How George W Bush went from “war criminal” to the internet’s favourite grandpa

Memes, gifs, and screenshots of the former president are flooding social media.

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George Bush is on the front page of Reddit. A gif of him shaking hands with a member of the KanKouran West African Dance Company is perpetually looping under the caption “George Bush absolutely nails a handshake”. In fairness, he does.

But this handshake happened in 2007, and Bush has made it to the top of Reddit a decade later on 8 March 2017. Why? As a collective, Reddit has spent the last few years disliking Bush. Before this gif, one of the most up-voted posts about the former president on the site was a crude joke in which Satan forces him to give fellatio to Bill Clinton for eternity.

This gif is not alone. Over the last few months, screenshots of Bush struggling to put on a rain poncho have gained 14,550 retweets, a video montage of his relationship with Michelle Obama has 24,000 Likes, and a YouTube clip of his recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show has nearly one-and-a-half million views.

Before 2017, the 43rd president was infamous for his disastrous handling of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, as well as his lax approach to grammar. The only memes featuring Bush were highly critical, such as a Photoshopped image of him reading a book upside down and widespread mockeries of his attempts to paint. What has changed?

“While Bush was in office I was pretty young, but my opinion of him was almost always negative,” says Reagan Wright, a 20-year-old student in Arizona, who tweeted earlier this month that George Bush is now “so cute”. Though Wright spent most of her life finding Bush to be “less than smart”, she says her opinion changed when she watched his recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

On the show, Bush discussed his new book Portraits of Courage: A commander in chief’s tribute to America’s warriors, in which he has painted 66 oil portraits of former soldiers. Wright was impressed to hear that some proceeds of the book will be donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a charity that helps veterans adjust to civilian life.

 “Although it was just one simple thing, it made me realise how much he cares for the veterans of our country,” she says. “My grandpa and brother were in the military so that meant a lot to see.”

Bush’s book is instrumental to his new image, and it is clear his PR team is working overtime. Yet in 2014, when he unveiled his paintings of world leaders, Dubya was greeted with scorn. He has undoubtedly improved as an artist since then, but can that alone explain his new image? After all, if Hitler had lived and managed to finally secure his place in the Vienna Academy of Art after World War Two, would we have said “Never mind about the crimes against humanity, that’s a really nice tree you’ve painted”?

No, by far the largest player in Bush’s redemption is currently the largest player in the world itself – President Donald Trump.

“When [Bush] was in office, I did not view him as someone who handled the international affairs of the time effectively,” says Gabriela Ayala, a 25-year-old political researcher, who earlier this month tweeted that George Bush is “so silly” and that she “loves” him as a human, but not as a president.   

“Now, I see him as someone who is speaking out against Trump, saying immigration policy should be welcoming, that he believes in free press. I see him as individual and not as someone who is making decisions for the country, so I can laugh at him not knowing how to put a poncho on, enjoy his paintings, and his friendship with Michelle Obama,” she says.

It sounds flippant to say that compared to Trump, Bush is starting to look good, and this sentiment has become a popular online joke within itself. Nonetheless, the claim is grounded in some reality, as New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hasan noted in November 2016 that Bush always distinguished between Islam and terrorism. Condemning Trump has also helped Bush’s image immensely, as the American actress Joy Behar said “I like George Bush now” after he spoke out against the racism in Trump’s America and criticised his distrust of the media.

But is this all the cynical work of a man desperate to redeem his image and a PR team desperate to sell books? (Note, here, that he recently adopted a puppy.) Or are we finally simply judging Bush as a man, not as a president?

 “I don't think Bush is trying to redeem himself,” says Jean Edward Smith, a professor of political science and eminent biographer, who wrote Bush in 2016. Though this biography was called a “scathing indictment” of Bush by the New York Times, Smith is not concerned by Bush’s recent resurgence.

“I don't think we should read too much into Bush's recent appearances,” he says, adding that he doesn’t think the world is really forgiving Bush. “I don't think time is causing people to forget. Bush's decision to invade Iraq is without doubt the worst foreign policy decision ever made by a president.

“On the other hand, his behaviour as an ex-president has been exemplary. He has stayed out of politics, and I believe will continue to do so.”

There are other factors driving Bush’s new favourable image. To the popular eye Bush was often seen as more idiotic than evil – with Simon & Schuster publishing not one, but four comedy books of “Bushisms”. The transition from idiot to lovable idiot is not a huge leap, aided by complex human psychology that means we find old people cute, as well as the fact Michelle Obama – who is beloved by many online – has been pictured embracing him fondly.

Not everyone, however, is so quick to “Ooh” and “Ahh” at the new George Bush. Writing in Jacobin magazine, Branko Marcetic says: “Bush was easily one of the most vicious presidents to ever take office. Bush and his underlings sold a campaign of outright lies to the public in order to embroil the United States in a totally unnecessary war that killed between 150,000 and 1 million Iraqis and destabilized an entire region.” On Twitter, there are many tweets decrying Bush’s new image and calling him a “war criminal”.

This, really, should come as no surprise. Even in office Bush vastly divided public opinion, and received both some of the highest and lowest presidential approval ratings ever in his eight years. Overall, however, it seems there’s nothing better for a catastrophic leader than being followed by an even more catastrophic one. On a smaller scale, this is apparent in the UK with many online now expressing the sentiment that they “miss” David Cameron.

In Bush, Smith’s first sentence is: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” As a new leader threatens to usurp this unfavourable top spot, George Bush can sit back and watch history paint him in a new light. 

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.