Well, of course we have fonder feelings about unpopular presidents after they're out of office. At that point they're harmless -- and not merely harmless; they're powerful people who've been tamed. We like seeing powerful people tamed. That's why our comedies are full of goofy dads and Keystone Kops and inept bosses; that's why Hollywood put Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop. This shows up elsewhere in pop culture as well -- in the taming of men in romance novels, for instance. We don't actually rebel against power very much in this society, but we like to be entertained by images of authority figures who've been defanged. It's enjoyable.
We can feel oppressed by politicians' power over us. Some presidents know how to transmit images of themselves not wielding power, so that they seem less oppressive -- Reagan did that a lot, and it worked on a lot of Americans, and Obama has been doing it as well, with his date nights and his NCAA brackets and so on. Right-wingers hate it when Obama does it (ands a lot of us lefties hated it from Reagan), but a lot of Americans find it disarming.
Bush tried this when he was president, but even then he seemed to be challenging his political opponents. The message from his team seemed to be, "Yeah, he's at the ranch clearing brush again -- because having a ranch and clearing brush is what REAL MEN do. You got a problem with that, elitist punk?" He was determined to seem like the jock's jock -- an aggressive mountain hiker, say, or the best first-pitch-thrower-outer of any president ever, dammit! At least that's the message we got from his sycophants about his extracurricular activities.
Peggy Noonan says:
In all his recent interviews Mr. Bush has been modest, humorous, proud but unassuming, and essentially philosophical: History will decide. No finger-pointing or scoring points. If he feels rancor or resentment he didn't show it....Noonan and I must have been watching two different George W. Bush administrations. The trusting of the gut wasn't portrayed as something Bush did because, regrettably, he lacked intellectual depth -- it was portrayed as the way a real man and a real president and a real American makes a decision, with none of the caution and cost-benefit analysis and icky nuance that some overeducated Democratic pantywaist would bring to the same decision, and none of the absurd obsession with, y'know, evidence-gathering and facts.
And all this felt like an antidote to Obama -- to the imperious I, to the inability to execute, to the endless interviews and the imperturbable drone, to the sense that he is trying to teach us, like an Ivy League instructor taken aback by the backwardness of his students. And there's the unconscious superiority. One thing Mr. Bush didn't think he was was superior. He thought he was luckily born, quick but not deep, and he famously trusted his gut but also his heart. He always seemed moved and grateful to be in the White House. Someone who met with Mr. Obama during his first year in office, an old hand who'd worked with many presidents, came away worried and confounded. Mr. Obama, he said, was the only one who didn't seem awed by his surroundings, or by the presidency itself.
Mr. Bush could be prickly and irritable and near the end showed arrogance, but he wasn't vain or conceited, and he still isn't. When people said recently that they were surprised he could paint, he laughed: "Some people are surprised I can even read."
Bush may say self-deprecating things now in response to his opponents' criticisms of him, but when he was president he struggled to name anything he'd ever done wrong while in office. What humility there was was a weapon of aggression -- when he went into humble mode, he did it relative to God, which was his way of saying, I love Jesus and you don't, you hippie America-hater.
The dancing Bush we saw a couple of times near the end of his term was, I guess, a preview of the Bush we see now. But for most of his term he was the petulant, stubborn self-proclaimed decider who did what he wanted -- or what his team had persuaded him he wanted -- and who didn't give a crap if you didn't like it. He can't do that anymore. So of course he seems less oppressive.