Two weeks before Richard Nixon left the White House in August 1974, Stevie Wonder released an album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which contained the toxic goodbye You Haven’t Done Nothin’. “We are sick and tired of hearing your song,” Wonder scolded the departing POTUS. The 43rd president demands no such hurrying. Even though he doesn’t step down until tomorrow, US President W. George Bush’s song has been all but inaudible for the past year. As his opponents have sublimated Bush hate into Obama love, he has become a ghost president, hardly worth the bother of attacking.
If you require a good-riddance sound track, however, there are plenty to draw on from the preceding years. Between Dixie Chick Natalie Maines telling a London audience in March 2003 that she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” and Kanye West declaring on a live telethon in September 2005 that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” the president’s approval rating halved and the trickle of critical songs became a torrent. You could construct a decent box-set of anti-Bush songs — Songs in the Key of W, perhaps — covering ground from Bright Eyes to Eminem, Pink to Public Enemy, Jay-Z to Elbow. Neither Nixon nor Ronald Reagan attracted such consistent and wide-ranging personal opprobrium.
Bush was a gift to songwriters because he allowed so many lines of attack. To Public Enemy in Son of a Bush (2002) it was an alleged coke habit (which Bush had previously denied) and execution-happy record as governor of Texas. To the Beastie Boys in In a World Gone Mad (2003) it was his bellicose posturing: “George Bush, you’re looking like Zoolander/Trying to play tough for the camera.” To Pearl Jam in Bu$hleaguer (2002) he was a “confidence man” who “got lucky.”
But these artists, along with fellow early critics REM and Zack de la Rocha, were longstanding liberals and leftists who cut their teeth during the eras of Reagan and Bush senior. One mark of a truly bad leader is the ability to stir outrage among artists who usually leave their politics at the studio door. Just before the 2004 election, Eminem labeled Bush a “weapon of mass destruction” in his stirringly surly anti-war record Mosh, and Green Day released American Idiot, which, if it wasn’t specifically about the president, didn’t bend over backwards to discourage that interpretation. Evidently, though, no artistic efforts mobilized enough younger voters to put John Kerry in the Oval Office. After Bush’s
re-election, and with Iraq’s continued descent into chaos, the songs grew more bitter. As the second term began, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst memorably depicted Bush as a deluded religious maniac in When the President Talks to God (2005).
Rob Tannenbaum, music editor of the US music magazine Blender, heard Oberst sing it at New York town hall that January: “I can’t think of many occasions when I felt an audience was so engrossed in the drama of a song and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a singer project as much sincerity. There was a point when I thought he was going to start crying.” But over the next few months, echoing Bob Dylan’s painful efforts to disentangle himself from politics in the 1960s, Oberst fled from the song. He later complained to the Guardian: “I guess they see some kind of glimmer in you, the left, and they want you to be an activist full time.”