In retrospect, George W. Bush’s presidency could be viewed as a science-fiction disaster movie in which an alien force seizes illegitimate control of a nation, saps its wealth, wreaks devastation, but is finally dislodged and forced to depart amid human hope for a rebirth.
There was even a satisfying concluding scene as a new human leader takes power amid cheers of a liberated populace. The alien flees aboard a form of air transportation (in this case, a helicopter), departing to the jeers of thousands and many wishes of good riddance.
After Bush’s departure on Jan. 20, 2009, the real-life masses actually had the look of survivors in a disaster movie, dressed mostly in ragtag clothing – ski caps, parkas, boots and blankets – bent against the cold winds trudging through streets largely devoid of traffic.
My 20-year-old son, Jeff, and I made our way home from the Mall to our house in Arlington, Virginia, by hiking across the 14th Street Bridge, part of the normally busy Interstate 395, except that only buses and official vehicles were using it on Inauguration Day.
So, the bridge became an impromptu walkway with clumps of half-frozen pedestrians straggling across it, over the icy Potomac. Jeff and I picked an exit ramp near the Pentagon, clambered over some road dividers, and worked our way to Pentagon City where we’d parked the car. It took much of the afternoon and evening for the cold to work its way out of our bodies.
Everyone I’ve talked to who attended Barack Obama’s Inauguration had similar tales of transportation woes – standing in long lines in freezing temperatures, frustrated by jammed subway stations, walking long distances – but no one was angry. Remarkably, police reported no Inaugural-related arrests.
Despite the grim economy and other havoc left behind by Bush and his associates, Inauguration Day 2009 was filled with a joy that I have rarely seen on the streets of Washington, a city that even at its best is not known for spontaneous bursts of happiness.
But there was more than joy that day; there was a sense of liberation.
An estimated 1.8 million people braved the frigid temperatures and the transportation foul-ups to witness not only Obama’s swearing-in, but Bush’s ushering-out. They not only cheered Obama and other favorites, but many booed those considered responsible for the national plundering, especially Bush and the wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney.
Watching the Jumbotrons
Jeff and I were part of the crowd standing on the frozen Mall nearly 14 blocks from the Capitol. We watched the Inaugural events on one of the many Jumbotrons, which showed scenes inside the Capitol building as well as on the outdoor podium.
So, when Bush arrived or when Cheney was wheeled into view, many people booed and heckled. Bush was serenaded with the mocking lyrics, “Na-na-nah-na, na-na-nah-na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” One group near us started singing, “Hit the road, Jack.”
Some Georgetown students next to Jeff tut-tutted the failure to show more deference to the departing President and Vice President, but most people either laughed or joined in. To them, it seemed that taunting Bush and Cheney was the least that could be done, since the pair had been spared impeachment and, so far, any other accountability for the harm they caused.
But what was perhaps more striking was the absence of any noticeable protests against Obama. Surely there must have been some placards somewhere protesting something, but I didn’t see any in the seven hours that it took for Jeff and me to get to the Mall, wait for the Inauguration and then make our way back to Arlington.
The contrast to eight years earlier couldn’t have been starker.
Like all disaster movies, there has to be an early, ominous scene – and Jan. 20, 2001, was it, a grim gray day of icy rain when George W. Bush was to become the new American President. That morning, I was with my other two sons, Sam and Nat, as we made our way to a spot along the Inaugural parade route.
It would take more than three years for the fuller historic picture of that day’s events to be put into focus by Michael Moore’s documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Moore highlighted dramatic Inauguration Day scenes of protesters surging through the streets, scuffling with police and egging Bush’s limousine as it descended from Capitol Hill toward the White House.
“The plan to have Bush get out of the limo for the traditional walk to the White House was scrapped,” Moore said in narrating the footage of masses of Americans decrying Bush’s tainted victory. “Bush’s limo hit the gas to prevent an even larger riot. No President had ever witnessed such a thing on his Inauguration Day.”
From our cramped vantage point on 13th Street, we couldn’t see the egg-throwing incident that occurred several blocks to our left. But we did notice the presidential limousine and security vehicles speed up, hurrying past both those Americans who came to honor Bush and those who stood in the rain to heckle him.
After the limousine rushed past, the crowd experienced a few moments of confusion as the facts of Bush’s hasty passage rippled back through the protesters.
Soon, the reality of Bush’s presidency began to sink in bringing with it a pang of disappointment to many demonstrators. What many of them saw as an American coup d’etat was a fait accompli.
The bedraggled protesters shouted a few more choruses of “Hail to the Thief!” and slowly began to disperse.
Surveying the Wreckage
Now, eight years later, a fuller measure can be taken of what Bush’s power grab meant for the United States – the federal debt ballooning, the economy in freefall, unemployment skyrocketing (along with bankruptcies and foreclosures), environmental degradation, two open-ended wars, and the nation’s image around the world soiled by torture and other official crimes.
It’s also increasingly clear how narrowly the American Republic dodged a bullet, one fired by Bush operatives who saw Bush as a leader who would transform the U.S. political system into a virtual one-party state with a “permanent Republican majority” and Democrats kept around as a cosmetic appendage.
In furtherance of that goal, Karl Rove and other Bush political aides collaborated to politicize the Justice Department, install ideological judges on the federal bench and exploit a powerful right-wing media apparatus as a means of bullying dissenters – all to ensure that GOP power could survive any serious challenges.
There was a feeling of incipient totalitarianism, too, as post-9/11, the Bush administration wiretapped communications and explored ways to “data-mine” the electronic records of virtually anyone who operated in the modern economy – what the Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, called “Total Information Awareness.”
At times over the past eight years, it seemed like only the bravest Americans – whether in politics, journalism or other walks of life – dared to stand up to the Bush/Republican juggernaut. Even entertainers who uttered critical words about Bush – like the Dixie Chicks – faced career reprisals and, in some cases, death threats.
It is a tribute to those courageous Americans who stood up to Bush and his henchmen during those dark times that this wave of totalitarianism was turned back, albeit at an extraordinary cost to the United States and the world.
So, when nearly two million Americans rallied on the National Mall on Jan. 20, 2009, they were not there just to celebrate the Inauguration of Barack Obama. They were there to witness the departure of Bush and Cheney.
In a sense, the humans were there to make sure the aliens really did depart – and to celebrate the survival, and possibly the renewal, of a great Republic.
[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, at Consortium News.]
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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