President Bush is back in the news, with his recently published memoirs. I wouldn't expect much from them by way of great literature, but then, really eloquent presidents who can also write well have been pretty rare. The metier of the current occupant of the Oval Office seems to be meditative, gazing upon his image and telling the world, in platitudes, what he sees there. How I long for a Calvin Coolidge, in style though perhaps not in policy, with his clipped speech, his few but clear principles, his Puritan austerity, and his quietly daffy humor. Apparently Cal was a frequently photographed fellow. I've seen a picture of him in South Dakota, grinning impishly, in a full Sioux headdress, like Bob Newhart playing Sitting Bull. Or William McKinley, who would wave from his window every day at a certain time to his invalid wife Ida. When McKinley was shot, the first concern he expressed was for her, that she should be told about it gently. Then for his killer, whom he begged the crowd not to hurt. McKinley was a hard-favored man, stolid of mind and body, with beetling brows and a stern jaw. He was the last sitting president to refrain from campaigning for reelection, as he thought it was beneath the dignity of the office. Or I think of "Uncle Jumbo," the honorable Grover Cleveland, who did not disdain the hard and surely thankless work of personally overviewing applications for pensions from members of the Grand Army of the Republic, trying to make sure that the nation did not waste money on people who were not eligible to receive it.
Those were not great statesmen, but that's all right, since neither President Bush nor President Obama is a great statesman, either. Great statesmen are pretty rare. What does seem clear to me is that, on the whole, the three earlier presidents I've mentioned were good and honorable men. They were not without failings, but they were more often the failings caused by adhering to a principle, rather than by following the winds of popularity, in the pursuit of self-interest. Grover Cleveland, for example, had long supported an illegitimate son who was certainly not his own, out of a desire to right a wrong caused by one of his friends. He enjoyed such a reputation for scrupulous honesty that, after his retirement from the presidency, his public endorsement was sufficient to shore up the fortunes of a failing insurance company.
Now it's said by many on the left that George W. Bush is a criminal, a veritable monster. Here I apply one of my rules for judging between opponents in a fight when I don't know the full facts of the case. (And I don't know the full facts; I doubt that anyone does, because that would require being privy to all kinds of confidential documents, for instance, from the CIA and the Pentagon.) The rule is simply to disbelieve the one who badmouths the other. And it is easy to apply it in the case of President Bush. The most remarkable political characteristic of President Bush was that he was a just awful politician. I don't know why more people do not recognize this. People said that he was another Hitler, which should have earned them ferocious rebukes from the Anti-Defamation League, but somehow never did. Others accused him of complicity in the 9-11 attacks, making the man they accused of imbecility on Monday a Machiavelli of genius and ruthlessness on Tuesday. He was regularly derided as stupid, bloodthirsty, even criminal. Yet he never attacked his attackers. He did not play the political game.
There's another rule I apply, and that is to be wary of the ambitious. I am fond of the old Roman meaning of the word: a man who is "ambitious" is literally "full of going roundabout," canvassing for votes. It was considered a serious vice. A week or so before the election of 2000, Al Gore made an astonishing admission, one that should have rendered him unfit in the eyes of the electorate for the highest office in the nation. Gore said that he envied George Bush, because if Bush lost the election it wouldn't bother him at all; he would just go back to his ranch in Texas. But as for himself, said Gore, the election meant everything in the world. That should have disqualified him right there. (In our elections for department chair, I have always voted for the person who really does not want the job.) Was Gore's appraisal of Bush's character accurate? Probably so. The man who craves fame does not cease craving it once he has left the spotlight. Witness Teddy Roosevelt (whom I rather admire), witness Bill Clinton (whom I don't). But President Bush has simply retired from the public eye. He does not criticize his successor, who for his part never misses a chance to criticize Bush. He really does not seem to care what people think of him, so long as he is content with his own conscience. That is the blessing of believing in God — because when you believe in God, even the presidency of the United States is small change by comparison.
And because he believes in God, President Bush was precisely the opposite of the partisan ideologue that his opponents say he was. This is something, again, that the opponents find hard to understand; they saw in him the partisanship that was their own. But Bush, for better and for worse, never had a consistent political ideology to begin with; and that is consistent with his coming to the fullness of the Christian faith relatively late in life. For some people, conversion is a call to arms to fight the enemy, but for others, it is a call to fight oneself and have a beer with the enemy. President Bush seems to be of the latter sort. In this he resembles his father, whom he reveres; the two Presidents Bush have been easily the least bitterly partisan presidents since I learned to read the newspaper. I don't think I'm just speculating here. I think of two things that the younger Bush did, because he believed they were right, that angered conservatives. He spearheaded new national standards for public education, called, in the insufferable jargon of our times, No Child Left Behind, and allowed Teddy Kennedy to write what he wanted into the law. That bill, now, can find cheerleaders neither from conservatives, who would dearly love to see the Department of Education strangled, nor from liberals, who complained that the bill caused teachers to gear their instruction to success on some standardized test. Yet, whatever else the bill was, it was not partisan, nor was it born of some ruling ideology. The same thing can be said of his attempt, thwarted by members of his own party, to establish a system of amnesty and paths to full citizenship for illegal aliens. Again, Bush tried to do something that would have made him unpopular in his own party, because he believed it was a good thing to do. If Bush had succeeded, he would have done something that no American president since Lyndon Johnson, with the Civil Rights Act, had done. I am not saying that it would have been right. But it certainly was not motivated by ideology.
I think it will take some time to get a decent perspective on the last several presidents. But I believe that, on the whole, both presidents named Bush are decent human beings. Just for the record, I believe that President Obama is not a monster, either. Vain, elitist, and a statist, yes.