The last president whose “legacy” was destroyed by presiding over a disastrous war, Lyndon Johnson, was gone less than ten months after he turned himself into a lame duck. But George Bush is going to be the uncowed, unbowed leader of the Free World for nearly two years, a period not much shorter than the entire presidencies of John Kennedy and Gerald Ford. A lot of bad can happen in that time. It was almost two years ago—almost 1,500 American military deaths ago—that Dick Cheney assured us the Iraqi insurgency was “in the last throes.”
This prospect of such an extended, super-slow-motion endgame for the Bush administration feels weirdly familiar, of a piece with the way almost everything in the culture is playing out these days. We think we live in a time where everything changes at warp speed, but we’re simultaneously in a Lame Duck Age, in which the discredited and obsolete and totally over shuffle around in the limelight for years after their sell-by dates.
During the nineties, the millennial churn felt bracing and real. The Soviet Union, the twentieth century’s lame-duck empire, suddenly collapsed in 1991, and Francis Fukuyama declared the End of History. Out with the lingering old, in with the new; reboot! Then came the digital revolution, promising an immediate transmutation of daily life. Reboot! Crime in New York plummeted. Reboot! The September 11 attacks provoked their own instant makeover, ending in one stroke our default Fortress America complacency. And even the speed-clearing of rubble from ground zero, a job finished months ahead of schedule, seemed part of the new presto-change-o way of life.
But five and a half years later, that yawning, sixteen-acre hole in the ground is still there, and the man responsible for creating it, Osama bin Laden, is a lame duck who lives on. The president’s poor buddy Tony Blair has been a lame duck since 2004, when he announced he wouldn’t run for a fourth term. But unlike Bush, Blair has lost his stomach for the fight in Iraq: He’s reportedly planning to withdraw a third of his troops this spring, even though now that he’s immune from political consequences, he could stay the course.
Lame-duck presidents are hobbled domestically. But not militarily. And our commander-in-chief is a gung ho daffy duck—which makes him not so much a duck, come to think of it, as a harassed and wounded grizzly bear or Cape buffalo, more ferocious than ever, possibly dangerous. Consider Richard Nixon’s lame-duck denouement of his war 34 years ago: Six weeks after reelection, he ordered the Christmas Bombings, dropping 20,000 tons of ordnance on North Vietnam in twelve days. (And Nixon and Henry Kissinger, at least, had a precise strategic goal—getting North Vietnam to sign a peace treaty.)
So: How about a U.S. military attack on Iran? Bush is unable to remake the Middle East according to plan, but he apparently still believes with all his heart in what he’s done and what he wanted, and if he can now inflict grave damage on a dangerous enemy regime, why not just … go for it? What does he have to lose? He’s feeling powerless, disrespected, angry, and desperate, unable to achieve his vision but still full of hubris and a divinely inspired willingness to wreak spectacular violence—in other words, I fear, headed toward the psychological neighborhood of a suicide bomber.
The undead lame ducks are everywhere. Although Bill Gates is now a figurehead at Microsoft, he was all over the media last week promoting his company’s new operating system. Jay Leno announced two and a half years ago that he was leaving The Tonight Show, but he will be on for at least two more years.
Nor is our lame-duck world simply a matter of over-the-hill individuals taking a long time to leave the stage. So many of the grand, seemingly permanent institutions and paradigms of the twentieth century now have a fatally diminished and diminishing importance. nato was groping for a new raison d’être as soon as the Soviet Union dissolved, but since 9/11 it has seemed entirely a lame duck, almost as irrelevant as the U.N.
Then there’s the generation of Bush, Blair, Gates, and Leno, born and raised at the same time as nato and the U.N. Their parents, the Greatest Generation, dominated the culture for just a decade or two, from the end of the Second World War until the sixties, and moved on. The baby boomers, on the other hand, have presided for 40 or 50 years, which is tantamount to forever, and will continue to do so for another decade, even as they begin turning 70, lame ducks in total denial. Time, for instance, has been run by a boomer for the last twenty years, and its new editor is the fifth in a row born between 1947 and 1954.