Say what you will about neofascist Republican presidents, but they sure inspire some great music. The most recent Bush administration will be forever immortalized in pop journalist listicles by Green Day’s irrepressible rock opera American Idiot or the more touching collaboration between P!nk and the (politically exiled) Dixie Chicks, “Dear Mr. President.” Ronald Reagan’s sinister cynicism has been sampled by revolutionaries from Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon (“World Destruction”) to Killer Mike (“Reagan”). And even Gerald Ford’s pitiful half-term received its own undue celebration in James Brown’s great “Funky President.”
But of all the songs about a president ever made, the greatest was written less than one month into the presidency of the late George H. W. Bush, and for that the departed deserves praise. Neil Young was inspired to write “Rockin’ In The Free World” by President Bush’s campaign aspiration for “a kinder, gentler nation” – a baldly absurd proposition from the man who was simultaneously running ads associating his opponent with a racist caricature of a rapist, William Horton, whose name had to be shortened to “Willie” to sound “black enough”. Well versed in Bush’s CIA record of backing drug cartels and third-world fascists, and anticipating the immense military violence the President would unleash, Young modified Bush’s promise: “We want a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.”
The song is brilliant not just lyrically, but as a musical composition. The electric version that closes his 1989 tour-de-force, Freedom, centers on the abrasive driving power of a simple three chord riff, choking on sarcastic distortion that predicts pop music’s impending turn to grunge. For the chorus, “Keep on rockin’ in the free world,” the song rises anthemically to meet the power-ballads of the Reagan ’80s, coursing suddenly with major-chord energy, warmed by synthesizers, then out of nowhere, Rick “The Bass Player” Rosas comes in with that B, that angry third, to remind you that the song is wrathful, not triumphant. Neil carves out a blistering but sparse guitar solo, focused, like his “Cinnamon Girl” or a Bush press conference, on just one note. For the verse most directly parodying Bush’s insipidness, the roar of the guitar drops away, leaving just Neil and a bassline so every word sinks home. Then, as the album fades out, we hear another solo, this one sprawling and schizophrenic as if vomited out of the guitar, consuming itself in the chaos of post-Cold War America.
“Rockin’ In The Free World” is deceptive, a social critique trembling with barely contained ugliness masquerading as a pump-up anthem like the premise of the “Free World” itself. So deceptive, in fact, that Donald Trump would try to use the song (just like he used the premise) to get elected. On that morning in June 2015, when we all thought it was still a weird joke, when he said those words about Mexicans that made Willie Horton ads seem classy, when suddenly every politician who still considered their violent agenda unspeakable was put at an irreversible disadvantage, Trump strode onto his brass-plated stage with “Rockin’ In The Free World” booming behind him. Neil Young, already all-in for Bernie Sanders, was horrified, and became the first in a long and exalted line of classic rock stars to ask Trump not to use their songs to entrap spiteful baby-boomers.
When George H. W. Bush died last weekend, a kinder, gentler America had not yet materialized. Donald Trump was slogging through his second year as President of the United States; he had cleared his first hurdle on the improbable path to that office by emasculating Bush’s son, Jeb, in the style of a snot-nosed schoolyard bully, and the American people had responded with what, at least in Electoral College terms, constituted enthusiasm. The days when a Presidential gaffe meant H. W. showering with his dog or vomiting into the Japanese Prime Minister’s lap had come to an abrupt close; now we find ourselves watching the President compulsively on social media as he charges, shrieking in terror, down the obvious path to a complete breakdown while gutting our country’s political, social, and ecological status quo at a rate previously unimaginable.
Like infants, we subjects of late capitalism have no continuous sense of temporality. When the present is shitty, rather than try to conceive of a future in which the mistakes of the past have been resolved, we can grope blindly into an absurd misremembering for the comfort of familiarity which we mistake for hope. We are governed by the laws of Mark Fisher’s hauntology: “When the present has given up on the future, we must listen for relics of the future in the unactivated potentials of the past.” To the state-corporate media behemoth, any opportunity to rehabilitate any past-future, including one as crassly insincere as Bush Senior’s “kinder, gentler nation,” is a like a shot in the arm.
So, unsurprisingly, we are faced with the nightmarish exercise in unified hagiography that has surrounded the life of the first President Bush this week. Since it’s Christmastime, the Wall Street Journal wrote weirdly about Bush’s likeness to George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. Since we live in the patriarchy, Maureen Dowd wrote a touching but unsettling Times op-ed on her “love-hate-love relationship” with the man titled “The Patrician and the Reporterette,” a piece that reads not unlike the manifesto of the woman who recently tried to marry 80-year-old Charles Manson. And since broadcasting destructive neocons is how Trump-era liberals define “enriching the discourse”, the Times also published a more illuminating, horrifying, and poorly-written piece by Ross Douthat entitled, “Why We Miss The WASPs: Their more meritocratic, diverse, and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.”
Douthat’s column, published the day of the former president’s funeral, is wrong at every level. Firstly, if “we,” as he implies, means “we the people,” then “we” don’t miss the WASP establishment at all; his repeated suggestion that “a ruling class should acknowledge itself for what it really is, and act accordingly” seems to run exactly in counter to the post-H.W. years of politics, when every national election has been won by the figure who more successfully feigned removal from WASP elitism. But more basically, the WASPs did not magically disappear from power with the late President Bush; Bush’s son George Junior was as much a WASP as his father, and his son Jeb could very well be president right now if he was not so singularly “Low Energy,” meanwhile, across the aisle, Bill and Hillary Clinton are both very much white Anglo-Saxon protestants, though their pedigree might not match up to Douthat’s gently eugenic standard of Waspiness. Even Trump and Obama, two figures whose unconventional exteriors alarm Douthat to no end (albeit for opposite reasons), both had WASP mothers.
But, though we certainly don’t miss the WASPs, many of us do seem to miss George H. W. Bush, or at least think we do. I have been astounded over the past week by the degree to which people who are not, like Douthat, corrupt phony journalists paid to be provocative, voicing heartfelt sympathy for the former president. The images they share are of course those that highlight the vulnerability of a wheelchair-bound 94-year-old man with Parkinson’s, images that would elicit protective and compassionate instincts from any decent human being. There was that service dog next to his coffin, and Bob Dole being helped out of his wheelchair to salute, and the pictures of kisses with Barbara, and Bush Junior telling the New York Times that the last words of one ex-president to another were, “I love you, too.” These portrayals focus on how the Bushes, just like us, are human beings doing their best for that kinder and gentler world. They focus on the most powerful dynasty in the Western world as sweet, tender, and well-intentioned, but above all, as normal.
But any normality, of course, is as much an illusion as H.W.’s fake Texas twang, or as the kinder, gentler nation we swear we must have been even thirty years ago. We need not be reminded of Tolstoy’s maxim, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” to recognize the undeniable reality that a “normal” family is just as prone to pathology as any other. And we should never be tricked by conformist ideology into thinking that only the “normal” deserve our compassion and sympathy.
I have no shortage of sympathy for the Bushes, but not because a 94-year-old man passed away in peace. I grieve for them because I can not imagine how profoundly dehumanizing it must have been for W., Jeb, and company to grow up with a father who could justify training paramilitary death squads to invade Latin America, and in turn how dehumanizing it must have been for George Senior to grow up with a father, Senator Prescott Bush, who could justify helping finance Adolf Hitler during World War II to expand the family fortune. I grieve because their aristocracy has for many generations (the Bushes can trace their lineage to the Mayflower, and share blood with the other two Presidential dynasties, the Adamses and Roosevelts) been warped by proximity to power until their ability to recognize shared humanity has been destroyed and, completely isolated from possibilities of empathy or regret, they have trampled through millions of lives completely incapable of compassion or redemption. That is a tragic fate I would not wish on my worst enemies – yet it is a fate all my worst enemies, the Bushes included, seem to share.
But if the Bushes deserve our grief, so too do their victims. There aren’t enough hours in the history of television to give every person whose life was destroyed by George H. W. Bush the same type of wall-to-wall exaltation he has received in the past week. We can only pay tribute to their immensely unique lives in broad, vulgar generalizations that can never adequately encapsulate the trauma and moral rupture we describe. Mechanisms of power always hide behind Stalin’s famous truism: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Yet even statistics can shine a light, considering the darkness of our media landscape.
There are the hundreds of Cubans and Guatemalans who were killed thanks to his business deals with the CIA in the 1950s and 60s, the thousands of Cambodians and Vietnamese killed by American bombs while he bought Nixon political cover as Ambassador to the United Nations, the tens of thousands murdered across Latin America and Southeast Asia by the right-wing militias trained under his watch as head of the CIA in the late 70s, the countless Hondurans and Nicaraguans raped and slaughtered by the Contras who relied on operations run illegally through his Vice Presidential office in the 1980s.
There are the 290 passengers of Iranian Air Flight 655, shot down by a US cruiser in 1988, about whose deaths he said, “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”
There are the 3,000 Panamanians who died when he bombed and invaded the country to depose Manuel Noriega, his former associate in drug-running for the Contras. There are the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died when he collapsed their country to punish another former colleague, Saddam Hussein. Many of them were civilians, crushed to death in the air raid shelters he specifically ordered destroyed; many more were children, mutilated by cancers resulting from his indiscriminate use of depleted uranium, an internationally condemned weapon of mass destruction. There are the millions more who died because his invasion destroyed Iraqi infrastructure, because the sanctions he started blocked food and medicine from children, because his son, upon assuming power, would invade Iraq a second time to “finish the job” and inspire a fundamentalist insurgency that rages on to this day.
There are the hundreds of refugee Haitian women he had forcibly sterilized in Guantanamo Bay when he learned that they might have AIDS – a tragic irony that he died on World AIDS Day.
There are the hundreds of thousands locked in prison because of his brutal expansion of the War on Drugs – including Keith Jackson, who was in high school when he was lured by undercover agents to sell crack near the White House then promptly arrested, purely so that the President could show a bag of the drug to the media with the ominous warning, “This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House.”
There are the unknowable millions who will die because he responded to warnings of catastrophic climate change not with a promise for action, but with the declaration, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”
There were the Japanese he killed as a pilot when he was younger than I am now. George McGovern said of Bush, “Most of us who came back from World War II had enough. But Bush didn’t get enough.”
Whether he relished their suffering or was simply indifferent to it, he was faced time and time again with opportunities for personal gain at the cost of immense human suffering, and knowing that cost he always moved forward. Every journalist who now showers him with praise knows these facts – or simply chooses not to know them, which is not better – but imagines them negated by the colorful socks, the cute parachute jumps, the fabled sense of noblesse oblige. Sure, we disagreed with his politics, they tell us, but at least he was a different kind of man than Trump. After all, Trump doesn’t wear colorful socks, or jump out of planes, or carry himself with confident and cold dignity. There was something different at Bush’s core. Call it a kinder, gentler machine gun hand, maybe.
Neil Young was more prophetic than he realized. We keep on rockin’ in the free world, unable to imagine the realization of even modest demands, like a world not ruled by murderers. A Guardian headline this week read “Trump or George H. W. Bush? America must decide which vision of the world it wants.”
Ultimately, there is no substantial difference between George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump. Trump threatens to pardon himself for obvious criminal wrongdoing; Bush pardoned every high level Iran-Contra defendant the night before their trial, the first case in history of a president using pardon power to prevent himself from testifying before a Special Prosecutor. Trump relies on neo-Nazis for his political base; Bush relied on his father’s business dealings with actual Nazis to launch a career as an oil man. Trump calls the free press the enemy of the people; Bush once locked a group of journalists on a military base in Panama to prevent them from reporting on his abuses there. Trump manifests a fascist disdain for womankind; Bush just this year was accused of sexual harassment dating back several decades. Both men were notoriously bad at keeping track of policy decisions made by their dark money nominees. Both men lost the popular vote to spectacularly untrustworthy Democrats named Clinton.
Marx wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The former president rises anew in our national imagination. Now that he is dead, for the first time, he is broadly popular – now that he can not rule us, now that he can never again enact the everyday brutality and banality ruling entails, we wish that he could. In life he was a clownish buffoon, in death a picture of dignity and grace. Only the specters of the lives he shattered remain to haunt both visions, their erased futures creating a void that contains our only constant.
“There’s a warning sign on the road ahead, there’s a lot of people saying we’d be better off dead,” sang Neil Young.
The mobius strip of our past streaks past us, invading our future like a Kuwaiti oil field. One day not too long from now, when the weight of too many Happy Meals and Twitter rages proves too much for Donald Trump’s heart, we will read in the New York Times about his patience, his quiet dignity, his quaint and charming fashion sense, his love for his children. Oh, he could have done better on Yemen and the environment, but through it all, he showed such strong character. We will collectively sigh and think back to the good old Trump years, nothing like this newfangled trouble we find ourselves in.
We will keep on rockin’ in the free world.