That's My Bush: Pop Culture Classics That Best Captured W.'s Presidency

It's been more than five years since George W. Bush left office, and yet it seems that we'll never be rid of him or his presidency. In part that's because the legacies he left us—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis—continue to loom over much of Barack Obama's presidency. But it's also because he and his chief collaborators won't go away. Bush has increased his visibility recently by showing off his interest in painting, Condoleezza Rice is part of college football's new playoff selection committee, and Dick Cheney will not shut up about his belief that waterboarding isn't torture.

The latest dispatch from the Bush presidency is The Unknown Known, Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris's terrific, maddening documentary about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The condescending, cocky star of all those Iraq War press conferences, Rumsfeld comes across as no less self-assured in The Unknown Known, a dire reminder of just how infuriatingly arrogant the Bush administration was that the war it was leading us into would turn out just fine.

The Unknown Known sent me back into my mid-2000s rage that seemed like a permanent condition back in those days. It also got me thinking about the movies, TV shows and music that best articulated the incompetence of the Bush years as they were happening. For this list, I decided to exclude straight-up re-creations of actual events (United 93) and anything that was made after Bush left office (Zero Dark Thirty). Instead, I picked things that worked in analogies and metaphors that best captured what living during Bush's reign felt like.

Idiocracy (2006)

Director Mike Judge's follow-up to Office Space isn't particularly great—it has a mediocre story and several dull spots. But as a vision of America, it's utterly horrifying. Luke Wilson plays a slacker Army librarian who volunteers for an experiment in hibernation, only to wake up in the 26th century when the U.S. is overrun by superficiality and spectacle. (The president is a former wrestler, and the cinematic sensation is the Best Picture-winning Ass, which is nothing but shots of butts farting.) Idiocracy is supposed to be a comedy, but it's hard to laugh at the movie: Judge created a nightmarish future that reflected the small-minded anti-intellectualism that was seen as a badge of honor during the Bush years.

Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009)

Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds turned an alien invasion into a harrowing 9/11 allegory, but this dark reboot of the campy 1970s series got there two years earlier, depicting a distant universe where the evil Cylons lay waste to a peaceful civilization that's forced to pick up the pieces. Battlestar Galactica went beyond terrorist-attack horror, however, serving as a weekly referendum on the Bush administration's policies. Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) didn't just battle the Cylons—he also confronted his fellow survivors' worst tendencies, including xenophobia and hopelessness. Touching on everything from torture to rigged elections to the occupation of Iraq—subversively, the show placed our heroes in the role of the insurgents—Battlestar Galactica condemned Bush's policies but also made room to criticize everyday Americans who were willing to give up their core values in pursuit of revenge.

Arrested Development (2003-2006)

During its initial three-season run, this influential single-camera comedy made plenty of topical Bush references, mocking "Mission Accomplished," Saddam Hussein's lookalikes and WMDs. But the real brilliance of Arrested Development was how creator Mitchell Hurwitz seemed to be channeling the Bush years' insanity through his cynical, dysfunctional Bluth family, headed by unscrupulous patriarch George (Jeffrey Tambor) and coldhearted mother Lucille (Jessica Walter). Rich, out-of-touch and utterly unconcerned with how their actions affected anyone else, the Bluths didn't seem so preposterous during the era of Abu Ghraib and Halliburton, which were both skewered on the show. No wonder we all came to root for Jason Bateman's Michael: In this lair of liars and conceited fools, his sardonic streak and level head were much appreciated.

Todd Snider, "You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)" (2006)

Snider is a modern-day, real-life Llewyn Davis: a respected folk-singer who's never made a dent on the charts. He writes politically barbed songs, but his angriest might be his quietest. "You Got Away With It" from The Devil You Know is mostly Snider casually strumming an acoustic guitar as he sings in the voice of a character who's talking to an unnamed old fraternity brother, astonished at all the crazy shit they used to do, including beating up a classmate and driving drunk. But thanks to the narrator's frat-boy buddy, who's apparently rich and well-connected, they never got in trouble for any of it. Soon, though, it becomes clear that the mystery buddy is W., who's kept getting away with things in his adult life, like stealing elections ("You never did tell me what happened with you and your brother down there in Florida") and living it up at Camp David ("Look at you now, you old son of a bitch, you got the run of this place"). The folksy sing-along chorus "You got away with it / You got away" is delivered nonchalantly, but you can sense the bile coming from Snider's mouth.

Zodiac (2007)

Director David Fincher's best movie is also the finest made about 9/11, which might seem odd since we don't think of Zodiac as a 9/11 movie. An obsessive drama about a group of journalists and cops on the trail of the elusive Zodiac killer during the 1970s, Zodiac uses an earlier era's tragedy to reflect our more recent one, showing how, once innocence is shattered, people desperately try to recapture it. During the Bush years, Osama bin Laden was our Zodiac killer, a monster who ripped away our feeling of security and roamed through the shadows with impunity. Most mystery-thrillers set up a bogeyman that the good guy can eventually bring to justice thanks to his superior skill and nobler spirit. Offering nothing so comforting, Zodiac was true to the spirit of the time it depicts, and to ours—reminding us that some evil goes unpunished, and that there seems to be nothing we can do about it. (The fact that we've gone on to kill bin Laden doesn't do much to change that.)

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (1999- ) and The Colbert Report (2005- )

Countdown With Keith Olbermann could be terrific—his evisceration of Bush's ineptitude on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 remains a beauty—but on a daily basis The Daily Show and, later, The Colbert Report struck deeper because they were funny about their disapproval. The Daily Show, with correspondents such as Steve Carell, became the go-to critique of how shallow the media had become. From there, Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert went off to do his own show, which crystalized not just the thudding smugness of Bill O'Reilly types but also the epistemic closure of the Republican Party and the hilariously vigorous certainty of Fox News' well-coifed talking heads. On the first episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert came up with the term"truthiness," which was meant to suggest things that seem correct to our gut, even if they're not actually true. It's still the single best word to describe the retreat from reason that the Bush administration and its partisans proudly celebrated.

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (2007)

If you're looking for albums that overtly grapple with post-9/11 America, Bruce Springsteen's The Rising and Green Day's American Idiot are the surest bets. But I prefer Neon Bible because it's less upfront or blatantly topical in its approach: It echoes an era's essence rather than commenting on it concretely. (Well, except for when Arcade Fire front man Win Butler declares "I don't want to live in America no more" and "I don't want to fight in your holy war" on "Windowsill.") Throughout its 11 tracks, Neon Bible is suffused with dread: People are coping with the aftereffects of war ("Intervention"), watching out for falling bombs ("Black Mirror") or convinced that the authorities are out to get them ("Keep the Car Running"). This was the perfect album for a distrustful time in which warrantless wire-tapping suddenly made paranoid crackpots seem not so crazy anymore.

24 (2001-2010)

The first season of this Fox series aired less than two months after 9/11, which seemed at the time to be far too soon: Why would anyone watch a show about an action-packed assassination plot after what had just happened? Eight seasons and 20 Emmys later, 24 proved to be a lot of people's way to work through the reality of a new America in which terrorism wasn't just the stuff of fictional thrillers. And in Kiefer Sutherland, viewers found a conflicted, everyday hero who wasn't the Rambo of an earlier era. 24 could be exciting, but it could also be disconcerting because of its characters' ethically questionable use of torture to extract necessary plot information, helping to create a false impression that such techniques actually produce results. At its best, the show seemed to be publicly wrestling with a debate that the country itself wasn't quite ready to have.

When the Levees Broke (2006)

Spike Lee made 25th Hour in New York shortly after 9/11, the attack's lingering scars visible throughout the film in its images of a city trying to rebuild and recover. A few years later, he directed a documentary about another city in a similar situation. When the Levees Broke is a sprawling, four-hour-plus chronicle of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and although Bush and his cronies take their lumps for being unprepared for the disaster, the film is best when it focuses on the city's culture and citizens, which were irreparably devastated by the storm. Lee's movies can be impassioned to a fault, but the simmering anger of When the Levees Broke is invigorating—a necessary rebuke to an administration's glib callousness.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Will Ferrell was the MVP of anti-Bush comedy during the Aughts: In character after character, his unswaying confidence and thick-skull buffoonery seemed to be channeling W.'s serene lack of sophistication. (Not surprisingly, Ferrell also did a mean Bush impression.) But Talladega Nights, beyond just being really funny, is the perfect embodiment of Red State America, sending up the Right with such playfulness that, if you didn't know better, you'd swear the movie was made by a reactionary God-and-guns filmmaker. (Ricky Bobby's nemesis, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, is French, which of course means he's gay, snooty and reads Camus while racing.) At a time when NASCAR's prominence was rising, Talladega Nights took cheerful aim at the "real America"—it's satiric, but also surprisingly sweet. The Bush years are something I don't ever want to relive: Thank god movies like Talladega Nights made the experience a little more tolerable.


Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of "FilmCraft: Screenwriting." Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson

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