The Bush Character, Four Years Later
The President didn't take umbrage when Harry Reid called him 'a liar' or 'loser.' I did.
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.