Articles

The Bush Character, Four Years Later

April 25, 2013

The dedication in Dallas on Thursday of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum has triggered a lot of talk about the legacy of America's 43rd chief executive, and of the issues that arose between 2001 and 2009. But it should also be a time to reflect on the character of the man who occupied the Oval Office during this century's first eight years.

I'm obligated to state the obvious, which is that George W. Bush is hardly flawless. But those who want to focus on his flaws best turn elsewhere, since in my experience with him—which spans 39 years—his flaws are greatly overshadowed by his virtues, starting with his moral clarity.

It was this trait that led him to use all the energy of his office to keep America safe after 9/11. It drove his response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa, where American leadership has saved millions of lives. On issues from immigration to education to stem-cell research, Mr. Bush drew on his understanding of America's deepest moral commitments. Even his use of phrases like "the axis of evil," which drove critics batty, was grounded in a true understanding of the North Korean, Iranian and Saddam Hussein-ruled Iraqi regimes.

But moral clarity without courage is worth little in a political leader, and President Bush possessed courage in abundance. I saw it many times, such as when he touched the "third rail" of American politics, calling for Social Security reform in two presidential elections.

The most obvious example of his courage as a leader is the Iraq surge of 2007, a policy opposed by nearly every Democrat, many Republicans, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some members of his own cabinet. The Iraq war was then deeply unpopular with the public. Success was by no means assured. Yet Mr. Bush persevered, put a counterinsurgency plan in place and turned around a war on the edge of being lost. In many respects, this was his finest moment.

Mr. Bush once said, "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.' " Critics saw arrogance, but those around him experienced something different: a man with enough self-confidence to encourage people to say what they believed, especially when their opinions differed from his. But they had to be prepared, since Mr. Bush, an insatiable information collector, did his homework and expected others to have done the same.

Where Mr. Bush and I differed was in how to treat those who directed political abuse his way. For example, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid would phone the White House after he had insulted the president—such as in 2005, when he called Mr. Bush "a liar" and "a loser." He said he didn't know that his speechwriters had slipped "loser" into his remarks until he delivered them, so he wanted to apologize for using that word (but not for calling the president a "liar"). Mr. Bush didn't take umbrage. I did. The president felt he had better things to do, starting with handling threats foreign and domestic.

So Mr. Bush pressed forward on issues from reforming entitlements and the tax code, improving education, reining in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac before they imploded, fixing immigration, strengthening the role of faith-based institutions, modernizing the military, and overhauling our counterterrorism systems. He sometimes made progress and sometimes was stalled.

But even where he failed, I am confident that solutions he offered—on matters from reforming immigration to injecting choice and competition into entitlement programs—will eventually be embraced by policy makers because they are so sensible.

Mr. Bush ran in 2000 promising to restore honor and dignity to the presidency. He took seriously the example of John Adams, whose words to his wife Abigail are etched over the fireplace in the State Dining Room in the White House: "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessing on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof!"

In his biography of Harry Truman, David McCullough wrote that CBS newscaster Eric Sevareid "would say nearly forty years later of Truman, 'I am not sure he was right about the atomic bomb, or even Korea. But remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like. It's character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.' "

Character is what is being celebrated in Dallas this week.

A version of this article appeared April 25, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Bush Character, Four Years Later and online at WSJ.com.

Related Article

55c80cadb0f7199c751fe041dc5cd84e
May 19, 2016 |
Article
Despite losing the Oregon primary while barely eking out a win in Kentucky, Hillary Clinton emerged with 51 of Tuesday’s delegates to Bernie Sanders’s 55. To reach the 2,383 needed for the nomination, Mrs. Clinton now needs only 9...
85b27b0d08ad4ea16ba23985535ebe68
May 12, 2016 |
Article
This presidential campaign is good at producing attention-grabbing train wrecks. Last week Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump as “a loose cannon.” In turn, Mr. Trump called Mrs. Clinton “the total enabler”...
257f4d87037fef55efba903e54a2d3ef
May 05, 2016 |
Article
No one has seen anything like this. Donald Trump—without past political or military experience and facing a formidable Republican field—bludgeoned 16 opponents into submission, rewrote the rule book and became the GOP’s presumpti...
5025443fefb994cb1d7d44be676c354c
April 28, 2016 |
Article
The presidential front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, won huge victories Tuesday. Yet their romps through the Acela primaries (named for the train that speeds through the Northeast region) cannot hide the disunion in the...

Button karlsbooks 8115560310d99dcf7066a6791c2abb0e6e44efbce9d2a69ac5febbadd06cf979
Button readinglist 0c30cf88cf3c963eb72013f1b5906b6848694ba842d6efa0de8d2d3efbfd8fd2
Button nextapperance d1e601b7044cba97bcfe46cdf8bc572ab09797ca56157b5f533c25051217bb69