Wayne Brown is a well-known Trinidadian writer and columnist who now lives in Jamaica. This is the Tenth in his new series on the Obama era.
I don’t know about you, but for this columnist the most mesmerizing image of Tuesday’s historic inauguration didn’t involve Barack Obama. It began with the moment the CNN cameras caught the jumbo jet (which had just ceased to be called Air Force One) lifting off from Andrews Air Field, carrying GW Bush home to Texas and out of official Washington forever.
Long minutes passed while the camera stayed with the plane as it climbed, growing smaller and more indistinct, until it threatened to merge with the indistinct winter sky. Yet it was impossible not to keep staring at it until it vanished — or, strictly speaking, until CNN inartfully cut away from it a few moments before it would have vanished. It was instructive to learn that, an hour earlier, the vast crowd on the Washington Mall had had the same reaction. Seeing the ex-president’s helicopter rise, en route to Andrews, that crowd of millions had first spontaneously broken into a jeering chant, “Nah nah nah nah, hey, hey, goodbye!” But then they, too, had fallen silent and stared upward, staring at it until it was out of sight.
What huge, unnameable, smirking thing, what spectre was it that had lifted away at last from the world’s soul, compelling us to watch it go, mesmerized, until it was quite gone?
The world’s newspapers struggled to put it into words.
Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung (under the headline, ‘The Failure’): “A weak leader, Bush was just overwhelmed in the job… it will take a long time to repair the damage.”
Canada’s Toronto Star: “Goodbye to the worst president ever. Bush was an unmitigated disaster.”
The Sunday Times of London: “Bush leaves a country and an economy in tatters.”
Britain’s Daily Mail: “He leaves the world facing its biggest crisis since the Depression, the Middle East in flames and U.S. standing at an all-time low.”
The Scottish Daily Record: “America is now hated in many parts of the world. Bush leaves a legacy of wars and the world economy in meltdown. He has been dismissed as a buffoon and a warmonger, a man who made the world a more dangerous place while sending it to the brink of economic collapse.”
Le Monde: “It’s hard to find a historian who won’t say that Bush was the most catastrophic leader the U.S. has ever known.”
Stern magazine: “Bush led the world’s most powerful nation to ruin. He lied to the world, tortured in the name of freedom and caused lasting damage to America’s standing.”
Die Zeit: “Bush brought great misery to the world.”
And so on.
On Wednesday, the first of the whistleblowers appeared, telling MSNBC’s Keith Olberman that he (and we) could forget the Bush administration’s assurances that its warrantless wiretapping only applied to overseas calls involving suspected terrorists. In fact, the NSA listened in on all phone and email conversations, in (and beyond, of course) the US, 24/7. The NSA now had files on pretty much everybody. Particularly in the case of journalists, that spying umbrella agency also went to pains to marry such innocent communications to credit card and other information (also illicitly collected).
In a word, the Bush administration had been, quite literally, the world of Orwell’s 1984, of Big Brother, come to pass.
Determined to be “a healer,” Barack Obama has adamantly said he’s not interested in litigating the past. And last week, Senate Republicans, nonetheless fearful of the prospect of criminal proceedings being brought at some future date against the ex-President and/or his Vice-President and operatives in the interrogating agencies, held up the confirmation of Obama’s Attorney-General, Eric Holder, after Holder opined that waterboarding constituted torture. Yet if the whistle-blowing starts now in earnest; if the full, as yet undreamt, extent of the criminality of the Bush regime now increasingly comes to light, who can say President Obama may not yet be forced to step aside and permit the prosecutions for which an increasing number of voices in the Democratic Congress and the media are calling?
This thing isn’t over; neither the ramifications of the Bush-Cheney White House years nor their denouement is over. And those millions who stared in silence at the aircraft taking the fatuous utterer of nonsense like, “I’m the commander — see, I don’t need to explain — I do not need to explain why I say things,” knew in their nerves they weren’t over.
Evil is banal, wrote Hannah Arendt arrestingly, of Germany’s Nazi regime. Some had to wait 60 years to know what she meant.
So it should not have been a surprise (though it was) that, both in his Inauguration address and with his first executive orders as President, Obama eschewed the soaring rhetoric for which he had become famous to take aim (methodically, directly, one by one) at the Bush administration’s policies. “Not since 1933,” wrote the NYT’s David Sanger next day, “when Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a ‘restoration’ of American ethics and ‘action, and action now’ as Herbert Hoover sat and seethed, has a new president so publicly rejected the essence of his predecessor’s path.”
It’s a regretful thought that the ol’ GWB’s legendary denseness may well have protected him at the Inauguration from recognizing the extent to which Obama, standing just a few feet from him, was taking aim at everything he had wrought and stood for as president, when Obama said things like:
“America has [prevailed in hard times]… because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents… Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some… On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord … Our time of protecting narrow interests has surely passed… We will restore science to its rightful place… A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous… We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals… We are ready to lead once more…”
But the wheelchair-bound Cheney would certainly have understood. And even Bush, now installed in suburban Texas, had to know he was watching his house of cards peremptorily crumble when, in the next two days, Obama stopped the ex-President’s still pending regulations; froze the Bush kangaroo court’s proceedings against “suspected terrorists”; ordered Guantanamo and the CIA ‘black sites’ closed within a year; and banned “harsh interrogation techniques”: viz, torture.
So it is that Barack Obama has become the incarnation of Americans and the world’s soul-deep relief in more senses than one. In his mere person he signifies that the long night of American racism can no longer prevail. But additionally, because of who he is — with his multiracial island upbringing, his uncommon intelligence and fundamental righteousness, and, most pertinently, given his area of academic expertise, which is constitutional law — he has also become, inescapably, the righter of the Bush administration’s wrongs.
They were potentially world-destroying. And since they may turn out to have been more perilously close to fruition than even attentive observers understood at the time, he, Obama, cannot help now but be the protagonist of what’s an ongoing, epic, and world-restoring drama.