It is notoriously easy for Americans to approach presidential politics as a question of personality. The obsession with the man rather than the office itself or even the man’s particular policies is ubiquitous. Many of Bush’s detractors hated him from the beginning. Same with Clinton and most that came before. The trend will continue under the next president.
Oliver Stone has been accused of presenting distorted and agenda-driven portrayals of his political subjects, obsessing over personal idiosyncrasies, over-dramatizing the politics in his films to the point of obscuring the real issues.
Many assumed Stone’s newest film, W., about the current lame duck, would be a biased anti-Bush treatment. In fact, the movie humanizes the man while nevertheless passing judgment on his actions. And it raises many important questions about the presidential office itself.
For most of his presidency, Bush’s personality convinced millions of conservatives to embrace him and not to question his agenda, especially in foreign affairs. Criticisms of the administration were seen as knee-jerk anti-Bush bias, even when those criticisms were valid and important. The right had a hard time believing that Bush the man could be capable of the evils of which he was accused by the left and by libertarians. If the war he waged was "murderous," did that not make him a murderer? He did not seem to be so villainous and deceitful to millions of red-blooded, red-state Americans.
On the other hand, millions of liberals saw the problem in Bush the man but not in his general support of an unrestrained state and calamitous war. They did not want to believe their beloved democracy, their beloved government, was the root of the problem. The man occupying it was a particularly wicked or incompetent person. He must be the worst man ever to work in the Oval Office. Only that could explain political reality.
Similarly, in the 1990s, liberals had trouble grasping why conservatives despised the Bill Clinton they came to love. Conservatives, in turn, became so obsessed with him that they forgot what it was about Clinton that was actually worth objecting to. When Bush came in and expanded and abused his power on an even grander scale, they defended him, despite the inconsistency in doing so.
It is valid to look at the personalities involved in politics. Powerful politicians are not entirely normal people, and the worst do tend to rise to the top. They should not be assumed to be angels, or even close. When they do something especially egregious, they should be held accountable as any individual would in the private sector. Most important, the fact that they are human, with all the imperfections that plague humans and supposedly justify government in the first place, should not be forgotten.
In W. we see the personality of Bush on screen in a way that shows his humanity, his susceptibility to extreme error and to the temptations and corruptions of power, but also the good intentions that motivate him to inflict such destruction upon the world.
There are doubtless exaggerations, omissions and other flaws in Stone’s narrative. But there is also charitableness toward Bush in this film that is hard to find even in the red states these days. Far from coming off as especially malicious, diabolical, unstable or inhuman, Bush is simply some sap — perhaps a sap in unusual circumstances — who struggles in the shadow of his father by pursuing, and achieving, a position of power that he, of all people, should never possess.
In W. we see Bush fall in love. We see his complex affections and tensions within the family. We see him struggle with and overcome alcoholism. We see him portrayed as a man who would just as soon be a baseball star, but settles for trying to be remembered for a positive and historic presidential legacy, not just for his own benefit, but for family pride and the security and honor of his country.
The culmination of the Bush presidency, the political climax of this film, is the Iraq war, followed rapidly by the chaos and scandal in the year that followed. He did not expect it to go badly. His advisers really thought they could build democracy in Iraq and the Middle East with far fewer dead and billions spent. The war planners, and the war, are shown for their evil, but also for their humanity.
But even with just about as charitable a treatment as one could give with any plausibility, the horror of what Bush and his team unleash, and the evil of which they are capable with their power, are shockingly apparent in the film.
The talent in W. is wonderful. Some actors are doing character impressions; others are acting less histrionically; all are dramatically interesting. Josh Brolin does the title role very well, Elizabeth Banks’s First Lady is solid, and James Cromwell is surprisingly compelling as Bush the Elder. The great Richard Dreyfuss does a realistic yet almost likeable Cheney. Toby Jones’s Karl Rove character is terrific. But Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice is reason enough to see the flick.
The narrative weaves together lots of dialogue from public record, putting it in places it sometimes doesn’t belong, but not to the point of distracting the viewer much. Of course, holes are filled in with a degree of Hollywood license. But there is a realism that becomes much more discomforting by the end of the film than a more blatantly unforgiving treatment would be. An uneasiness surrounds the hard reality being imitated, precisely because Bush and his team have been humanized.
This motley crew of bizarre characters would be funny with much less power. As top business executives or in local government they could only do so much damage. Long segments of the movie would be comedy if not for the war.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Bush’s team, suited up for the boardroom, is following him around Camp David, discussing the impending war with Iraq. In the middle of the field, they get lost. It’s a great image of Bush leading his foreign policy Brain Trust astray. And this would be hilarious, if not for the knowledge that these clowns and tricksters are about to inflict one of the world’s greatest modern humanitarian disasters upon the Iraqi people.
Stone makes clear that the ruling class is people. Not just personalities, but individuals u2014 humans. And these people are neither the embodiment of evil, nor particularly virtuous or incorruptible. The office brings out the worst in the man and his minions, and makes millions pay for it.
This is the most important type of humanization, as it regards politicians, for the public to comprehend. And this is a perfect time for people to watch W. and recognize that the evil of Bush the man can only account for so much. Otherwise, the 75% who now dislike the man will let their guard down as the next guy takes office.
For the last month or so, the least intelligent and most counterproductive attacks on the Republicans have involved the type of people McCain and especially Palin supposedly are. Certain personal attacks on Obama have been even more ugly and ineffective.
This last week of the campaigning, it is all about personality, and yet both candidates promise to pursue a similar set of bad foreign and domestic policies. Conservatives fear Obama with the power they trusted Bush to exercise without limit. There is no excuse for this, however. No one should ever champion the president’s use of a power that he would distrust being captured by the other side.
I hope at least some people see from this film that the problem is the office of the presidency. Yes, Bush and company are an especially bad crop. But really, there is no way to ensure a gaggle of creeps and megalomaniacs will not rise to executive power in America. In fact, it almost always is such a gaggle. And no matter how bad these guys are, it would not matter if not for the power of the office.
I hope the left-liberals who enjoyed W. see this and remember what Bush’s gang managed to do through the presidency. They are bad guys in so many ways, but perhaps not quite as intrinsically and irredeemably bad as assumed. The great lesson of the tragic Bush years, as Stone shows somewhat subtly, is that Bush being a rotten person is not sufficient explanation for the disaster of his presidency.
The anti-Bush partisans cannot stop reprobates and damaged souls from obtaining power. All they can do to protect themselves from such people is to work to limit what the presidency can do, no matter who holds it. The next few years could be their chance, but it doesn’t look like they’ve learned the lesson.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.