This week we have seen very revealing statements from two Republican Presidents who took office under a pall of illegitimacy. George W. Bush visited a clinic in Botswana that provides cervical cancer screenings under the humanitarian program that will likely be seen as his signature accomplishment. That program is on the chopping block because the Trump Administration wants to cut all foreign aid. In his statement, Bush said, “Every human life matters. And I hope the people of America understand that through their generosity millions now live.” The same day, dozens of Syrian civilians were gassed by their government, as part of conflict in which the United States is active. Donald J. Trump blamed president Obama and then told an American audience he “doesn’t want to be President of the world” so “from now on it’s going to be America First.” One man cares about human beings because they are human. The other sort of cares about some human beings because they might vote for him. Both have made destructive decisions, and Trump will doubtlessly make more. The question is, does a man’s motivation affect the impact of his bad decisions as the American President?
Bush’s embrace of all Americans overcame the acrimony of the 2000 election
Many who were not yet of voting age (the majority of Americans) forget that when Bush took office, many Americans felt the Republic had been undermined. Bush won an election which came down to a recount in a state governed by his brother Jeb, and in which the Supreme Court intervened, effectively awarding him the Presidency. Yet Bush still retained approval ratings in the 50s and 60s throughout 2001 and after September 11, those ratings skyrocketed. Despite the acrimony of the election, Bush, who made a genuine effort to pursue “compassionate conservative” policies like No Child Left Behind (an unfortunate policy created with the best of intentions), won over the majority of the population. I think this was because, whatever his flaws, no one really doubted that he was a good man doing his best in a difficult job. Then that reputation took a hit.
Terrible foreign policy decisions undermined his, and America’s credibility
What came next made it easy to call Bush’s character into question. He picked Darth Vader as a running mate, nominated Dr. Strangelove as a Secretary of Defense, and then relied on them to determine foreign policy. This had predictable results. The invasion of Iraq has been widely discredited as a legally unjustifiable aggressive war. That invasion has, without question, destabilized the Middle East. It inarguably caused the circumstances that created what we see today in Syria; the leaders of ISIS developed their networks in American prisons. We see the human cost of Bush’s bad decisions in gassed civilians in Syria and drowned toddlers on Turkish beaches. His popularity deservedly tanked in his final years in office, and his reactionary national security policies betrayed American ideals, disappointing allies and emboldening enemies. Additionally, he alienated many domestically focused Americans through his incompetence in responding to Hurricane Katrina. However, while many people at home and abroad asked in bewilderment how America elected this guy, I rarely heard the opinion that American democracy had ceased to function. This was not the only hypocritical period in our history. We recovered before and we could recover again. More importantly, precisely because Bush is a good man, his failures are not his only legacy.
Bush also did good things, and did not undermine the institution of the Presidency (at least not more than most Presidents)
Even though his Administration saw scandals involving torture, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, and Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s political opposition treated him as a legitimate President committed to the American Republic. For all that Bush made terrible decisions, he also promised, in his second inaugural, to make clear to every country that it had a choice between oppression and freedom. I don’t think he was lying – he just didn’t do a very good job of achieving his goal. I never heard a Democratic politician, in the 8 years of his Presidency, impugn his belief in American ideals; they just questioned his many failures to implement those ideals, which is their job.
It is also important to note that Bush had moments where he exemplified the best of America. Bush wanted to make undocumented residents a part of the nation’s daily life. He put all the political capital he had left (which wasn’t much) behind comprehensive immigration reform, drafted with Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, and would have succeeded, had both the left and the right in Congress not killed the bill. Most importantly, he has saved 11 million Africans by establishing PEPFAR, a humanitarian program delivering AIDS medication in Sub-Saharan Africa.* Even Bob Geldof, a counter-culture musician from the ’60s turned activist, lauds Bush for his accomplishments in Africa. Especially as a post-president, I suspect George Bush may do more good for the world than a lot of his detractors may think.
Bad decisions don’t make a bad Republic, but a bad man can
A good man like Bush, hated though he often was, did not destroy the American People’s confidence in the institution of the American Presidency, or in each other. George W. Bush did both great and terrible things for the world, because he was a good person trying to do the best he could. Donald Trump may never make a single decision that causes as much destruction as Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, but given his “America First” focus and disregard for moral leadership, there’s virtually no chance he is going to save 11 million Africans either. Indeed, if his budget is any indication, he doesn’t seem particularly inclined to help struggling Americans. Trump has introduced a realpolitik into American life that dismisses morality as naiveté. He has rejected even the notion of objective truth. These two decisions have left us, as a people, questioning what it is to be an American, and whether American democracy itself can function. Going forward, we can all learn an important truth from these two Republican Presidents: you can hate a President’s decisions, but when it comes to protecting the institution of the Presidency, his or her motivation can make all the difference in the world.
* I understand that President Obama kept PEPFAR going, but then he also contributed to the mess in Iraq and Syria. If I’m blaming Bush for the Middle East, I’m also giving him credit for PEPFAR.