"Who do you think you are? A Kennedy? You're a Bush. Act like one." Such is the dressing-down a young George W. Bush receives from his father in a trailer for Oliver Stone's new film W., which opened Oct. 17. By all accounts, the film was hurried through post-production in order to open three weeks before the election. There are no firm answers as to why -- are the producers trying to cash in on the dregs of the Bush presidency? Or is Stone trying to get in a final word before Bush leaves office? Stone, of course, claims the high road. He told Variety in January that he couldn't give his personal opinion of the president because "the filmmaker has to hide in the work. Here, I'm the referee, and I want a fair, true portrait of the man."
Stone's film is part of a late rush by authors, filmmakers, and other artists to reckon with George W. Bush before he exits office. It's a new chapter in our representations of the president who has tormented America for eight long years -- we've moved beyond the one-dimensional screeds and the off-handed jokes in favor of certain elegiac fictionalization. It's not that we're no longer mocking Dubya or suddenly ignoring his terrible faults but rather that we're more interested in companionable insight. Is it possible that now, in the waning days of the Bush presidency, we just want to sit down with the man, have a few beers, and see what makes him tick?
After Bush took office, our first cultural coping mechanism was parody. It went beyond the obligatory Saturday Night Live sketch exploiting the man's verbal tics. How could this frat boy possibly function as the president? Of course, the United States had yet to invade any countries under his watch, or experience the significant loss of civil liberties. We were stuck with Bush's inept bumbling for the next four years, so we might as well laugh at it, right? That's My Bush, Comedy Central's short-lived sitcom from the creators of South Park, aired for three months in 2001. The show offered the White House as a setting of a mid-1980s situational comedy, complete with a jazzy musical intro, an attractive young secretary, and a clueless neighbor who drops in to offer unsolicited advice.
But the September 11 attacks and the Iraq War cut into our high jinks, forcing us to examine the Bush administration's "war on terror" mentality. In 2004, Nicholson Baker (you may know him as the author of the phone-sex novel Vox, which Monica Lewinsky reportedly gifted to Bill Clinton) published Checkpoint, a fictional transcript of a conversation between two longtime friends, Jay and Ben, in a Washington, D.C., hotel room as they discuss Jay's plan to assassinate Bush. The book balances unreality (Jay plans to use a magic hammer and victim-seeking bullets) with a dark humor ("BEN: Jay, assassinating the president isn't a hobby. JAY: I'm sure not getting paid for it. It's pro bono all the way"). Still, Baker engages Americans' struggle to come to terms with the man they elected. As Jay explains to Ben, "Yeah, but sometimes you reach a point where you realize that millions of tiny individual decisions are condensed into one man. That's what I'm up against."
Some dramatizations were darker yet, concerned with the emerging laundry list of Bush administration abuses of power rather than the man himself. Also in 2004, playwright David Hare debuted Stuff Happens at London's National Theatre. The play, whose title is taken from Donald Rumsfeld's flippant reaction to the looting of Baghdad, portrays the run-up to the Iraq War with a blend of actual administration quotes and fictitious back-room dialogue. Hare's play, which in some stagings ran to three hours, has the tone of a work of investigative journalism. Two years later, British filmmaker Gabriel Range's Death of a President, a mock-documentary about Bush's assassination at the hands of an Iraq War veteran, premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. The film will be re-released in U.S. theaters in January 2009 -- just as America is swearing in a new president.
Bush fictionalizations of more recent years have taken a turn back to the humorous. The end of the Bush era is in sight, and maybe, just maybe, we're ready to laugh at him again. Comedy Central's second attempt at a series was the animated Lil' Bush, which debuted in 2007 and ran for two seasons. (It has yet to be renewed.) Lil' Bush presents D.C. as Beltway Elementary School, with administration figures and world leaders battling it out on the playground. Meg Greenfield, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post editor who vividly compared D.C. to high school, overrun with "the good-child politician," would be proud.
But, unlike the Bush parodies of 2001, more recent creative efforts have gone beyond snark and started reaching for an understanding of Bush as a man. In this year's Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay, the two lovable stoners parachute into Bush's Crawford, Texas, compound after fleeing Guantánamo and end up in the guesthouse smoking weed with Dubya.
"If you like weed so much, why don't you just legalize it?" Harold asks.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Bush replies. "Do you know how pissed off my dad would get if I did that?"
"Holy shit dude," Kumar says. "My dad's all up in my shit too about this whole med school thing."
This confession -- that Kumar is not sure if he wants to attend medical school for his own happiness or to appease his father's desire for a legacy prompts Bush to pick up the phone, call his own father, and denounce him. See? the film seems to say, Bush is just like us! -- struggling with parental expectations and wondering, do I have to make dad proud?
Author Curtis Sittenfeld takes attempting to understand Bush to an extreme with her third novel, American Wife, published in early September. Sittenfeld, a liberal, found herself fascinated with the woman married to the president whose politics she found so odious. In a 2004 essay for Salon titled "Why I Love Laura Bush," Sittenfeld writes, "To an uncanny degree, Laura Bush's own life resembles a great novel. Big, dramatic things have happened to her, certain themes have recurred, and she is such an easy heroine to root for -- smart and nice but just flawed enough (she still sneaks cigarettes!) to remain likable." Sittenfeld has run with that notion, giving us a lightly fictionalized view of Laura Bush and the man she loves, no matter how low his approval ratings sink. Sittenfeld's Laura, Alice Lindgren, is a 31-year-old librarian who marries into the high-powered, conservative, political Blackwell family. As her sister-in-law says, "That's the problem with being married to them. We're forced to see how the sausage gets made."
Sittenfeld's repackaging of Bush largely accepts the folksy persona that liberals so rightly feared would win over the American people. She presents the fictionalized Bush as a man whose charm is rooted in the juxtaposition of his confidence with his basic ineptitude: "He was so appealing to me, and so confident of his own appeal in a way that was boyishly endearing rather than arrogant." We've all dated these men, Sittenfeld seems to be saying -- privileged men who are careless with both their affection and their cruelty -- but most of us had the good sense to leave them or were blessed enough to have them leave us. Bush is the man we love even though we know better. The book has been a hit, climbing to No. 3 on The New York Times' best-seller list in its second week in stores.
American Wife is a hard act for W. to follow. Will Oliver Stone, whose political films have run the gamut from the wildly successful JFK to the wincingly bad World Trade Center, offer a similarly grabbing portrait? Texas Monthly convened a panel of politicos and film-industry types to discuss W. for its October issue, and the discussion kept returning to how Stone will make his film stand out from previous depictions of Bush. "He'll say 'nukular' 10 times. We're bored with that," commented screenwriter Anne Rapp. She later noted that the trailer "looks like a Judd Apatow movie." Apatow, director of Knocked Up and Superbad, is known for his funny, sometimes bawdy, portraits of bumbling young men attempting to grow up. And while the film was still being edited up to the release date (the film's publicist chuckled at my request for an advance screener), Stone's tone, at least in the marketing of the film, is snide -- one promotional tagline is "A Life Misunderestimated."
A second trailer for the film released in late September says, "Love him. Hate him. You don't know him," as the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" plays in the background. But with Bush's approval ratings at an all-time low, what makes Stone think America really wants to get to know him? Perhaps Sittenfeld and Stone have the space to fictionalize him precisely because Bush has become irrelevant to an extreme degree. Even the Republican Party has distanced itself from him, and the country has collectively moved the question of "what next" to the front of our national conversation. If we don't consider the man's merits now and sort out how that appeal helped keep him in power for eight years, we may not get the chance again.
At the end of Sittenfeld's novel, Alice/Laura meets with the father of a soldier killed in the Iraq War who has been camping on a lawn in Southeast Washington, D.C. She plays the quiet listener until suddenly, breaking, she tells him, "I think you're right. It's time for us to end the war and bring home the troops." Then she recalls her promise to Charlie/George from early in their relationship: "I can assure you I'll never tell anyone if I disagree with you. ... That's no one's business but ours." It's a moment of redemption, showing us that if we can, collectively, find our voice separate from Bush, we can then peacefully accept our acquiescence to his charms.