George W Bush is back – but not all appreciate his new progressive image

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David Smith in Washington
·5 min read
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<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

He’s back.

George W Bush, the former US president, returns to the political stage this week with a promotional book tour comprising numerous “virtual conversations” and TV and radio interviews, including a late night talkshow.

The media appearances, focused on immigration reform, look set to confirm Bush’s improbable journey from reviled architect of the devastating Iraq war to elder statesman venerated even by some liberals. The Republican’s approval rating has soared since he left office in 2009 and he has been praised by his Democratic successor, Barack Obama.

Not everyone, however, is comfortable with the rehabilitation of a leader whose “war on terror” yielded waterboarding and other forms of torture. They argue that Americans with short memories have become overly eager to embrace Bush, 74, as a folksy and avuncular national treasure.

“I’m hoping there’ll be some pushback against this because I think it’s an absolute scandal that man should be rehabilitated and tarted up as in any way progressive,” said Jackson Lears, a cultural historian.

Lears added: “This is a man who, in company with [vice-president Dick] Cheney of course, created more permanent and long-lasting damage to the presidency and the American system of government than probably anyone before or since.”

Bush’s new book, Out of Many, One, fits his new image. The 43rd president has painted 43 portraits of immigrants he has got to know and has written their stories. His purpose, says his office, is to put human faces on the important debate around immigration and the need for reform.

Related: Trump’s enablers want us to forget what they did. We can’t let that happen | Arwa Mahdawi

Bush’s publicity blitz will be reminiscent of that undertaken by Obama last November for the publication of his presidential memoir. It includes a virtual conversation with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the immigrant Hollywood actor and former governor of California, hosted by the George W Bush Presidential Center on Sunday.

There will be an event with his daughter, Barbara Bush, via Barnes & Noble and further virtual conversations hosted by other bookshops. Media appearances range from an opinion column in the Washington Post newspaper to a three-part CBS interview in which anchor Norah O’Donnell visits Bush and his wife, Laura, at their ranch in Texas.

Bush tells O’Donnell that the immigration system was one of the biggest disappointments of his presidency. “I campaigned on immigration reform,” he says. “I made it abundantly clear to voters this is something I intended to do.”

But Lears, a history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and editor of the journal Raritan Quarterly, finds the notion of Bush as a champion of immigrants as “self-parodic”.

He said: “It’s almost beyond belief that he would be celebrated for that or any other kind of humane gestures of inclusion and tolerance.

“He was a man who wrapped his very narrow-gauge nationalism, his chauvinism and militarism in the rhetoric of righteousness. He was an evangelical Christian and that, to me, is more offensive in many ways than Trump’s style, which was overt, offensive and repellent.”

Bush’s broadcast interviews will also include Fox News, National Public Radio, Telemundo and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! – a late-night show hosted by comedian Jimmy Kimmel. His counterpart on NBC, Jimmy Fallon, suffered a backlash for being too soft on Donald Trump and playfully stroking the candidate’s hair just weeks before the 2016 election.

The promotional tour, and direct intervention on immigration, will put the seal on Bush’s comeback to the public stage. After Joe Biden’s inauguration, he made a joint TV appearance with Bill Clinton and Obama that presented the trio as guardians of democracy in the wake of Trump’s scorched earth assault on institutions.

Yet for some it was hard to reconcile this conceit with the man who once faced demands to be prosecuted for war crimes over the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or torture, at CIA “black sites” in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Bush’s legacy includes the illegal invasion of Iraq in search of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. He resisted LGBTQ+ rights, botched the government response to Hurricane Katrina and presided over the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Lears also criticizes Bush for an unconstitutional expansion of executive power that holds today. “This man committed more impeachable offences than you can shake a stick at and he’s being celebrated now in this mindless way,” he said.

“I think of it as a yet another unintended and catastrophic consequence of Trump derangement syndrome: the sense that, well, maybe he wasn’t so bad after all because, after all, he and Laura and Barack and Michelle like each other. This seems to be the mentality that we’re dealing with.

“It’s an enormous blind spot now and it’s perfect that an airhead like Jimmy Kimmel would be participating in this rehabilitation. I can’t imagine anything that would better signify the depths to which our public discourse has fallen than George Bush being celebrated on Jimmy Kimmel.”

But even many of Bush’s critics have acknowledged some successes from his administration such as the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, or Pepfar, a historic global health initiative that saved or improved millions of lives in Africa. But they object to the way in which his long list of failures is being whitewashed because at least he is not Trump.

Dan Kovalik, an author who teaches international human rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said: “America is the land of amnesia. It’s not a country where people remember what happened yesterday, much less what happened in the Bush years. Also, because Trump was so bad, at least in terms of his personality, everyone else looks good by comparison.”