The dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum here has been an occasion for both friends and critics of the former president to press their case. According to the polls, the number of critics has fallen over time. They make up for it with enthusiasm.
I fall into the friend category, having worked for President Bush for several years beginning early in the 2000 campaign. There are a number of reasons to join a presidential campaign, not least of which is the main-stage, high-wire excitement. But I can recall the day I decided that my guy was the guy. Bush, campaigning at a town-hall meeting in Gaffney, S.C., got a question demanding to know how he would stop the flow of illegal immigrants. He took the opportunity to remind his rural, conservative audience that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande” and that as long as “moms and dads” in Mexico couldn’t feed their children at home, they would seek opportunity in America.
Not “illegals.” Moms and dads and children. It was classic Bush: direct, decent, human.
Bush was born into a prominent political family, yet for much of his early life he didn’t seem groomed for anything but trouble. On the morning after his 40th birthday, he was a hung-over, undisciplined dabbler. Under the influence of faith, hope and Laura Bush, he was president by 54.
He was not a political natural along the lines of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, except for a potent likability in small groups. But while I was on the campaign, I saw Bush approach a series of ever-higher hurdles — weathering his first “Meet the Press” interview with Tim Russert, delivering a convention speech, debating the sitting vice president — and cross each with room to spare. As the stakes grew higher, he grew larger, which is the definition of a successful presidential candidate.
His two terms defy summary, just as a snapshot can’t capture Niagara Falls during a lightning storm. I experienced the Bush presidency as a series of emergencies punctuated by holiday parties. I’ll leave it to others to critique Bush’s choices on Iraq and other issues, a task considerably easier than making them under pressure. I saw Bush’s steadiness after 9/11, which steadied me and many others. His decision to pursue the troop surge in Iraq, after many of his generals had misplaced their judgment and nerve. His response to the financial crisis — extending FDIC protections, backing the Federal Reserve’s increase in liquidity, passing the Troubled Assets Relief Program bill — which put guardrails along the economic abyss.
This record is Truman-like. Cheerful, right-track attitudes were rare during the Truman years, with China lost, the Soviet Union gaining the bomb and Korea a bloody stalemate. But Truman was right on the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan.
Historical judgments mature slowly, but they tend to reward being right on the large things. Bush was right in shaping the structures and doctrines of a serious war against terrorism — a vindication demonstrated by President Obama’s imitation. Right in predicting a wave of change in the Middle East and North Africa and in urging autocrats to embrace reform or risk revolution. Right in pushing reluctant Republicans toward greater outreach, particularly to Hispanics and other rising minority groups. Right — if politically premature — in pressing Congress to act on entitlement and immigration reform.
Put this in the category of backhanded compliments: Many politicians who are eager to criticize the Bush legacy have managed to embrace the Bush agenda.
For years, I saw Bush through the small but revealing aperture of the White House policy process. Someone would propose a sensitive meeting with a dissident, or a plan to save millions of lives from HIV/AIDS, or an initiative to help mentor the children of prisoners, or an effort to fight malaria in Africa. If such an idea ran the gantlet of lower-level objections and reached the president’s desk, I knew how Bush would respond. He would be direct, decent, human.
Bush’s frankly moral approach, on other issues, is precisely what enraged his critics. But more than most, he is a leader of undivided sentiments. The same man who regarded the authors of 9/11 as evil saw the fight against global AIDS as an ethical imperative. It was all one whole. And with the distance of years, it looks a lot like principle.