On the painting:
Bush was so taken by it, he took the painting’s name for his own official autobiography. And here’s what he says about it:
I thought I would share with you a recent bit of Texas history which epitomizes our mission. When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Tex. — President Obama joined all of his living predecessors on Thursday to pay tribute to George W. Bush as the arguments of the past decade gave way, at least for a day, to a more generous appraisal of a leader who responded to great challenges with determination and grit.
The five current and past presidents gathered for the first time since Mr. Obama’s ascension to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum here on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Joining them were a collection of former foreign leaders like Tony Blair of Britain, Ehud Olmert of Israel, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and John Howard of Australia as well as hundreds of former Bush administration officials and thousands of his admirers.
Mr. Obama praised Mr. Bush for his resolve after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his compassion in fighting AIDS in Africa and his commitment to overhauling the immigration system. Treading lightly over their disagreements over Iraq and other issues, the president said his predecessor had fought for what he thought was best for his country.
“We know President Bush the man,” Mr. Obama told the crowd in front of the brick-and-limestone center on a bright, sunny Texas day. “To know the man is to like the man. Because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes the job seriously but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s a good man.”
Critics will not find enough about controversies like the inaccurate intelligence that preceded the invasion of Iraq or the stuttered initial response to Hurricane Katrina, but the museum includes an interactive theater to let visitors decide how they would have handled major challenges. Mr. Bush and his advisers said they were intent on exhibits short on hagiography and long on information that would help Americans see the various moments of decision through the president’s eyes.
“The museum does give people the opportunity to hear the different points of view that I got on these particular issues,” Mr. Bush told CNN’s John King. “The purpose of which is not to try to defend the policy. The purpose of which is to try to show people what it’s like to be the president. And how you make decisions. History will ultimately judge the decisions that were made for Iraq, and I’m just not going to be around to see the final verdict.”
Following are a collection of articles I found to be of interest. (I welcome any others that readers want to add in the comments section, left or right, recent or old).
Peter Feaver on the Bush legacy:
Some scholars not blinkered by ideological opposition do produce more balanced assessments than what the conventional wisdom of the day, which is still overly shaped by the instant partisan commentary, would predict. Thus, Mel Leffler has a balanced account of the origins of the Iraq war, Stephen Biddle and his co-authors have a sophisticated analysis of the contributions of the Iraq surge, and Robert Jervis has a careful review of the intersection of intelligence failure and policy choice in Iraq.
None of these scholars can be dismissed as court sycophants. All would, on balance, come down more negatively on the Bush legacy as a whole than the typical Shadow Government contributor. Yet, like the typical Shadow Government contributor, each seems committed to letting the facts lead where they may, even if those facts will disrupt the settled caricatures of the conventional wisdom.
Some journalists are coming around, too. Ron Fournier has a thoughtful commentary that humanizes former President Bush. And maybe even the public is showing an openness to reconsidering previous opinions.
Therefore, I think Republicans should be willing to talk openly and honestly about the Bush era. That will involve accepting some critiques but rejecting others. That will require conceding some mistakes and explaining why the conventional wisdom is wrong in other respects. I do not think that should be the sole or principal preoccupation of Republicans, nor do I think we are in any danger of Republicans falling into that trap.
A worthy contribution of the new Bush center to the ongoing political dialogue in the country would be if it used its convening powers to conduct careful and detailed explorations of key decisions and policies from the Bush era. With the benefit of hindsight, such explorations may conclude that some decisions and policies were mistaken and, if so, the center can be candid in acknowledging that.
Yet I am confident that such a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds. And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is.
Former president George W. Bush said Thursday morning that he isn’t going to spend time trying to improve his presidential image and hit back against critics, adding that he believes that history will vindicate him.
“I have no desire to spend my post-presidency trying to enhance my standing,” Bush said in an interview with “CBS This Morning.” Bush has been conducting a media blitz in advance of the dedication Thursday of his presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“Historians will eventually sort out the good and the bad” of every president, said Bush, who added, “I have got this great faith in history.”
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer walked into the media cabin of Air Force One on May 24, 2002, and dropped identical envelopes in the laps of two reporters, myself and Steve Holland of Reuters. Inside each was a manila card – marked by a small presidential seal and, in a simple font, “THE PRESIDENT.”
Handwritten in the tight script of President George W. Bush, both notes said essentially the same thing: “Thank you for the respect you showed for the office of the President, and, therefore, the respect you showed for our country.”
What had we done? Not much, really. An hour earlier, at a rare outdoor news conference in Germany, Steve and I decided to abide by the U.S. media tradition of rising from our seats when the president entered our presence. The snickering German press corps remained seated. “What a contrast!” Bush wrote. “What class.”
I dug out Bush’s thank-you note this week while contemplating the opening of his presidential library Thursday, a milestone that most journalists will use to assess the 43rd president’s legacy. The record includes Bush’s responses to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and bogus claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – all worth exploring skeptically.
But I’m going to take a few paragraphs to discuss something that gets less attention from the White House press corps – the essential humanity and decency of our presidents.
Bush’s note, a simple gesture, spoke volumes about his respect for the office of the presidency. He did not thank us for respecting him. He knew it wasn’t about George W. Bush. He was touched instead by the small measure of respect we showed “for our country.”
The same sense of dignity compelled Bush to forbid his staff to wear blue jeans in the White House. Male aides were required to wear jackets and ties in the Oval Office.
He was a stickler for punctuality. Long-time adviser Karen Hughes asked him years ago why he was always early for appointments. “Late is rude,” Bush replied. He thought that if people were going to take the time to see him, he shouldn’t keep them waiting.
He remembered names of the spouses and children of his staff, and insisted that hard work at the White House not be an excuse to let family life suffer. One steamy summer day in 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush called me with an exclusive interview and interrupted my first question. “What’s all that noise in the background, Fournier?” he asked.
“I’m at the pool with my kids, governor.”
Bush replied, “Then what the hell are you doing answering your phone?”
Damn good question, sir. We quickly ended the interview.
His record as commander-in-chief will be long debated, as it should be. But for this story, at least, let’s remember that Bush insisted upon meeting U.S. troops and their families in private and after his public events, so that he could give them undivided attention.
He told his staff, “I never want to look at my watch and say, ‘I’ve got to go.’ ”
Ed Rogers on WaPo:
All the vitriol directed at him bewilders me. Why all the personal animus? It wasn’t because of what he said. Bush never called anyone a name. I don’t think he spoke ill of his political opponents, ever. It also wasn’t what he did. His most controversial decisions surrounding the invasion of Iraq were almost universally supported by Democrats at the time.
Bush brought character to his decision-making. He must have believed what he was doing was right because so many of the decisions he made avoided taking the easy way out and were, at best, politically risky. I don’t understand the level of contempt his critics have for him. The only thing I can see is that the left hates much of what he still stands for and how he has lived his life.
Bush’s obvious ambivalence toward his critics appears to torment them. They wish he would act defeated, but he isn’t. In politics, sometimes the best revenge is to keep your chin up.
Michaeel Gerson on WaPo:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The class of George W. Bush:
When asked about Obama in Q&A sessions after his frequent lectures, however, Bush meticulously takes the high road, politely declining to criticize his successor. His stock answer: “I want my President to succeed because when my President succeeds my country succeeds, and I want my country to succeed.”
Former senior White House economic advisor to President W. Bush, Keith Hennessey, while teaching a class at Stanford Business School titled “Financial Crises in the U.S. and Europe.”, told his class that “George W. Bush is Smarter than You“:
You are quite an intelligent group. Don’t take it personally, but President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you. Were he a student here today, he would consistently get “HP” (High Pass) grades without having to work hard, and he’d get an “H” (High, the top grade) in any class where he wanted to put in the effort.
For more than six years it was my job to help educate President Bush about complex economic policy issues and to get decisions from him on impossibly hard policy choices. In meetings and in the briefing materials we gave him in advance we covered issues in far more depth than I have been discussing with you this quarter because we needed to do so for him to make decisions.
President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He’s highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer. It was occasionally a little embarrassing when he would jump ahead of one of his Cabinet secretaries in a policy discussion and the advisor would struggle to catch up. He would sometimes force us to accelerate through policy presentations because he so quickly grasped what we were presenting.
I use words like briefing and presentation to describe our policy meetings with him, but those are inaccurate. Every meeting was a dialogue, and you had to be ready at all times to be grilled by him and to defend both your analysis and your recommendation. That was scary.
We treat Presidential speeches as if they are written by speechwriters, then handed to the President for delivery. If I could show you one experience from my time working for President Bush, it would be an editing session in the Oval with him and his speechwriters. You think that me cold-calling you is nerve-wracking? Try defending a sentence you inserted into a draft speech, with President Bush pouncing on the slightest weakness in your argument or your word choice.
In addition to his analytical speed, what most impressed me were his memory and his substantive breadth. We would sometimes have to brief him on an issue that we had last discussed with him weeks or even months before. He would remember small facts and arguments from the prior briefing and get impatient with us when we were rehashing things we had told him long ago.
And while my job involved juggling a lot of balls, I only had to worry about economic issues. In addition to all of those, at any given point in time he was making enormous decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, on hunting al Qaeda and keeping America safe. He was making choices not just on taxes and spending and trade and energy and climate and health care and agriculture and Social Security and Medicare, but also on education and immigration, on crime and justice issues, on environmental policy and social policy and politics. Being able to handle such substantive breadth and depth, on such huge decisions, in parallel, requires not just enormous strength of character but tremendous intellectual power. President Bush has both.
On one particularly thorny policy issue on which his advisors had strong and deep disagreements, over the course of two weeks we (his senior advisors) held a series of three 90-minute meetings with the President. Shortly after the third meeting we asked for his OK to do a fourth. He said, “How about rather than doing another meeting on this, I instead tell you now what each person will say.” He then ran through half a dozen of his advisors by name and precisely detailed each one’s arguments and pointed out their flaws. (Needless to say there was no fourth meeting.)
* This is a hard one, for liberals only. Do you assume that he is unintelligent because he made policy choices with which you disagree? If so, your logic may be backwards. “I disagree with choice X that President Bush made. No intelligent person could conclude X, therefore President Bush is unintelligent.” Might it be possible that an intelligent, thoughtful conservative with different values and priorities than your own might have reached a different conclusion than you? Do you really think your policy views derive only from your intellect?
And finally, if you base your view of President Bush’s intellect on a public image and caricature shaped by late night comedians, op-ed writers, TV pundits, and Twitter, is that a smart thing for you to do?
From the left….
Donna Brazile (CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist) on Katrina:
rather than rehash all that went wrong, I want to share what I believe to have been President Bush’s determination to follow up on commitments, and the intense, personal, dedicated efforts he made to revive and restore people’s futures. I know what I’m talking about.
Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana’s governor in 2005, asked me to serve on the state’s commission overseeing the long-term recovery from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. I’ve kept a close watch over the last eight years.
Every member of my family was displaced by Katrina. Last year, I lost both my father and sister. But I had them with me that much longer because they were rescued from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My father, Lionel, left New Orleans only two times in his life. The first was to serve his country in Korea. The second was when FEMA evacuated him to San Antonio, Texas.
I was upset — mad as hell — and disappointed But, I made a decision not to act out — act against Bush — but rather to turn to his administration for help, and to offer my help.
“Mr. President,” I said, “how can I help you?”
“Civility,” he said.
Bitterness can corrode the soul. A grudge is like the chains on Marley’s ghost. We can carry these chains in life and they weigh us down. President Obama and former President Bush have been working for eight years to change the atmosphere in Washington, to get Congress to move beyond pride and party.
Bush understood the need for civility. I joined him despite my frustration because the need was too great for finger-pointing and blame-making. He flew to New Orleans and addressed the nation: “Tonight I also offer this pledge to the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.”
George W. Bush was good as his word. He visited the Gulf states 17 times; went 13 times to New Orleans. Laura Bush made 24 trips. Bush saw that $126 billion in aid was sent to the Gulf’s residents, as some members of his own party in Congress balked.
Bush put a special emphasis on rebuilding schools and universities. He didn’t forget African-Americans: Bush provided $400 million to the historically black colleges, now integrated, that remain a pride, and magnet for African-American students. Laura Bush, a librarian, saw to it that thousands of books ruined by the floods were replaced. To this day, there are many local libraries with tributes devoted to her efforts.
It was a team effort. I’m glad to report the commission I served on went out-of-business in 2010. I’m also grateful and proud to report that President Bush was one of the leaders, and a very important member, of that team. Our recovery can be credited to the civility and tireless efforts of President Bush and other Americans, who united and worked together to help rebuild the Gulf and the place of my birth, New Orleans.