Last Wednesday evening, I witnessed a remarkable event, which is being misreported and misperceived-from the Drudge Report to the White House-in antagonistic ways I plainly didn’t see. I shouldn’t be surprised, since it involved George W. Bush.
It was the 104th annual event of the Erie-based Manufacturer & Business Association, which attracts top speakers from all over the world. June 17 was no exception, as Ralph Pontillo and his staff brought in the 43rd president of the United States.
As president, George W. Bush was, of course, widely disregarded for his oratorical shortcomings. His failure to communicate his core message, especially regarding his Middle East vision, was central to his record disapproval.
And yet, Bush was magnificent last Wednesday. He spoke with no teleprompter and few notes. After formal remarks, he reclined in a leather chair and answered audience-supplied questions. It was Bush unplugged.
I can’t do justice to all that was said. I’ll share a handful of items not getting the wider attention they deserve:
Referring to post-9/11 America, Bush calmly conceded, in a refreshingly frank manner: “I’m surprised we didn’t have another attack.”
We should all be surprised. Credit for that colossal accomplishment-Bush’s first priority after 9/11-goes to this president, who got little thanks.
Speaking of ingratitude, the unpopular ex-president didn’t whine about how he was poorly treated, and acknowledged he doesn’t sit around “psychoanalyzing” himself. Besides, he suffered something worse: He said it was far harder watching his father get attacked as president.
This was telling. George W. Bush idolizes his father. He talks of the “unspeakable” reassurance of the “unconditional love” of his father, which he compares to the unconditional love of his “heavenly father.” After watching his dad absorb arrows for four years, only to lose to Bill Clinton, the shots he took for eight years were easy.
Besides, said Bush, he can look in the mirror knowing he didn’t “sell his soul” for political gain. He always did what he felt was “morally right.”
The George W. Bush presidency was truly the sacrificial presidency.
What was more, Bush, a history buff and history major at Yale, noted that he had three busts installed at the Oval Office: Churchill, Lincoln, and Eisenhower. Ironically, he did that before 9/11, and it occurred to him only later that all three were wartime leaders. He couldn’t imagine the war he faced, and asserted that the most unexpected aspect of being president is preparing for the unexpected-“to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
On this point, President Bush didn’t pause to zing President Obama for removing that bust of Churchill. Quite the contrary, Bush promised, to tepid applause, that the one thing he will not do as ex-president is rip the current president: “I didn’t like it when it happened to me [read: Jimmy Carter], and I’m not going to do it to others.”
Here, reports that Bush “slammed” Obama are untrue. Naturally, he unavoidably made clear his preference for policy solutions in contrast to the central planning now governing Washington. At the same time, he dismissed fears that the nation was rushing toward “socialism.”
Bush shared a fascinating insight into his conviction that the Middle East can be democratically transformed. He reaffirmed his faith-based belief that Middle East Muslims have an inherent yearning for freedom placed on their hearts by a “loving God.” To think otherwise was “condescending.” God created them, too.
He made explicit reference, speaking passionately, and to hushed silence, about Muslim women in particular, and how they long to be educated and raise their babies in freedom. That emphatic statement from Bush haunts me right now as I now watch footage of Iranian women literally taking bullets for freedom-martyred women who may be the modern equivalent of that Tiananmen student who stood in front of a tank 20 years ago this month.
What was new was the personal way he brought Japan into the equation. After World War II, many judged that Japan couldn’t become a democracy. Japan was out-of-control, recklessly belligerent. It was that culture, that insane war-machine, which shot down Bush’s dad in the 1940s.
And yet, explained Bush, not only did Japan change dramatically, unthinkably, but one of his best friends as president was Japan’s prime minister, who was the first to telephone after 9/11.
Imagine, exhorted Bush: There he was, President George Bush, son of President George Bush. The father had been shot down by imperial, anti-democratic Japan. Now, after 9/11, peaceful, democratic Japan was calling the son to express condolences and offer help.
That moving message deserves pause: If Japan could change that much, what might transpire in the Middle East? It’s a promising prospect, one every skeptic of Iraqi democracy should bear in mind.
This was George W. Bush in Erie, Pennsylvania on June 17-inspiring, colorful, communicating the big picture.
Alas, the one major disappointment from the event is that no video or transcript is available. All rights belong to the 43rd president. I imagine this gem will end up on a shelf at the Bush Library, left to lonely scholars with a VCR, watching with a mix of awe, confusion, and frustration.
Awe at the supposedly poor communicator delivering this engaging message. Confusion as to why he couldn’t communicate the message as president. And frustration that the millions who ought to be watching never will.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007) and God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life (HarperCollins, 2004).