President Bush's approval rating is mired in the high 20s, and his presidency is nearing its end—making this an ideal moment for a requiem for the Bush presidency, albeit an unconventional, and slightly controversial one. "Goodnight Bush," an unauthorized parody of Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's story "Goodnight Moon," has become an unexpected best seller since its release in May.
In the alternate universe of "Goodnight Bush," written by writer and producer Erich Origen and artist-writer-activist Gan Golan (they met while working for a dotcom around the 2000 election), a young George W. Bush sits in his bed, saying goodbye to various low points of his presidency. It's a darkly humorous book that wears its liberal bent on its sleeve—and leaves no controversy untouched, including the satire-resistant subject of 9/11. In a recent interview with NPR, the two writers were asked about sensitivity in depicting the Twin Towers as toy blocks with a toy plane toppling them over. NPR reported the next day that they'd received "quite a few" responses criticizing the interview and the parody. One listener wrote in saying the book was "out of line."
For more than 60 years, children have oft been lulled to sleep in the closing lines of Brown's tome: "Goodnight stars. Goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere." In "Goodnight Bush," that's been replaced with a more partisan, "Goodnight earth? Goodnight heir? Goodnight failures everywhere." Innocuous farewells such as, "Goodnight nobody. Goodnight mush," has been swapped for "Goodnight allies. Goodnight Abu Ghraib 'Cheese!'" And who can forget about the "quiet old lady whispering 'hush"? In "Goodnight Bush," it's a "quiet Dick Cheney whispering 'hush'" to the child version of Bush, who's dressed in a flight suit. Perhaps even more captivating than the text are the images—a close replication of the original illustrations, but with every detail substituted by something from the Bush era. (HarperCollins, publisher of "Goodnight Moon," declined comment on the parody).
Authors Origen and Golan spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian No about their popular riff on a 61-year-old classic, whether they went too far criticizing the Bush administration, and if they've heard anything from the White House. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How did you guys come up with the idea for "Goodnight Bush"? What were you trying to accomplish with this book?
Erich Origen: Well we were just inspired by what a great job Bush was doing, and we wanted to capture his legacy and the glory of it. [Chuckle.] No, we felt that we were responding to a need to have a truth-and-reconciliation moment. The cultural response to Bush has either been to make fun of the absurdity or soberly assess the tragedy. Of course, it's both absurd and tragic, and we felt we needed something that captured both of those things.
Did you guys read "Goodnight Moon" when you were young?
Gan Golan: It wasn't something that was read to me as a child. I really came across it when I was older, reading it to other children. When we started working on it, we began to study it in great detail, and that's when we understood "Goodnight Moon" wasn't just a simple children's book. It was this incredibly complex, finely structured work of art and literature.
Origen: There's this tendency for some people to create this false dichotomy between "Goodnight Moon" and "Goodnight Bush." But from our experience, the people who are the biggest fans of "Goodnight Bush" are actually the fans of "Goodnight Moon." Because the more you understand and know that book, the more you get what's going on in "Goodnight Bush."
Did you have doubts about the book's success or did you know it was going to be a hit?
Golan: We weren't sure if people were going to get what we were doing. It was really kind of a Hail Mary, and when we started to get enthusiastic responses from publishers, we were thrilled.
Origen: I should say that it's not a 100 percent good feeling for us because we wish that this book wasn't necessary and that none of this ever happened. Even in the success of the book, there's a little bit of sadness, as well.
The sadness being …?
Golan: What has happened to the country. On one hand we have this comically absurd president, but at the same time we've had massive devastation and tragedy that hasn't just injured the country, but injured all of us as individuals.
Why do you think your book has become so popular? Why has it been resonating with so many people?
Origen: A lot of people felt that we entered a kind of alternate reality in 2000, this kind of nightmare. And in order to be in denial about the nightmare we're in, they just sort of tune out. This book allows people to face the nightmare and get some closure on it as it's coming to an end.
Golan: We understood that if we just talked about all of these depressing topics in a very straightforward way, no one would want to read it. So that's why the combination of humor and all that difficult sad stuff has only made the book more readable and something people can use to reflect upon what's happened for the last eight years.
Was this book written for children?
Origen: Obviously not. Anytime a child sees this book I'm like, "Look over there!" This book is definitely not for children.
Do you think parts of the book are too mean-spirited?
Origen: This book would be about five times as long if we included every criticism that could be leveled at the Bush administration. We actually pared it back to just those things that have been destroyed or damaged so severely that it was questionable whether [they] would endure in the form that they had been in before Bush came into office. So the book actually is fairly restrained in that way, we think.
What about your depictions of the Twin Towers and cocaine in the book? Isn't that insensitive and unfair? [In "Goodnight Bush," lines of cocaine are depicted on the nightstand, replacing the brush and comb in "Goodnight Moon." Bush has been dogged by rumors of cocaine use when he was young, but those charges have never been proven, and he denies ever having used the drug].
Origen: On the sensitivity issue, our images of the Twin Towers and other issues are very spare and they have this naked simplicity.
Golan: There's nothing sensationalistic.
The book is about listing, in simple terms, your perceived failures of the Bush administration. But most Americans don't blame the administration for the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.
Golan: I think it is interesting how the administration has turned one of the greatest national security failings into a heroic moment. And [9/11] absolutely was a failure of the administration to protect the country. At the same time, if you look at the image, we're not making some sort of simple statement. The representation is meant to be very spare and very poignant.
So I'm assuming there hasn't been an official comment from the White House?
Origen: We're just waiting for that one.
Golan: We're waiting for the official Bush administration endorsement. But for us, one of the ultimate expressions of the book would be to see it on C-Span with some senator who reads it into the congressional record to the cameras as a work of poetry during a filibuster.
Will you guys be commemorating the end of the Bush presidency in any other way?
Origen: We are talking about having a "Goodnight Bush"-eve celebration with some live music and miniature golf …
Golan: … called "stay the course" miniature golf.
Do you guys have future books planned?
Origen: We do. We're working on stuff. We could just say that.
Perhaps you guys could rewrite Margaret Wise Brown's entire anthology?
Origen: Umm … Yeah, I think maybe "Runaway Bunny" next?