I’ve just completed three weeks of commuting with George W. Bush. I’ve been listening to his memoirs, Decision Points, on audio disc. It’s been an amazing journey. Ron McLarty reads the former president’s book. And he’s so good at capturing “W’s” accent and intonation that you soon think the Texan is riding shotgun through Washington, D.C. traffic with you.
I had not expected such a frank and funny book. Most presidential memoirs, to be candid, are rather like marble doorstops. They’re intended to be the author’s dignified and not-too-defensive statement of his case for history. And some of them are deadly dull.
Not so these memoirs. George W. Bush is amazingly honest about his drinking problem. He never says he was an alcoholic, for he may not have been. But he drank too much, too often. And it affected his relationships. It got him into some ugly scenes. His loving, faithful wife stood by him all the while and gently nudged him onto the right path. His parents showed him the meaning of unconditional love. For those of us who have loved someone with a drinking problem, this part of the book is worth the whole volume.
George on his fortieth birthday doesn’t go in for a twelve-step program. It’s more of a one-step program. He takes seriously what Billy Graham has been saying about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He invites Jesus into his heart. And Jesus comes in.
Of great interest to us who deal with policy analysis in Washington are the parts of the book -- the greater part -- in which the former president deals with various issues. He teases them out and handles them thematically. Stem cell research. Iran. North Korea. Education (No Child Left Behind). Tax cuts. Hurricane Katrina. The Harriet Miers Surpeme Court nomination. And above all, 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
By handling each topic separately, we get a sense of the complexity and considerations that go into presidential decision-making. But it also occasions some confusion as we jump around from the economic meltdown of late 2008 back to “A Day of Fire” on 9/11, early in the first term. The reality of the presidency, of course, is that issues come rushing at you from Day One. That’s why Harry Truman put a sign on his White House desk: The Buck Stops Here.
George W. Bush is most like Truman in his crisp, decisive manner. He once said: “I’m the decider.” It was seen as Texas bragging. And it didn’t play well in the too often hostile press. But that is what Harry’s sign meant. That’s why we elect presidents -- to decide.
Like Harry Truman, George W. Bush was derided by many in the Eastern Establishment.
(“To err is Truman,” they jibed.) Truman was the last president not to go to college. But he had a keen mind and reportedly had read every history book in the Independence, Missouri Public Library. Harry was well prepared. And Harry identified with the American people. If Franklin Roosevelt was for the people, commentators said in those days, Harry Truman is the people.
George Walker Bush was not only the son of a president, and the distant relation of another (his mother traces her lineage to Franklin Pierce), he was also the first MBA to sit in the White House. His Yale and Harvard degrees made him one of the best-educated presidents in our lifetime.
Even so, “W” never lacked the common touch. And these memoirs prove it. Once asked what made him different from his much-loved Dad, W. answered without hesitation: Midland.
Those differences become clear in reading this self-deprecating and honest memoir. I had not expected to be moved to tears. But no one can read his heart-rending story of the death of little sister Robin from leukemia and not want to embrace this sensitive and decent man.
Despite my deeper admiration for this good and honorable man, I find myself flinching when he describes his thoughts on bringing democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. Our own State Department insisted, I have learned, on putting so-called Repugnancy Clauses in the constitutions of both of these “liberated” countries. Those Repugnancy Clauses say, in effect, notwithstanding anything else in this constitution, nothing shall be done by this government that is repugnant to Islam.
Who decides what is repugnant to Islam? The mullahs do! What if the mullahs disagree? Then the mullahs with more firepower win the argument. The mullahs agree with Napoleons’ dictum: God favors the side with the heavier artillery.
Because of these fatal flaws, democracy never had a chance in Iraq or Afghanistan. George W. Bush sincerely believes that everyone desires freedom. That may be true. But unless you desire that your neighbor who worships differently will also have freedom, you are unlikely ever to know freedom yourself.
It is good for Afghan women to join Afghan men in voting for a new government. But if they elect politicians who want to murder Abdul Rahman for converting to Christianity, you have no democracy. And virtually every elected official in Afghanistan did call for Abdul Rahman’s blood in 2006.
Enduring Freedom? Abdul Rahman had to be spirited out of that homicidal country under cover of darkness to save his neck. And even that might not have happened had not Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and many other Evangelical leaders raised a loud cry to spare his life.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been driven out of Iraq since the U.S. commenced “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The regime of Nouri al-Maliki is in league with the mullahs of Tehran, whom we have designated as the leading terrorists in the world.
When Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai met with Iran’s mullahs for a “future of the region” summit, President Obama’s late envoy Richard Holbrooke thought that was entirely appropriate. Really? Then what are we fighting the Taliban for?
Karzai is on record admitting to taking bags of gold from Tehran. And from us. Afghanistan has cost American taxpayers one trillion dollars.
President Bush acknowledges that he campaigned against U.S. attempts at “nation-building” in the 2000 campaign. He argues, though, that 9/11 changed all that. His Bush Doctrine said: 1. We will carry the fight to the terrorists. 2. We will regard those who harbor terrorists as equally guilty and go after them, too. 3. We will establish governments that respect the rights of their own people and do not threaten their neighbors.
It’s Point Three that is most vexing. You cannot plant democracy with bayonets. Facile comparisons to our post-WWII occupations of Germany and Japan obviously fail. We took the unconditional surrender of both countries. We forced Germany to de-Nazify and Japan to give up Emperor Worship.
Even Point Two of the Bush Doctrine is problematic. If Pakistan was not harboring Osama bin Laden for a decade, how was he allowed to build a top-secret ziggurat under the very noses of Pakistan’s military brass? If Saudi Arabia is really our ally in the War on Terror, why did that desert despot Abdullah refuse us access to Madani al Tayyib, the al Qaeda finance chief (see p. 122. of the official 9/11 Commission Report)?
Americans increasingly believe we are being played for suckers by treacherous allies. When I traveled by bus around America in 2012, I would make a point of saluting veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and asking them their level of trust for the national forces in both countries. The answer from our own brave warriors was always the same: Zero.
This substantial portion of the Bush memoirs must be read as tragedy. A good Christian man with a fine mind and a great heart pursues a flawed policy, with grave consequences. It costs thousands of brave young Americans their lives. He built his freedom house on sand. Too bad.
His discussion of stem cell research shows him honorably struggling to find a middle path. He is a nuanced thinker, a man with a heightened ethical sense. In the end, he crafts a policy that unfortunately provides federal funding to the killers of embryonic humans even as it denies funding for killing these nascent humans.
In these pages, the president never answers the obvious question: By funding experimentation on only a limited number of stem cell lines -- on those embryonic humans whose lives have already been condemned -- what if some treatment or cure should be found? How then would he or any future president resist the deafening cries in the media for experimentation-on-demand?
It’s worth noting here that no such treatment or cure has been found in the thirteen years since President Bush announced his restricted funding policy. (Nor, even more significantly, in the five years since President Obama cast aside all ethical restraints.
President Bush was hailed by pro-lifers, including this one, for signing such important legislation as the Infant Born-Alive Protection Act (which state Sen. Barack Obama managed to kill in the Illinois legislature), the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA -- that President Obama’s administration declined to apply against Fort Hood killer Nidal Hasan), and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Bill Clinton had vetoed that legislation twice in the 1990s. One of the leading pro-abortion lobbyists later admitted “I lied through my teeth about [the numbers and instances of partial-birth abortions] and felt sick to my stomach about it.” Bill Clinton was never so distressed about lying on this or other topics.
President Bush appointed many strong constitutionalists to the courts and many pro-lifers to mid-level administration positions. This is something for which we should always be grateful. Nonetheless, in these memoirs, it becomes clear that George W. Bush is the only pro-life person in his White House circle of advisors. The only one. And this matters.
Thus it was that billions of federal dollars continued to flow uninterrupted for eight years into the coffers of Planned Barrenhood (Parenthood). They are the world’s largest trafficker in abortion. This outfit last year admitted killing 374,000 unborn children. As with his stem cell policy, President Bush never funded the killing of the unborn, only those who do the killing.
One of the least convincing portions in this book is his discussion of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Columnist George Will spoke for all of us when he said that you could poll the one hundred top conservative constitutional thinkers in America (are there that many?) and ask each one to provide a list of one hundred names, with no duplicates. On the resultant list of ten thousand names you would not find Harriet Miers.
FRC’s Tony Perkins worked this issue with the greatest of care. Always respectful of the president and his nominee, Tony nonetheless publicized Miss Miers speeches. Lacking a “paper trail” of serious judicial wrestling with weighty constitutional matters, we had to go with what we had.
Her speeches were simply deplorable. How could she possibly think the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Greater Houston would react well to her quoting with approval the radical feminist Gloria Steinem?
Those strong Texas women were achievers, not whiners. Did Miss Miers share Steinem’s man-hating views? (A Steinem sampler: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” “We have become the men we wanted to marry.”) If she did, we certainly didn’t want her to have a lifetime appointment to the High Court.
Or worse, did she simply think she would ingratiate herself with her audience? If so, is there a worse place in the entire U.S. government for such toadying than the U.S. Supreme Court?
For millions of Americans, George Bush’s handling, or mishandling, of the Hurricane Katrina crisis was the occasion of their disenchantment with his leadership, but for the conservative movement, surely the abortive nomination of the manifestly unqualified Harriet Miers broke the bonds of trust.
His chapter on education, and his ill-fated No Child Left Behind program, deserves attention. George W. Bush and his father were always sincere supporters of civil rights. The false, defamatory and contemptible charges of racism lodged against both men wounded them deeply.
But it was just as wrong to craft a policy based on racial disparities in academic achievement. As David Armor, one of our best academic researchers of education has noted, the test score disparities of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian students do not entirely equal out when family structure is accounted for, but they are greatly diminished.
The best thing George W. Bush could have done if he sought to address the lower academic performance of black and Hispanic students, as well as that of lower middle class whites, would have been to address the marriage crisis. As the work of Charles Murray has since shown, it is the collapse of marriage and the loss of church attendance among working class whites that has led to impoverishment. The collapse of marriage has as well harmed minorities. And the classic study of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) titled “Who Escapes?” showed that for the black community, students who regularly attended church had far better outcomes for school and work.
How are church and synagogue attendance related to the marriage crisis, if at all? AEI Scholar Mary Eberstadt’s compelling new book, How the West Really Lost God, argues that family breakdown has led to loss of religious practice. If she is right, the old 1950s Ad Council slogan is true, after all: “The family that prays together, stays together.”
It is painful for me to realize the errors of my much-admired George W. Bush. My wife and I watched his 2001 inauguration in our own family room. She was then a high-ranking naval officer. When those Hundred and One guns of the Presidential Salute Battery rent the air with their booming to signal the peaceful transfer of power, we both wept with joy. We were relieved for we believed our country had been saved.
I would go on to campaign for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. I was in Pittsburgh to hear him address a large, enthusiastic rally the day before the election. In front of me sat a big family of supporters. These home schoolers had gotten up before dawn to crowd into the stadium. The metal detectors we passed through reminded us of the changes we had seen in our country under this good man’s leadership. Johnny was a fifteen-year old member of this family.
When President Bush made has rousing speech, the whole crowd roared its approval. Johnny was standing on top of his folding chair, yelling loudest when the W. spoke of the right to life and the defense of marriage. Johnny has Down Syndrome.
The next day, George W. Bush was re-elected President of the United States. He carried the critical state of Ohio on the strength of the marriage referendum that had brought half a million more voters out than in 2000. And his percentage of the black vote in Ohio was his highest anywhere.
I never heard him speak in public about the right to life or the defense of marriage again.
Nor have I heard him speak of either vital question in the five years since he left office. We know where his family is on these questions.
George Bush is avoiding political issues, he says. He hikes and rides with Wounded Warriors, which is nothing less than noble of him.
But he could still do more. He is a young and fit retiree. He could begin giving speeches at fundraisers for Pregnancy Care Centers. Many of these volunteer-staffed, faith-based groups he recognized during his White House years.
He doesn’t have to criticize anyone or do anything other than lend them his presence -- and his heart. Those who sincerely say they are pro-choice cannot object if George W. Bush were to help young women and their boyfriends choose life for their unborn children.
In 2006, I had lunch with a conservative talk show host in Bethesda, Maryland. We enjoyed a hearty meal and a good conversation. “What should I thank President Bush for,” my friend asked? It was a time of some deep disillusionment among conservatives with the Bush second term.
I answered: “We are having this lunch on a quiet Saturday. And when we go to our cars, they probably won’t blow up. We can thank George Bush for that. It’s no small achievement.” I still believe that. Thank you, Mr. President, for protecting us. And may God preserve you.