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March 25, 2009

On Will Ferrell's farewell to George W. Bush

Presidential impressions are a stock trade for the stand-up comedian. Will Ferrell has established himself as one of the best Bush impersonators. In fact, his act is so familiar, I wondered if Ferrell’s HBO special from the Manhattan Theater could keep me involved for the full hour-and-a-half. Certainly, the “satiric memoir” is consistently funny, regularly revealing Ferrell’s zany aptitude for characters both abrasive and inept, but all that’s to be expected. Indeed, no lack of comic blips and blurbs dot the Bush timeline. Other “pleasers” include: a Condoleeza Rice striptease, Bush AWOL outing of a homosexual liaison with a man named Dave Rothchild; Ferrell even later improvises with the audience by assigning individual spectators with Bushian nicknames based on their occupations.

Still, all these gimmicks could be counted on for a laugh.

Ferrell’s performance departs from mere antics into a true tour de force in the final act, when he has Bush confess that he has shed many tears over fallen soldiers and their families. After being knocked giddy over the past hour or so, the crowd is ready at first to burst at the slightest inkling of humor, but Ferrell keeps on, silent and remorseful, leaving the audience mesmerized — like in an Andy Kaufman “happening” — to wonder, this is fake, right? He wants us to laugh, right? By the time Bush’s sad list grows to include “all those sons and daughters of the military who will grow up missing their parents,” the audience gives up on the joke and the mood darkens. Ferrell dangles from that precipice just long enough for the red phone in his office to ring with none other than Michael Brown on the other end. After making a hilarious joke about Mrs. Brown’s breasts, the tension dissolves, but as the telephone conversation ends, Ferrell’s Bush chuckles to remind Mike Brown (the former director of FEMA who fouled up after Katrina), “Good luck with all those night-terrors and night sweats!” The moment is funny onstage because it lambastes Brown and his delinquent negligence, but it’s also ironic, in a sad way, because it mocks the previous teary-eyed scene by implying the genuine remorse the actual George W. Bush should have. Ultimately, Ferrell offers us something with his Bush that the real man has not — regret.

Even Stephen Colbert’s epic lampooning of President Bush during the famed White House Correspondents’ Dinner didn’t dare break the guise of punchline and satire and evoke the true sense of betrayal most of the country was feeling. With that somber moment, Will Ferrell cleverly shatters the accustomed safeguard and strikes a deeper chord, perhaps without many in the audience realizing it. I wasn’t certain what the move was all about until well after the show.

It’s a dangerous thing to joke too much about calamity. By punctuating every criticism with jokes and laughs, like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, we reduce very serious issues to innocuousness. I’m not saying these shows don’t promote awareness; humor magnificently relates many issues, but only if something is actually done about those stated complaints and grievances. I’m not saying Ferrell wants us to go out and arrest George W. Bush, but at least he gave us an actual moment to consider the dreadful result of Bush’s inept leadership. No comedian thus far has had the fortitude to try it on such a major scale. Bravo to Ferrell for showing he still can surprise.

No, I’m not trying to use Ferrell’s performance to be supercritical of the likes of Jon Stewart. After all, our dim former president solicited ample ridicule. That Texas whirlwind of mesquite barbeque sauce and incompetent misspeak was easy inspiration for many jokes and epithets. Perhaps that’s why poking fun at Bush became such an industry, something to market wholesale on the cable networks and the big screen (How many prodigiously successful news shows have been born since Bush’s election in 2000? How many films?)

I remember reading an article by Hunter S. Thompson about the day Nixon was to fly off the White House lawn and leave Pennsylvania Avenue forever. The second that forest green chopper disappeared into the gray January sky, Thompson felt the entire city of Washington deflate into lethargy. So many journalists had made their careers off the twisted carnival that engulfed “Tricky Dick” that they doubted anyone would ever care to read about a legitimate president again. We should be wary of a similar hangover with George W. Bush. However uncomfortable the intimation, the million-and-a-half punch lines launched at our former leader may have actually served in a way to protect Bush. After all, without the W around to laugh at, we’re all now faced with the grim prospect of dealing with our own consciences.

I understand any president’s hesitance to prosecute his predecessor. Even when a Republican-led oversight committee headed by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) concluded in early 2008 that the Bush administration misled Americans into the war in Iraq, it still sets a dangerous precedent to authorize the criminal investigation of any former head of state. After all, what would keep a future Ronald Reagan from trumping up charges against a future Jimmy Carter, or keep Barack Obama’s replacement from doing the same against him? Many criticized Gerald Ford’s quick pardoning of Richard Nixon. Though I agree that no one should be above the law, I also understand the rationale: protect the office and its power. I don’t agree, but I understand.

Still, I don’t think we should let them off so easy. Americans should know if their leaders are guilty, especially when their blunders have ruined us. Even if we can’t accomplish this simple transparency, at least I’d like to see the man who — as Ferrell’s performance reminds us — has no genuine remorse for his misdeeds, actually show some sign of regret. I don’t think any of us believes that Bush has shed many tears over the dead incurred under his malfunctioning command. In principle, anyone so supremely vain to believe they have a special confidence with God is utterly incapable of acknowledging the slightest hint of personal malfeasance. At least a legitimate criminal investigation would force George W. Bush to give up his chronic denial and actually defend himself. Maybe then America can finally say farewell to Bush after we see him shed those much-needed tears. 

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