One relatively unsung Bush administration “success” is the depth of mistrust and cynicism they managed to brand on the collective consciousness of American young people. I use the scare quotes both because this is obviously only a success in despicably Rovian electoral terms, and also because they don’t quite deserve all the credit. The growth of the skeptical blogosphere, and the excessive media documentation of every Washington maneuver starting around 2001 meant that “outrage fatigue,” Onion quip or not, was a disconcertingly real thing for anyone who read even a little bit of news or commentary.
But then of course, Bush & Co. did also actively dismantle and mishandle things in such a way as to undermine any sense of faith or reliance on government among my generation. I was 16 when he was inaugurated, 18 when Iraq was invaded, 20 when Katrina hit–and those are only a few marquee disasters. They don’t account for the Justice Department debacle and the know-nothing Gonzalez hearings; the appointment of a total anti-UN fanatic like John Bolton to, naturally, the UN; Abu Ghraib; the anti-gay hysteria that weaseled its way into the 2004 election; the 2008 financial collapse; and let us not forget, 9/11 itself. These are the products of a government that believes government is inherently awful; if you’re selling people the line that politics are dirty and Washington is ineffectual, then it pays to pollute the pond and appoint bureaucratic stooges who despise the very offices they hold.
I thought a lot about this while reading Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory, about another jewel in the Bush crown of enforced incompetence: Pat Tillman’s death. What emerged from Krakauer’s thorough research and clear passion for his subject was Tillman himself, a larger than life literary character and genuinely inspiring man. Krakauer spends an inordinate amount of time scrutinizing Tillman’s friendly-fire death, but I admit I was more intrigued by his engaging quotations from the man’s journals and the testimonials from friends. Tillman loved his wife and his brothers. He thought deeply about the meaning of patriotism and the definition of a well-lived life. He loved Europe but was unrepentantly proud to be American. He liked the outdoors, coffee, and alcohol, in whatever order best suited the given day. Man after my own heart, he watched Gosford Park the night before flying to Fort Benning for basic training, and he wrote about it in his journal.
Krakauer clearly wants us to be enraged by the military’s cover-up of his death. He makes it very clear that this war, The War on Terror, was and is unworthy of Pat Tillman. And yet I found myself unsurprised. Of course this incredible man’s idealism was wasted and his death exploited. (I had a similar experience watching Erroll Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which likewise might have been chilling had its conclusions been at all unexpected.) And this awful, cynical reaction made me realize that whatever people think “history will decide” about Bush and the movement he nominally led, they won (in a matter of speaking) much more than we care or dare to admit. To people who know little more of politics than that one administration, federal malpractice is all but assumed. This is a victory for anyone who stands to prosper from a population that considers government–all government, from health care legislation down to street lights, except defense spending–an inherent hindrance.
Tonight the war in Iraq is “over.” I remember back when this war was starting, when pundits around my parents’ age kept asking why no college students were protesting and picketing and starting a proper New Left freak-out. This generation, I’ve noticed, also tends to grossly overstate the talent, relevance, and effectiveness of Michael Moore. But I know very few genuinely apathetic people in my age group. I think we’ve generally recognized what an extraordinary level of governmental cynicism and crass political manipulation reigned during the last 10 years–you can scarcely enter a bookstore, watch previews on a DVD, or skim the nation’s op-ed pages without being assaulted by proof of it–and feel, if not exactly disenfranchised, than at least appalled to the point of numbness.
I don’t know what form this attitude will take, or what our generation’s politicians will be like. To be clear, I have essentially no hope that things will get “better,” institutionally. But it’s a really frightening thing to realize how low our expectations are, and how disengaged I’ve come to feel from the fundamental issues of my time. People like Pat Tillman die every week, and I barely bother to read the notices about them. Worse still, I don’t really have to. I haven’t been forced to make any sacrifice whatsoever on behalf of these wars and the other tragedies, like Katrina, that have been so horribly mismanaged by people in power. The evidence, like Where Men Win Glory, of political evil keeps piling up, faster than any normal person can keep pace with. Certainly it’s good that the record is growing, but it’s also increasingly clear that the scope and reach of the Bush administration’s bungling was so great that we may not have yet seen its true legacy: an entire generation of people are about to assume power in this country, having grown up thinking that this kind of governance is viable.