There is a moment in Oliver Stone’s W. — a film about a pathetic president and a mediocre man — when George W. Bush actually commits an act of heroism.
Choking on a pretzel while watching a football game, the president fearlessly hurls himself about the room and into the furniture, trying to dislodge the attacking snack from his throat. He loses consciousness but awakens alive, having saved himself. Yes, Stone appears to be saying that even Bush’s rare acts of heroism are pathetic.
Bush leaves office in January with a reputation secure as one of America’s worst and least popular presidents. Movies and TV shows had his number from the beginning. He has been seen as a kind of lovable but dimwitted buffoon in That’s My Bush. On Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell has done Bush amusingly as an American liability, shown best in a recent skit when he endorses an unappreciative, reluctant John McCain for president.
But Bush has also gotten far rougher treatment on TV. The meanest I’ve seen is a Comedy Central cartoon featuring the Last Laugh Squad — animated versions of comedians Lewis Black, D.L. Hughley and Dave Attell — using a shrink ray to travel up Bush’s ass. Among other things, they find a piece of the Bill of Rights, apparently used for wiping. (It’s available on the DVD Comedy Central Salutes George W. Bush.) Touché.
Stone’s treatment of Bush in W. falls somewhere in the middle. This relatively straight-forward biopic, featuring Josh Brolin as Bush, isn’t sympathetic but isn’t as condemning as it needs to be at this late date. Stone’s Bush is constantly in the shadow of a domineering Poppy (James Cromwell as George H.W.) who, as a Big Man in Washington, views his son as a hard-partying screw-up who constantly needs daddy’s help.
One wishes Stone had gone deeper in showing the tragic effect of that. Or do something really gutsy, like dump the stale biopic approach and dramatize Vincent Bugliosi’s book The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder.
Bush does turn up as a character in this year’s Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, a sex-obsessed, politically charged comedy that inexplicably goes soft when the two escapees find themselves in Bush’s Texas ranch. There the laid-back President (James Adomian) offers them some sage, friendly advice — like an older frat brother. The film suffers for its beneficent treatment of Bush. (Dennis Quaid’s mopey president in Paul Weitz’s 2006 American Dreamz seems modeled on Bush, too.)
Of the Bush depictions on TV, the most entertaining is That’s My Bush (all eight episodes are available on a DVD), the short-lived Comedy Central mock-sitcom dreamed up by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone while the 2000 presidential campaign was in full force.
They wanted to make fun of sitcoms with an over-the-top version, featuring the archetypal doddering wimp of a husband, a wisecracking maid and a brains-of-thehousehold wife. Only set in the White House. They didn’t care who won the election — Bush or Vice President Al Gore.
It got on the air in April 2001, with an excellent Timothy Bottoms as Bush and a charming Carrie Quinn Dolin as wife Laura. The show’s best episode — which nailed Bush’s early image as a hapless doofus — was its second, “A Poorly Executed Plan.” Bush’s Yale frat brothers, middle-aged immature boys, show up at the White House and taunt him to prove he’s still just one of them at heart. He schemes a mock execution to impress them. Naturally, everything goes wrong and he really kills a prisoner. The show has some political bite because of Bush’s pro-death penalty stance. After 9/11, That’s My Bush suddenly seemed very inappropriate and was pulled by Comedy Central. It’s gone but not forgotten.
By 2007, Comedy Central was ready to try the animated Lil’ Bush, Donick Cary’s series that re-imagines Bush and his pals — Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, plus assorted guests — as troublemaking little tykes during the administration of George H.W. Bush. (Both seasons one and two are now available on DVD.) This is crude, mean-spirited but fast-moving stuff, brought on by the anger over the Iraq War. There’s an implied link between the adult Bush’s intelligence and the depiction of him as a child.
The Bush that will forever haunt us — and him, too, I suspect — is the one revealed in Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The stunned, dumbfounded President sits in a Florida classroom reading with elementary students from My Pet Goat after learning of the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center. You see how far over his head he is as a leader of a nation, and it makes you want to turn away in shame and sadness. It’s hard for fiction or cartoons to top that. But they have certainly tried.