When President Richard Nixon resigned from the White House in 1974, he told the world it wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore. But the world kept kicking. And it's doing the same thing to George W. Bush.
The disgraced 37th president of the United States saw something of a public relations renaissance during his golden years post-White House. When Nixon died in 1994, President Clinton stood in the Rose Garden and hailed him as “a statesman who sought to build a lasting structure of peace.” But in the years following Nixon's death, the man has taken a beating, particularly brutalized at the multiplex. It’s a posthumous commemoration that might predict what George W. Bush has to look forward to.
With countless accolades as both a play and feature film, last year’s Frost/Nixon profiles Nixon as a master manipulator. Frank Langella’s portrayal of Nixon in both the film and play garnered rave reviews but did little to support President Clinton’s idea of Nixon the statesman. It was the fictional Nixon portrayed in the big-budget super hero blockbuster Watchmen that took significant liberties with his legacy. Originally published as a graphic novel while Nixon was still alive, Watchmen takes place in a world where the president has eliminated term limits and rules Cold War America through fear and the prospect of mutually-assured destruction with the Soviets. The suspension of disbelief in Watchmen is remarkable--in this parallel universe, superheroes help win the Vietnam war and Lee Iacocca is assassinated--and the actor portraying Nixon looks and sounds nothing like him.
Does this negative portrayal of Nixon portend a tough post-presidency ride for President Bush? The comparison between Nixon and Bush has been made often. Both led administrations highlighted by controversial wars. Both men suffered from low approval ratings, particularly near the end of their terms. During Bush’s final days in office, a USA Today/Gallup poll listed the outgoing president’s approval rating at 34%, a minor improvement over his numbers from previous months and still better than Nixon’s disastrous 24% approval rating in 1974. Director Oliver Stone has also made biopics documenting both men with 1995’s Nixon showing more compassionate portrayal than 2008’s W.
Though it’s been only weeks since W left the White House, popular culture has already started paving his legacy. This week, Will Ferrell’s one-man show, You’re Welcome, America, a ripping satire on the Bush White House, made its debut on HBO to solid reviews. But perhaps the most telling development has been Bush’s online presence, where he has gone viral. The video of the former president’s encounter with a shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist has already drawn over 3 million views on YouTube. A popular Ferrell lampoon of Bush also drew an additional 6.9 million YouTube views while a blooper reel of Bush’s public slip-ups entitled George W. Bush is Funny drew 8.58 million views. No word on any other Bush-inspired film or television projects, but it’s still early.