George W. Bush and Pop Culture's Perception

Article excerpt

During his eight tumultuous years in office, President George W. Bush has been portrayed in popular culture as a hubristic cowboy, a puppet of Dick Cheney, and the worst mangler of the English language since Shakespeare's Dogberry. Oliver Stone's new biopic, "W.," even focuses on Bush's supposed "daddy issues."

And those are the gentler depictions. He's also been branded a liar in Neil Young's "Let's Impeach the President," accused of being in cahoots with Saudi oilmen in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," and pilloried in the post-hurricane Katrina mash-up video "George Bush Doesn't Care about Black People."

Bush is hardly the first White House occupant to endure invective from entertainers, and such clashes tend to be particularly pronounced when a Republican is pitted against left-leaning creative types. But the 43rd president's time in office has marked a fundamental turning point in the relationship between popular culture and politics. The proliferation of new forms of media - coupled with a democratization of communication that allows anyone with a modem to become a filmmaker, broadcaster, or pundit - has meant that no other sitting president has had quite so many slings and arrows to suffer. Against such a backdrop, Bush may find it exceedingly difficult to control the final narrative of his presidency.

"I believe Bush's legacy will be almost entirely shaped by pop culture," says Leslie Kreiner Wilson, executive director of Americana, the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture. "Pop culture has always had some impact on our perception of presidents, but the media explosion since the 1980s has made things much harder on the presidents since then, like Bill Clinton and George W."

Other observers believe that history's verdict on Bush will be more forgiving than, say, his depiction in the TV sitcom "That's My Bush" or the Eminem protest song "Mosh." Put it this way: Bush's ratings can only go up. When the Siena Research Institute asked 744 leading historians and political scientists to rank Bush as a president, the results spawned a "Rolling Stone" cover story proclaiming him the worst president ever. But the institute's Tom Kelly, a history professor at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., says it takes at least 25 years to establish the academic record of a presidency. By then, emotions are lower and perspective is clearer.

"Pop culture is like cartooning," says Mr. Kelly. "It creates a sharp image which reflects more, probably, about the mind of the individual who creates the image, than reality - although that doesn't mean the image is wrong. But, also, it tends to pass."

Still, Kelly says, some pop-culture images do linger. For example, a combination of Johnny Carson jokes and Chevy Chase impersonations on "Saturday Night Live" created an enduring image of Gerald Ford as being more prone to pratfalls than Inspector Clouseau.

But there's a profound difference in today's media landscape, argues Donick Cary, creator of the Comedy Central cartoons "Lil' Bush" and "The Adventures of John McCain." "Forty years ago, a comedy take on a president would be 13 episodes of 'Saturday Night Live' in a year," says Mr. Cary. "Now, every day, as soon as there's a [presidential] debate there's literally 100,000 takes on the Internet as well as 'The Daily Show,' 'Colbert Report,' Bill Maher. …