Photo illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images, Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Quick: Who plays George W. Bush these days on Saturday Night Live? No, not Will Ferrell. Nope, not Will Forte. Jason Sudeikis is the current George W. Bush on SNL, but you can be forgiven for not knowing that; we only know because we e-mailed a friend who works on the show to ask. And why is Sudeikis so unmemorable? Because, according to our friend, Saturday Night Live hasn’t had a sketch featuring George W. Bush all season. “There have been some attempts,” he wrote, “but they never got on the show.”
The two places that George W. Bush is showing up in pop culture this spring — besides, of course, taped appearances on game shows — confirm that the culture no longer views him as relevant to the discussion. The Times’ Dennis Lim refers to Bush’s depiction in this week’s stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay as “arguably the most sympathetic movie portrayal of him to date” — but apparently he hasn’t read the widely leaked early draft of the screenplay to Oliver Stone’s biopic. Both portrayals mostly bypass direct criticism of the president, substituting bemusement and — dare we say it? — affection. He’s not a bad guy, just an amiable buffoon — a figure to poke fun at, like an eccentric uncle, but not to revile.
It’s admirable, in a way, that at his lowest point — with his popularity in the cellar and his political influence in the toilet — pop culture is willing to cut George W. Bush some slack. It’s also disheartening that the leader of the free world is so unimportant that even self-righteous Hollywood blowhards can’t be bothered to get angry at him.
In Harold & Kumar, the titular heroes — on the run from a rabid Homeland Security official played by Rob Corddry — parachute into Bush’s Crawford, Texas, office, only to be secreted away by the president in his guesthouse. There — surrounded by bikini posters, dartboards, and a sweet jukebox — the prez smokes up with our heroes and laughs about the ordeal they’ve been through. The movie portrays Bush as a genial fuckup — “Shit, it’s Cheney!” he says. “That guy scares the crap out of me” — who defends his own policies with a shrug and a wink. And it’s Bush who delivers the closest H&K comes to a political message: “You don’t need to believe in your government to be a good American. You just have to believe in your country.”
Bush is the deus ex machina of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay; with one sweep of his presidential hand, he makes problems disappear. Why does he help these two stoners? Because when Kumar relates how his father is pressuring him into med school, Bush gazes reverentially at him, then intones, “You just blew my fuckin’ mind.” Soon Bush is on the phone with his own father: “I don’t need your friends to tell me what to do anymore! I can take care of things on my own!” The scene ends with a cathartic “Fuck you!” delivered from president to ex-president.
Like Harold & Kumar, the script to Oliver Stone’s upcoming Bush biopic, written by Stanley Weiser, views the difficult Poppy-W relationship as the key to the president’s troubled soul. The W script offers a petulant Bush in 1988, just after his father’s victory over Dukakis, complaining to Laura, “I wish he’d lost” — after all, Bush glumly notes, “No matter what I do, it’s never going to be good enough.” Later, W. attacks Iraq explicitly to finish the job his father started in 1991, and for even more personal reasons: Saddam “went after my father, tried to bomb his car back in ‘93, in Kuwait,” Bush says. “You don’t go after the Bushes and get to talk about it. Ya got me?”
Throughout the script, Bush is presented as a boy yearning for his father’s respect. This vision of Bush as wayward man-child, desperately trying to impress his father and figure things out on his own, isn’t new: It’s a staple of Maureen Dowd columns and the linchpin of Jacob Weisberg’s recent Bush biography. What’s new is that in H&K and in Stone’s script, Bush’s psychodrama is portrayed sympathetically, rather than scornfully.
It remains to be seen how much Stone’s final product, starring Josh Brolin as Bush, will resemble this early screenplay, but in this draft, Bush is viewed just as Harold and Kumar see him: an ordinary fuckup who somehow got saddled with the toughest job on earth. In the end, this vision of Bush is comforting, if only because it contributes to the illusion that the guy at the top does, after all, share our sensibilities. Maybe all that’s gone wrong with his presidency isn’t truly his fault — it’s the fault of the jerks and dumbasses he has working for him. (In an already-infamous H&K scene, Rob Corddry’s Homeland Security chief wipes his butt with the Bill of Rights.) We can’t help but think that the real George W. Bush can’t be all that upset by this version of him, given the alternatives. We can imagine the president who has long taken advantage of those who misunderestimate him watching Harold & Kumar, laughing heartily — and giving a satisfied nod.
Related: Five Hilarious Moments From W. [NYM]How George W. Bush Became Hollywood’s Eccentric Uncle