It is the farewell kiss, you dog?

With the United States on the threshold of a fresh new political era, it’s probably fair to say that interest in American politics is at an all-time high amongst the hoi polloi. Even Kochie and Mel, those partially unwitting boosters of Australia’s Prime Minister, are kickstarting their day at 3AM this Wednesday morning to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. Obama, unfortunately for the Democratic Party, is on a fifth day wicket. The economic situation is dire, and expectations are positively evangelical. Expectations can do terrible things to a politician, and it goes without saying that the coming Obama Administration is probably going to turn out a little more like the second coming of the Clinton Administration than the Second Coming. With a bit of luck though, and a little bit of visionary razzle dazzle, President Obama will keep the majority of his supporters with him during his first term in office, four years that will no doubt present a few challenges beyond even this charismatic Senator from Chicago.

As the Obama Administration begins and the Bush Administration draws to a merciful close, we might well reflect upon one more little footnote to this very American story. Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at a surprisingly agile President Bush last month in Baghdad, is seeking asylum in Switzerland after being charged with “aggression against a foreign head of state during an official visit”, a charge that apparently can result in up to 15 years imprisonment under Iraqi law. One would have to think that any prospective penalty for al-Zaidi would be significantly less than the maximum penalty, given the rather bemusing nature of the attack, but the track record of the Bush Administration and its allies on justice issues leaves lingering doubts in one’s mind.

When the natural moral order of things has been dismantled, and humankind’s most self-evident rules of right and wrong have been obscenely violated by a cabal of individuals at the centre of power, one can feel all of a sudden that the normal carriage of justice could run riotously off the rails anywhere, at any time. There may be Islamic terrorist groups out there acting like unconscionable barbarians – and they are to be unequivocally condemned – but I’m not sure the Western political tradition has done itself very proud in recent years by shifting its methods and motives by inches in a sometimes similar direction. Probably the top priority of President Barack Obama in a foreign policy sense is going to be returning his nation to the moral high ground that the world so desperately needs the United States to be standing on.

Eulogy for a failed president

So it would appear that Boris Johnson has so much time on his hands as Mayor of London that he has had time to write a disingenuous love letter to one of the most disastrous leaders of the free world in living memory. His column in the SMH today, which seems to have been quite widely published, is disingenuous because Johnson tries awfully hard to straddle both sides of the political divide. He wants kudos from those who decry Bush’s legacy, somewhat mercilessly mocking, as he does, Bush’s tenuous grip on the English language. He also seeks kudos from those on the conservative side of the fence, by sneakily hinting that compared to Blair/Brown Labour and of course Australia’s John Howard, Bush wasn’t really that bad at all.

Johnson’s strongest arguments in support of Bush’s time as President of the United States seek to highlight the good humour he brought to the Oval Office:

So farewell then, Dubya. It is with tears in our eyes that we watch you leave the stage after eight tumultuous years, though in my case they are tears of appreciative laughter.

In his gift for surreal improvisation he resembles a linguistic dadaist, armed with nuclear weapons and a worrying sense that God is on his side.

Well if that last line doesn’t whiff of someone dressing up a turd in a tuxedo, I don’t know what does. It gets better, of course. I doubt there is any way for a writer to complete the sentence below without completely destroying their own intellectual credibility:

And, therefore, without wishing to defend George W. Bush…

Needless to say Johnson tries – and fails.

Demolishing media caricatures

One of my pet hates regarding the mainstream media is the way that personalities in the limelight are swiftly and forcefully reduced to archetypes, or caricatures. If you ask anybody what words spring to mind when they consider George W Bush as a person, it’s a fair bet that the answer will be at least partially derogatory. I certainly won’t contest the point that some or even most of the criticisms made of the US President are valid ones, but I also think that like anyone, there is much more to Bush than meets the eye initially. When people like George Bush, or Harbajhan Singh, or Amy Winehouse are attacked by commentators who don’t know them personally or seek to engage with them intellectually, one wonders whether they are really succeeding in identifying genuine flaws in their targets, or merely flaws that appear in the caricatures of the targets presented by the media. Do we usually score a hit on the person we are criticising, or are we merely connecting with their shadow, reflected grotesquely on the wall by the flash bulbs of the paparazzi?

What we do notice is that every now and again, someone has the courage (or the sheer bloody-mindedness) to challenge the media’s publicly accepted caricature of someone, and attempt to paint an altogether different picture of them and where they are coming from. Enter Bob Geldof. Geldof has written a number of pieces for TIME Magazine reflecting on President Bush’s achievements in Africa, and his good will tour there. To be honest, the former musician really does handle everyone’s least favourite president with kid gloves, but on the other hand, I challenge anyone to decry reported results like these:

The great unacknowledged story of America in Africa didn’t immediately originate with this President (John Kerry and Bill Frist initiated legislation in 2002 to conbat the continent’s AIDS epidemic). But it was accelerated hugely by him, increased by him, argued for by him and monitored by him. It has saved millions upon millions of lives and healed broken bodies; more than 1.5 million Africans are on lifesaving antiretrovirals.

Unusually, it is being done deftly, slowly and gently with due respect to the dignity of those it seeks to help. There are no votes in helping the poor of Africa, but Bush did it anyway.

It is these sorts of facts that don’t fit quite neatly into the universalist portraits of Bush that often win through in the mainstream media and in popular critiques. Yes, his administration made a terrible, bloody mess with foreign policy in Iraq and with its hawkish “axis of evil” rhetoric. It is patently true that he does not have a way with words like one might wish of a leader of the free world. The temptation to intellectually shrink Bush (and personalities like him) and what he stands for into a tiny caricature of the real person is overwhelming, but I think, for the sake of efficacy, we should all challenge ourselves to resist. There is more to our old mate Dubya than meets the eye, and more to his often horrifically bumbling but not entirely destructive administration than meets the eye.

As there is, I am quite sure, to virtually every other person presented to us through the media’s regressively simplifying lens.

ELSEWHERE: Another TIME piece from Geldof featuring Bush is online here.