogberry. Oliver Stone’s new biopic, “W.,” even focuses on Bush’s supposed “daddy issues.”
And those are the gentler depictions. He’s also been branded a liar in Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President,” accused of being in cahoots with Saudi oilmen in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and pilloried in the post-hurricane Katrina mash-up video “George Bush Doesn’t Care about Black People.”
Bush is hardly the first White House occupant to endure invective from entertainers, and such clashes tend to be particularly pronounced when a Republican is pitted against left-leaning creative types. But the 43rd president’s time in office has marked a fundamental turning point in the relationship between popular culture and politics. The proliferation of new forms of media – coupled with a democratization of communication that allows anyone with a modem to become a filmmaker, broadcaster, or pundit – has meant that no other sitting president has had quite so many slings and arrows to suffer. Against such a backdrop, Bush may find it exceedingly difficult to control the final narrative of his presidency.
“I believe Bush’s legacy will be almost entirely shaped by pop culture,” says Leslie Kreiner Wilson, executive director of Americana, the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture. “Pop culture has always had some impact on our perception of presidents, but the media explosion since the 1980s has made things much harder on the presidents since then, like Bill Clinton and George W.”
Other observers believe that history’s verdict on Bush will be more forgiving than, say, his depiction in the TV sitcom “That’s My Bush” or the Eminem protest song “Mosh.” Put it this way: Bush’s ratings can only go up. When the Siena Research Institute asked 744 leading historians and political scientists to rank Bush as a president, the results spawned a “Rolling Stone” cover story proclaiming him the worst president ever. But the institute’s Tom Kelly, a history professor at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., says it takes at least 25 years to establish the academic record of a presidency. By then, emotions are lower and perspective is clearer.
“Pop culture is like cartooning,” says Mr. Kelly. “It creates a sharp image which reflects more, probably, about the mind of the individual who creates the image, than reality – although that doesn’t mean the image is wrong. But, also, it tends to pass.”
Still, Kelly says, some pop-culture images do linger. For example, a combination of Johnny Carson jokes and Chevy Chase impersonations on “Saturday Night Live” created an enduring image of Gerald Ford as being more prone to pratfalls than Inspector Clouseau.
But there’s a profound difference in today’s media landscape, argues Donick Cary, creator of the Comedy Central cartoons “Lil’ Bush” and “The Adventures of John McCain.” “Forty years ago, a comedy take on a president would be 13 episodes of ‘Saturday Night Live’ in a year,” says Mr. Cary. “Now, every day, as soon as there’s a [presidential] debate there’s literally 100,000 takes on the Internet as well as ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘Colbert Report,’ Bill Maher.”
Indeed, YouTube and the blogosphere have produced thousands of new commentators fixated on presidential politics.
“Presidents, more and more in this country, are seen as Olympian figures who have the power to fix everything,” says Reason magazine writer David Weigel. “It makes sense that the culture revolves around them.”
Bush well understood the importance of the popular-culture vote. During his 2000 campaign, he accentuated his image as a regular guy. “I don’t think it’s an accident that, for a number of years, we always heard about [Bush] going back to the ranch to clear brush,” says John Matviko, editor of “The President in Popular Culture,” and professor at West Liberty State College in West Virginia.
But that cowboy persona was turned against him by dozens of YouTube impersonators – most notably Will Ferrell – who lambasted Bush as a country yokel who “misunderestimated” the importance of elocution.
“[Bush’s] entire presidency was about the projection of an image, so the fact that there have been so many pop-culture representations of him is a logical extension of that,” says Bernie Heidkamp, a contributor to PopPolitics, an online magazine about the convergence of politics and pop culture.
If Bush was clearly not destined to inherit Ronald Reagan’s mantle as “the great communicator,” the events of Sept. 11 gave him the opportunity to present himself as the great uniter. When the president stood on top of the rubble of the Twin Towers with a bullhorn, his poll ratings rocketed. For a while it seemed that entertainment narratives, such as Showtime’s 2003 movie “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis,” would fundamentally redefine Bush as a hero.
But no amount of carefully choreographed images – such as Bush’s “Top Gun”-like landing on an aircraft carrier for the now-infamous “mission accomplished” speech – could withstand the growing unease among entertainers about the Iraq war and the USA Patriot Act.
Soon, largely Left Coast artists started squaring off against Middle Americans. And, sometimes, things got ugly. Bush’s character was assassinated in the movie “Death of a President” and he was the subject of further abuse in “South Park” and “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.”
Bush found plenty of defenders in the blogosphere, plenty of whom have hung on. But even some supporters eventually became disillusioned at the administration’s handling of the war and hurricane Katrina. Worse, questions began to mount as to whether the administration had deceived the public about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The moment Bush lost the pop-culture war might be when “24,” a show that seemed to be a cheerleader for the war on terror, depicted its fictitious American president as a duplicitous villain.
Still, Bush supporters believe that the pop-culture “record” will be trumped by a long-term vindication of Bush’s war on terror. “Ronald Reagan was thought to be a fool or a cowboy, but the press started to realize that he actually helped to end the cold war,” says Ronald Kessler, author of “A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush.” “To some extent, it’s the same with Bush.”