It’s not fashionable to speak well of Obama’s predecessor, but it grows more difficult by the day to find anything good to say about the incumbent President who recently opined that Americans are “lazy” and have “lost our ambition.” As I recall he spent his first year in office going around the world apologizing for what he deemed America’s past sins and exceptualism.
No, I am talking about George W. Bush, often referred to as Bush 43. I think historians are going to treat him more kindly than might seem likely to some at this point almost three years since the current President took the oath of office in January 2009. Bush 43, with Trumanesque self-discipline and modesty, went home and has not spoken out about his successor’s decisions in office, neither to criticize nor praise. That’s how presidents are expected to behave.
Bush43, however, did begin writing a memoir of his eight years in office called “Decision Points” and, when it was first published, it became a bestseller. It is available now in a softcover edition from Broadway Books at $18.00, but already discounted to an affordable twelve dollars and change on Amazon.com. As a longtime book reviewer, I received the softcover edition and have been reading it in lieu of watching the horrid stuff that passes for television these days.
I begin with a confession that, throughout his two terms, I had a good opinion of George W. Bush. I disagreed with his No Child Left Behind approach to education and I thought that adding a prescription benefit to an already broke Medicare was unwise. I had some qualms about the creation of the super agency, Homeland Security, and the Patriot Act. By the time the “surge” in Iraq arrived, I thought it was a bad idea to have invaded even though I understood the threat that Saddam Hussein posed in the region. As it turned out, other Middle East dictators began to fall like dominoes in the wake of the U.S. action.
Bush’s book surprised me. I had no idea of the depth of his religious faith and how it sustained him through the trial of 9/11 and other difficult times such as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. This is a man who begins his day by reading the Bible. Frankly, I found that comforting.
I looked upon his presidency as being part of the “family business.” His grandfather, Prescott Bush had been a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. His father, George H.W. Bush had served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President before being elected President in his own right. What comes through George W’s memoir is his deep love for his parents, his brothers, and his own family, wife Laura and his twin girls.
The memoir is not some coldly intellectual analysis, but rather is infused with his own emotions as he dealt with crisis, the greatest of which—9/11—turned him into a wartime president. I think he met the challenge of the first attack on the homeland since Pearl Harbor and one that took the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, including first responders.
When Bush visited the site of Ground Zero in New York amidst the still smoking ruins, a soot-covered firefighter “looked me in square in the eye and said, ‘George, find the bastards who did this and kill them.’ It’s not often that people call the president by his first name. But that was fine with me. This was personal.”
What distinguishes “Decision Points” is the fact that it is devoted to explaining why he did what he did during his two terms. We need to remind ourselves of the times in which those decisions were occurring and, perhaps, to remember how frightened the nation was in the wake of 9/11.
That fear gave way quickly to the leadership Bush provided; his decision to invade Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban and al Qaeda, the creation of “Gitmo” as a place to hold non-state combatants and the reorganization of government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to better coordinate their ability to share information. In the eight years that followed, no further attacks were successful.
That stands in contrast with President Obama’s announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed. It was filled with “I did this” and “I did that” and never once mentioned that it was possible only because of the machinery that George W. Bush had put in place. Indeed, Obama had wanted to close Gitmo and try the planner of 9/11 in a civil court with all the protections the U.S. Constitution provides Americans. Both proposals were abandoned after widespread opposition.
Bush’s second term ended under a cloud from the housing mortgage crisis that required extraordinary efforts to avoid the collapse of the nation’s financial system. It obscured Bush’s tax cut, signed into law in May 2003, that led to economic growth for 46 consecutive months and resulted in an unemployment rate that averaged only 5.3 percent during his presidency.
There is much more that can and will be credited to George W. Bush for his two terms and, given the failure of the present administration to reverse the recession, to turn the tide on unemployment, to have increased the national debt to a level that exceeds all previous presidents in just three years, and to have been the first to see the nation’s credit rating downgraded, the contrast is too great to ignore.
Elections do have consequences. In both cases, the elections of George W. Bush were “squeakers” that might have put Al Gore or John Kerry in the White House. I think America dodged a bullet, but then forgot how important it is to put someone in office who will protect the nation and grow its economy. 2012 will give us another opportunity to do that.