It used to take decades to get up a really good head of nostalgia. There was so much to forget. You needed someone like Ray Bradbury to murmur poignantly about decanting summer into a jar of dandelion wine, as locusts hummed and Mama rocked back and forth under the buzzing porch light. “Aw, but what about polio?” someone would whisper, and it would set the whole process back ten or twenty years.
Now we get it instantly, faster than I can turn around a Netflix delivery.
“Remember Mapquest?” we say, as though evoking something Paleolithic. “Remember MySpace? Remember the days before Blu-Ray?” We had all these things not even a decade ago. These days, nostalgia is just as fast-acting and immediately available as everything else.
That has made watching the week of George W. Bush retrospectives especially odd. Five years seems about right for a retrospective. We forget pretty quickly. Any longer, and we would have had no idea who we were talking about. And if he’d reminded us, it would have undone all his efforts.
So far, Bush has been pursuing the brilliant PR strategy of saying absolutely nothing and never appearing in Major National News. It’s worked remarkably well. It’s the only surefire way to avoid gaffes.
Now the people who decried him as the Worst Blank In History and the Most Expletiving Expletive Who Ever Walked are including small caveats in those epithets. Some cling to their guns, double down on the cries of infamy. Five years is not as long as all that. But many — a not unsubstantial percentage of the American people included — have difficulty staying mad for that long. At a certain point, you have to take the BUSH LIED: PEOPLE DIED bumper sticker off your car, or you start to seem like the weird one. You have wallowed long enough. If anyone has more than four bumper stickers from past campaigns on his or her car, inevitably that person is some sort of weirdo. Don’t hold grudges. Keep moving.
That’s the Bush Resurgence in a nutshell.
These days, a lot of nostalgia consists of the remembrance of minor inconvenience in comfort. Cassette tapes! Tamagotchis! Records! Life before air conditioning! How wonderful, how simple things were then! If only we could go back and jog around barefoot and not bother with all this Twitter nonsense. Let’s all try the paleo diet!
But the week leading up to the dedication of the Bush Presidential Library was a bizarre one. Hey, everyone said. He was Smarter than you thought. He was Greater than you thought. Nothing was quite as bad as you thought. The best part of the Bush era was that we all had more hair, more energy, were younger and our jeans fit better. There were no hipsters. The Internet wasn’t as fast as it could possibly be, but Amanda Bynes had her life much more together.
“History is not what you thought,” wrote W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman in the introduction to “1066 and All That.” “It’s what you can remember.”
Compared to the present, which everyone acknowledges is a shambling mess where no one makes the money he or she deserves, the future looks awful and something weird is perpetually on the verge of happening to all the trees, the Bush era seems comparatively rosy.
This is our new fast-acting nostalgia at work. “Ah, the Bush years,” we say. “Those halcyon, distant days — five years ago.”
Possibly the pace of change has increased and this kind of rapid-fire longing for the past is a logical development. The world in our pockets is vastly different than it was a mere five years ago. Why not apply it to the president as well?
The trouble with the Bush Resurgence is that so far, his popularity seems largely premised on his disappearance from the public eye. Absence has made the heart grow fonder. But the instant he pops back up – we are reminded. After the dedication of the Bush Center in Texas Thursday afternoon, Moses remains the only person impressed by a Bush’s speaking ability. He keeps saying that he is waiting for history’s verdict.
History is what comes after the bumper stickers have worn off.
After the tepid exuberance came the swift backlash. Oscar Wilde called second marriages the triumph of hope over experience. That is what much of this presidential retrospective has been, the insistence that “It can’t possibly be as bad as we remembered.” Perhaps. And soon we will put him back into the vault for another five or ten years and leave History to decide what becomes of him, who or whatever History turns out to be.
And it can’t come fast enough. The biography comes out when the president is still in office. You get to build your own monument, display your own papers and e-mails, pose for statues from life. At one end of the spectrum there’s the presidential library; on the other there’s the stream of posts that comprise any self-made shrine on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else we post our Best Angles and Pithiest Thoughts.
Posterity is getting more efficient than ever at passing its judgments.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Time heals most wounds. The public opinion polls grow rosier, the compilations of Bushisms disappear from bookstores, the bookstores themselves disappear. One hopes history will not misunderestimate him.
“What will History say?” asks one character in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple.”
“History, sir, will tell lies as usual,” his companion responds.
As forgetfulness increases, fondness increases. At least this seems to be the rule with Bush. If the present trajectory continues, we will all agree that Bush’s presidency was perfect the instant we have forgotten him entirely. But maybe not before.