Energy

George Bush Gave Your Daughter Syphilis

And other myths about presidential potency

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George W. Bush gave your daughters syphilis.

He also gave your teenage sons AIDS, and knocked up your Hispanic next-door neighbor.

He caused gas prices to rise and fall and rise and fall and rise a lot and fall again and rise and fall.

He created 4.8 million jobs, a piddly figure when compared to Bill Clinton's prodigious 23 million. Those jobs were lost, however, in the recession Bush caused.

He also ended a terrible drought after the American people sacrificed hundreds of fat Texas cattle in his name.

And so the list goes.

We love to blame our presidents when things go wrong, and occasionally credit them when things go right. But the president is a mascot, or perhaps the American people's lucky sock. At best, he is a household god, capable of small magics in his own domain beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. But when more powerful forces are set in motion, he cannot alter our fates.

It's not that presidents are powerless. Policies matter. Cut gas taxes and the price of gas will be lower. Make the regulatory environment substantially friendlier to job creation, and business owners may find themselves marginally more willing to hire an extra worker. But the actions of presidents matter less than headlines might lead you to believe—especially when economic and cultural forces are in play.

Here's the lede of a Guardian article on trends in teen sexual health from 2002 to 2007:

Teenage pregnancies and syphilis have risen sharply among a generation of American school girls who were urged to avoid sex before marriage under George Bush's evangelically-driven education policy, according to a new report by the US's major public health body.

(Note: The Guardian article is much funnier translated into German, which I don't read—thanks Bill Clinton, I blame you for my decision to select French in 7th grade and my crappy monolingual public school education. But language skills or no, I am pretty sure that having the word syphilis and any word that begins with schwang that close together can't be good. And what is to blame? A president who is "evangelikalen.")

Over at Daily Kos, diarist ultimatically is calling this small increase in pregnancies the Bush Baby Boom, accusing "Bush and his band of religious blue-ballers" of thinking that "if we stop teaching em about safe sex and stop providing them with protection then they will stop humping each other." [italics in original] The new CDC figures, s/he writes, prove that those godly nuts were "not only wrong but also dangerous." But the Kos diarist suffers from the same madness of which he accuses Bush. 

Stop and think for a minute about the idea that a trickle of abstinence-only education mandates were the decisive factor when individual kids were deciding whether or not to pass along the old neapolitan bone ache. Just for starters, decisions about whether to slide on millions of condoms in the last eight years might have been influenced by the substantial reduction in the fear of AIDS, increased availability of the Pill to tweens, the brands and varieties of condoms on the market, the absence of STDs in High School Musical, or the attitudes of post-Boomer parents. All things over which the president has little or no power.

In defense of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the "major public health body" named above, the report makes absolutely no mention of Bush, evangelical Christianity, abstinence education, or other political matter. The Guardian gets around to mentioning this detail about the report in the sixth paragraph. The CDC characterizes its own finding much more cautiously with this headline on the press release: "Improvements in Sexual and Reproductive Health of Teens and Young Adults Slowing."

But the belief in the power of the presidency is bulletproof, the minds of newspapermen (and their readers) leap to the president whenever trends happen in convenient four- or eight-year windows, and sometimes even when they don't.

The notion of the totemic presidency operates on both side of the aisle, of course, and being close to power doesn't seem to puncture the illusion. If anything, the closer you are to the presidency, the worse it gets. In a recent hilarious interview, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) offered this meditation on the role of the president in American life. "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president Jimmy Carter."

Credit Bachmann for saying that she's "not blaming this on President Obama." And laugh at her for the ridiculousness of the suggestion (and its inaccuracy: it was Ford, not Carter on the first round). But don't feel too superior. Bachmann may feature her own odd psychological quirks, but blaming Democrats for swine flu is only a smidge more absurd than blaming Bush for failing to control world energy markets or teen sexual behavior.

Job creation is perhaps the most persistent and damaging myth of presidential power. Think about the number of moving parts in the economy. Think about the number of moving parts in George W. Bush's head. The very phrase "Bush created jobs" is absurd. But even if the president were a brilliant PhD economist he couldn't create jobs, any more than George W. Bush could manage to give 130,569 teenage girls the six-o-six.

The world is a complicated place. Effects have many causes. We want our president to be a powerful man—we are comforted by the idea that, even if we are not in control, someone is. We even prefer the idea of a malevolent force running things for evil purposes over the belief that no one, anywhere, has much power to change the course of history, or even the price of gas.

Of course, some things are the president's fault. The Iraq War? Go ahead and blame Bush for that one.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

NEXT: Obama: "You're going to destroy my presidency."

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  1. Sing, O muse, of the corruption and incompetence of George W. Bush…

  2. “A new CDC report finds a small increases in teen pregnancy and STDs since 2002. The urge to blame Bush is strong.”

    Among whom Katherine? Your imaginary friends? Who other than a nut case blames the President for VD rates? seriously.

  3. “But why are we so drawn to the idea of an all-powerful president?”

    Who writes this shit???

  4. Come on, everyone knows that Reagan caused the AIDS and crack epidemics!

  5. “Among whom Katherine? Your imaginary friends? Who other than a nut case blames the President for VD rates? seriously.”

    Well for starters, Wonkette and from the article, DailyKOS.

  6. Obama makes my balls hurt, and that’s a fact.

  7. “A new CDC report finds a small increases in teen pregnancy and STDs since 2002. The urge to blame Bush is strong.”

    Why does hair increase the chances of catching STDs?

  8. “Obama makes my balls hurt, and that’s a fact.”

    Are you certain it’s Obama?

    Burglar Has Fetish for Slashing Balls:

    http://www.topix.net/city/duluth-mn/2009/07/burglar-has-fetish-for-slashing-balls

  9. Katherine is quite the wordsmith. Thanks to her, I’ve learned some new slang terms for syphilis.

  10. “George W. Bush gave your daughters syphilis, writes Senior Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward. He also gave your teenage sons AIDS, and knocked up your Hispanic next-door neighbor.”

    Guess its still better than his wife killing you with her car.

  11. In theory, she is very right. In theory, the power of the presidency is very weak. By “in theory” I mean that if we actually followed the Constitution this would be true. But, so long as presidents take on far more power than they have there is no reason to assume they will not assume Droit de seigneur powers. So, why not blame Bush? He COULD have done something about it right? It is their own damn fault for assuming so much power. If they don’t want to take the blame for my burned toast they should stay within the powers granted them by the Constitution.

  12. Katharine is correct. That Bush and abstinence eduction is behind all of teen pregnancy and STD rates is a common trope all over the lefty blogosphere.

    I think abstinence eduction is stupid as well. Talking teenagers out of having sex is like talking Warty out of a strip club on half-price shrimp cocktail Tuesdays.

    I’m all for sex education in high schools. Chicks that know how to roll a condom down onto a banana turn me on.

  13. SugarFree,

    I am not arguing that Bush is in fact to blame for STD’s or pregnancy. I am merely stating that it is understandable why some people might assume that he is.

  14. PIRS,

    We are in agreement. I just stated my case all goofy.

  15. and knocked up your Hispanic next-door neighbor.

    Damn, I wanted that job.

  16. Great- Inspector Clouseau with superpowers.

  17. Guess its still better than his wife killing you with her car.

    Don’t forget his illegal wars on brown people, waged to help him manage his daddy issues and to line his own greedy republican pockets. I bet he’s wearing a top hat right now.

    Bush lied and people died!!!!

  18. That’s nothing, Bush also impregnated my son! Not sure how he managed that one.

  19. I am merely stating that it is understandable why some people might assume that he is.

    I understand that many people are deranged, so I guess we’re all good here.

  20. The fact is contracting syphilis is a result of irresponsible people having unprotected sex.
    For that matter, contracting AIDS is a result of irresponsible people having unprotected sex.
    Anyone who has abstained from sex has never contracted an STD.
    One who really believes a government program is going to be a substitute for personal responsibility probably deserves such an outcome.

  21. I know quite a few lefty aquaintances who blamed Bush for everything from teen pregnancies to Katrina (not the lackluster response to the disaster, but the hurricane itself).

  22. “I understand that many people are deranged, so I guess we’re all good here.”

    There is a difference between having facts a bit off and being deranged. When a POTUS assumes as much power as the current one or the past few before him I can understand why people might assume he has that kind of power. I do not agree with them, do not get me wrong. But I can understand their thinking.

  23. Not sure which is more ridiculous: Lefties blaming Bush for a hurricane, or fundies blaming gays for inciting god’s wrath, manifesting itself as natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

    It’s basically the same type of person. They have so much more in common than they would admit.

  24. like talking Warty out of a strip club on half-price shrimp cocktail Tuesdays.

    I’m not allowed in that club anymore.

  25. You should totally sue them for fraud.

  26. From the article, giving non-Presidential explanations for the rise in teen pregnancy and STDs:

    ‘decisions about whether to slide on millions of condoms in the last eight years might have been influenced by [inter alia] . . . increased availability of the Pill to tweens’

    Are you suggesting that the Pill’s availability to minors has negative effects?

    Am I on the right blog?

  27. Is there any data on the numbers of students receiving abstinence-only education before, during, and after the Bush presidency?

  28. Enough with the serious discussion!

    All that sex talk, German translations and female author are making me slightly aroused…

  29. Actually, teen conceptions are still going down. Teen abortions are going down at a faster rate, which means teen pregnancies (conceptions – abortions) are going up. Personally, I don’t think sex education has much of an influence either way. Making good choices in bed requires talking with a partner about all the options. General relationship skills don’t get covered at all in sex ed.

  30. Do I need to be the one to point out two obvious facts:

    1. An 18 year old or 19 year old woman is a teenager. What would be wrong with her getting pregnant if she wants and can support the child?

    2. In the past, it was not at all uncommon for 15 year olds to get pregnant. Again, if she can support the child or gets married to someone who can why is this wrong?

  31. Bush created a ton of jobs. Think of all the anti-Bush bumper stickers. Somebody had to make those.

  32. If you were one of the 94% of the bystanders killed by our drones in Pakistan, or one of the tens of thousands of civilians killed by our initial invasion of Iraq, then your surviving relatives would be very mindful of the power over life and death wielded by the U.S. President.

    Libertarians love to tout our superiority over the socialist democracies of Western Europe, but the fact is that most of them interfere with the lives of their own people in more trivial ways, but when it comes to life and death, we are more totalitarian than they are.

    Sure, if you are wealthy, it is better to have a 30% tax rate rather than a 55-60% rate, but at least you’re alive.

  33. Think about the number of moving parts in the economy. Think about the number of moving parts in George W. Bush’s head.

    Katherine: If you can deliver this stuff on your feet, perhaps there’s a career in stand-up waiting for you. 🙂

  34. “Are you suggesting that the Pill’s availability to minors has negative effects?”

    Two things I will say on this.

    1) It would definitely have an effect on STD rates. Many teens only worry about pregnancy not disease.

    2) My wife was on the pill both times she got pregnant. She is a 26 year old woman who would (obviously) forget to take that pill. Imagine 16 yr olds trying to remember.

    I don’t blame Bush or Abstinence only education simply because I have no intention of not talking with my children regardless of what they are taught in school.

  35. Somebody had to make those.

    They were made in China. They took away our jobs!

    That’s Bush’s fault too!

  36. If you were one of the 94% of the bystanders killed by our drones in Pakistan,

    But what if I was one of the remaining 6% of the bystanders killed? Would that make me like Bush?

  37. “Listen to Mr. Obama’s report on the world crisis, July 22!”

    “To counteract the fears and rumors spread by the enemies of the people, Mr. Obama will address the country on July 22 and will give us a full report on the state of the world in this solemn moment of global crisis.”

    “Don’t forget Mr. Obama on July 22! Mr. Obama will tell you the truth!”

  38. Libertarians love to tout our superiority over the socialist democracies of Western Europe, but the fact is that most of them interfere with the lives of their own people in more trivial ways, but when it comes to life and death, we are more totalitarian than they are.

    Actually, European socialists had a bad habit of killing civilians intentionally. They didn’t stop until we invaded and liberated Europe.

  39. No, it was Clinton who gave your daughter an STD and made a baby with your neighbor cuz he’s a PLAYA! Not a great president, but he really got some ass.

  40. Some of these things are certainly out of the president’s hands, but don’t underestimate how much power the office holds these days. Take a look at the historical graph of the Dow Jones for the last decade. Notice the long protracted rise beginning precisely in March 2003. What else occurred in March 2003? Who was most responsible for what occurred in March 2003? It’ll make you think. And it should make you sick.

  41. “Sure, if you are wealthy, it is better to have a 30% tax rate rather than a 55-60% rate, but at least you’re alive.”

    I don’t recall being subject to a drone attack here in the US, so it looks like I get the best of both worlds.

  42. But why are we so drawn to the idea of an all-powerful president?

    Because if God is dead, and the President isn’t all-powerful then it might just mean that we are some insignificant specks of dust in the cosmos and our collective ego can’t deal with that. It might also just mean that we have to take responsibility for ourselves and without a magic friend to rely on, gosh that could be hard.

    Seriously, you want an exploration of the myth of the rightful ruler and how it resonates with us today, go see The Lion King. Only fools fail to recognize that myths are as prevalent and powerful today as 2000 years ago.

  43. This is a corollary to standard progressive thinking that political leaders are supposed to plan society to eliminate all the ills that flesh is heir to. It’s “It Takes A Village” and “original sin” thinking, that blames bad results on everybody but the ones who actually decided what to do.

    Why blame Bush? Why not blame the Congress, the bureaucracy, the school system, Bill Clinton, Jack Kennedy, our churches, parents, and anybody else other than the kids who engaged in the behavior?

    How about Obama, who doesn’t want his daughters to be punished by pregnancy, but doesn’t seem to consider the multiple untreatable STDs they can get from promiscuous sex? What kind of message is he sending?

  44. Politicians are always so eager to take credit for anything good that happens, even when they had little, if anything, to do with it. No politician has ever created a job unless you count him hiring a maid or a guy to cut his lawn (who he probably “forgot” to pay SS taxes on).

    They also love to avoid blame even if they had everything to do with it.

  45. I’m all for sex education in high schools. Chicks that know how to roll a condom down onto a banana turn me on.

    Our young girls are graduating from high school tying cherry stems in knots at an eighth-grade level. Is it any wonder we’re falling behind the world economy?

  46. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  47. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp.

  48. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  49. If a country’s status is satisfied or not,caused by lots of factors,such as history,international background,natural and uncontrolled factor.president bear too much burden,is not easy to be evaluated,included the specific black side of human being.

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