The results are in. Well, sort of. An unknown number of Yale undergraduates voted, and an unknown percentage of this percentage, amounting to a plurality, decided that George W. Bush ’68, sometime President of the United States, oilman and amateur watercolorist, ought to be this year’s honoree for Yale’s Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement Award, a prestigious prize that very few people care about. But select him they did, and come April 29, President Bush will be presented with a Yale blue ribbon, or something along those lines, at a ceremony in Dallas.
So, what to make of Bush the Younger, our newly-minted awardee? In writing this piece, I feel obligated to respect the will of the majority — notably, something that Bush didn’t do back in 2000, when his cronies conspired to halt ballot recounts in Florida. (SCOTUS Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the story goes, wanted to retire to Arizona so badly that she simply couldn’t bear the thought of another Democratic president after Clinton.) Still, one might be tempted to view this outcome as an indictment of the good judgment of the Yale student body, which of course it is. But the foul odor left behind by this distressing result has, paradoxically, cleared the air for a necessary reminder about some things from the very recent past.
George W. Bush was not a good president or a good person. Bush and his functionaries were as corrupt as they were moronic; they were as moronic as they were vicious. YCC President Saloni Rao ’20, who had the unfortunate charge of announcing the results of the vote to the undergraduate body, noted in her release email that Bush’s award was in recognition for “the inspiration he provides to rising generations of Yalies.” Inspiration, indeed: in his retirement, President Bush should inspire nothing but pure contempt.
The Titanic scale of the Bush disaster has been rehashed ad nauseam in the press, which made me initially skittish about discussing the details here. But it seems that many Yalies need their memories jogged as to what George Bush’s “unparalleled career in public service” actually did to this country and the world. After co-opting a national tragedy to lay the legal framework for endless, unaccountable warfare, Bush fraudulently sold a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of American soldiers. Long before Donald Trump made it his administration’s purpose to cage refugee children, Bush was an enthusiastic proponent of the concentration camp, torturing thousands of uncharged detainees in secret prisons around the world. His administration’s racist negligence aggravated the calamity of Hurricane Katrina, which left thousands of mostly black residents of New Orleans dead. Bush’s fealty to the Texas oil industry sacrificed the world’s last and best chance to stop runaway climate change. Not to mention his administration’s complicity in the sociopathic recklessness of Wall Street that precipitated the Great Recession, the effects of which continue to reverberate to this day.
So what explains Yalies’ willingness to look past the crimes, misdeeds and goals of one of Yale’s worst alumni? Certainly one part of the explanation has to do with Yale’s largely amoral fetishication of achievement: for a large number of Yalies, the actual things you do don’t matter, so long as you do them in a big way. But the rehabilitation of George Bush extends well beyond Yale’s. Bush’s oil paintings are cooed over by people who bitterly opposed the Iraq War; Dubya dances on Ellen, jokes around with Bill Clinton LAW ‘73 at anti-poverty conferences and sneaks candy to Michelle Obama at state funerals. And many liberals seem to be eating it up, contrasting Bush with their arch-nemesis, the uniquely bad Donald Trump. “At least Bush,” pundits across late-night lament, “actually respected democratic norms! He wasn’t afraid to stand up for American values abroad. He was gracious to his opponents.”
This is ludicrous. The accession of Donald Trump to the American presidency has prompted an episode of mass historical amnesia. Trump’s cruelty knows no bounds, and his tenure will be remembered as a global catastrophe. But in the meantime, the easy distraction of Trump’s repulsive persona has allowed the establishment classes, left and right — whose incompetence and limitless greed enabled Trump’s rise — to do an about-face and recast themselves as the defenders of the good. This is nowhere brought into starker relief than at institutions like Yale, full of people who benefit from their commanding positions within the American empire, but whose aesthetic sensibilities are deeply offended by the more gouache displays of raw power.
The pill that’s still harder for many of us to swallow, of course, is that it goes well beyond Bush: seemingly cordial and presentable people who went to schools like Yale have been complicit in some of the worst crimes of this young century, long before Trump descended his golden escalator. It is a disgrace that a plurality of Yalies chose to honor George W. Bush, the principle effect of whose presidency was to help the grave-digging industry, but it is an instructive disgrace.
Gabriel Groz is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .