Do any of these descriptions of recent presidents ring a bell?
“ I never did see so weak or imbecilic a man. The weakest man I ever knew in high place.”
“ The craftiest and most dishonest politician that ever disgraced an office in America”
“ An intellectual pygmy who disgraces the office occupied so grandly by men such as Washington and Jefferson.”
These snide denunciations could all well have been found in almost any of the nations’ newspapers or magazines over the past eight years. But they do not refer to George W. Bush. The first two were written contemporarily about Abraham Lincoln. The third about Harry S.Truman.
Attacks on the character, ability, integrity and performance of a President is a tradition as old as the nation itself. No chief executive ever escapes them. Even George Washington, in his attempt to keep the United States neutral at the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars in the 1790s, suffered ridicule and the contempt of editorialists and opinion makers.
But the point of presenting these quotes to you is to demonstrate the political truism that history is the final arbiter of a President’s legacy – and no amount of contemporary vilification will alter its final judgment. The presidencies of Lincoln and Truman certainly offer proof. In William Riding and Stuart McIver’s book Rating the Presidents ( Citadel Press, 1997) both Lincoln and Truman, viciously excoriated in their time as imbeciles and incompetents, are hoisted into the highest echelons of the ranking, with Lincoln occupying the first place and Truman the seventh.
This is the week, of course, when editorials gleefully indulge in the necromantic pleasure of dissecting the cadavers of dead presidencies. In that spirit, both Time and Newsweek have published pieces declaring Bush the worst president in U.S history. Commentators on MSNBC , CNN and ABC have mercilessly savaged the Bush Administration for its failures, listing the invasion of Iraq, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, the abuse of human rights at Guantanomo and the NSA wire tapping operation as evidence of not just incompetence, but mala fides. The Administration is widely regarded in the media, academia and among the intellectual elites of this country as having abused constitutional safeguards, exercised arbitrary executive power, used manipulative tactics and fabricated evidence to goad the American into an unnecessary military confrontation.
Contrary views are mocked. The press has laughed off the Administration’s own defense of its record as another farrago of lies and fabrications and even conservatives mouth resigned platitudes about a failed presidency.
But Bush’s many achievements are documented and cannot be dismissed as the mere posturing of a defeated administration.
Included are the President’s Malarial Initiative ( PMI) which is on track to reduce malarial deaths in Africa in half in 15 selected countries; the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, ( PEDFAR) – the single most important AIDS initiative in history which has provided life saving treatment for more than 2.1 people on the African continent and has cared for 10.1 million more worldwide. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) which has invested $6.7 billion in 35 countries to fight corruption, govern justly, and focus on in the health and education of their people.. Since 2001 the United States has provided 10.1 billion in disaster relief and was by far the lead international contributor after the 2005 Tsunami in South East Asia, the earthquakes in Turkey and the cyclone in Burma.
The Bush Administration has also been the greatest promoter of free trade in U.S. history. In 2001 the United States had negotiated free trade agreements with only three countries. Recognizing that free trade is the true key to global peace and security, the Administration ensured that today the United States has agreements in place with 14 countries with Congress recently approving another three.
In education reform , the results have also been impressive. The No Child Left Behind Act , a law which demands that the states hold schools accountable for ensuring that every child learns to read and perform math at grade level has been a signal success. According to the Nation’s Report Card, by 2007 fourth-grade students had achieved their highest reading and math scores on record, and eighth-grade students achieved their highest math scores. African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in reading and math, narrowing the achievement gap.
Faith-Based and Community Initiatives also brought important changes to volunteerism in this country. More than 515,000 children received after-school tutoring through supplemental educational services, many from faith-based and community providers. Critics might well have virulently attacked the Bush Administration response to Hurricane Katrina, but this same program’s national service plan encouraged more than 5.4 million hours of service, directing 405,000 volunteers in recovery efforts.
The “anti-environment President”, also seems to have transformed into something of an environmentalist. In terms of sheer land mass protected, the Bush Administration is without peer. The Healthy Forest Initiative extended protection to more than 27 million acres of federal forests and grasslands and helped protect more communities from catastrophic fires than at any other time in history. The Wetlands Initiative extended protection to 11 million acres. With the Oceanic Action Plan, the Administration worked to end over fishing, advance marine science, and educate the public about the need for preservation. Bush also designated nearly 140,000 square miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a Marine National Monument making history as the largest allocation of the world’s surface for conservation purposes. The new Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument designated just last week, now protects more than 7,000 endangered species. And the President’s National Parks Centennial Initiative has provided record funding for the repair and improvement of the nation’s national parks.
And yet in the popular imagination, George W. Bush’s diplomatic and military failures far outweigh any of these achievements.
That is largely because of the Administration’s response to the events of September 11. 2001. The canard is that Bush lied to the American people about the justifications for the Iraq War, that he executed that invasion incompetently and then used imaginary threats to American security to justify torture, tightened security and spying on Americans.
But lets get some facts straight. The CIA evidence of Saddam’s Hussein’s WMD threat to the United States presented by the Administration and put on display by Colin Powell at the United Nations, was widely accepted by everyone – from Nancy Pelosi to Harry Reid to the viciously anti-Bush State Department– as true and unimpeachable.
Here is Nancy Pelosi:
“ Saddam Hussein has engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology and is a threat to countries in the region and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.”
And Harry Reid:
“Saddam Hussein in effect thumbed his nose at the world community and I think the President is approaching this in the right fashion.”
And Al Gore:
“ We know that Saddam has stored throughout his country secret supplies of chemical an biological weapons. Iraq’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction has proved impossible to deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.”
Hussein himself had done much to reinforce their opinions. He was not only in violation of innumerable U.N. resolutions. In the previous 15 years he had instigated military campaigns which had accounted for a greater loss of human life than any other political leader since the Second World War. He had butchered his own people, using chemical agents (for the first time since the First World War), arbitrary executions and mass slaughter to further enforce his rule. He had fought one war with United States and made known his desire for vengeance in a second. He was indubitably, incontrovertibly a menace to both his own people, his neighbors and to world peace. His control of and proximity to great oil resources threatened global stability. His removal from power was regarded almost universally as a necessity
The war that followed was a protracted affair and the occupation that followed it was, admittedly, bungled. But here are the results: Hussein is dead. Iraq is a fledgling democracy. The United States’ casualty list stands at a tiny fraction of what it had been in other engagements of a similar nature and duration and this country now has a base in the Middle East from which it can apply pressure to other terror sponsoring states.
More important than this is the psychological impact the Iraqi success has had on the terrorist networks and their masterminds. Improved intelligence, surveillance and security are not the only reasons the United States has not suffered a devastating attack on the level of 9/11 in the past seven years. American resolve to defend the country no longer took the shape of mere words and ineffectual action. The image of weakness projected by the Carter and Clinton Administrations, which had given the Iranians the temerity to hold American diplomats hostage for 435 days and terrorists the gall to launch their 9/11 strike, was finally reversed. Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States would no longer tolerate provocations from terrorists or rogue states.
But what to make of the other charges regarding the abuse of individual and constitutional rights? The trouble with successful pre-emptive measures taken domestically to protect citizens, is that their need can never be fully demonstrated since the event they sought to deter does not take place. Hence the Patriot Act, the NSA Wire Tapping operation and the water boarding of Guantanomo prisoners are all open to criticism as needless measures designed to increase executive power rather than reinforce American security.
The discussion is fairly useless. What is necessary to recall, and what many liberal commentators have chosen to forget, is that an act of war was carried out against the American hinterland in September, 2001. No other President since 1812 had been confronted with as bold a challenge to American security. The Bush Administration’s legislative and executive responses to the threat illustrated an axiom that may well come to define our world: that during a time of war or threatened war, individual liberties must some times give way to the exigencies of national security. Any democracy, seeking to preserve its institutions and its security must be prepared, at times, to assert control over modes of communication, transportation and the vehicles of self expression and cannot be squeamish about using means that might elicit information necessary to save the lives of millions of its people. Strong democratic leaders, recognizing their responsibilities to the security of their citizenries, must be prepared to take the heat when they enforce measures which on their face may seem to fly in the face of individual liberty but do much to actually protect and strengthen it. George W. Bush was such a leader and may yet set the modern standard for political courage in a time of military crisis.
And there is one further aspect of the Bush presidency for which future historians will not fail to applaud. On September 20, 2001, Bush delivered one of the most powerful presidential addresses in American political history, articulating a philosophy that would come to dominate the seven remaining years of his Administration. Declaring the Islamic fundamentalist menace the heir to 20th Century fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism, Bush drew a thread from George Washington, sewed it through Woodrow Wilson, looped in the presidency of Harry Truman and connected it to our own time:
“The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”
He further elaborated on what would become known as the Bush Doctrine before the Air Force Academy on June 2, 2004:
“ For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy. Some who call themselves realists question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality: America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat; America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.”
Here was an American president forcefully expressing the concept of American execptionalism; Here was an American political leader disavowing the moral relativism of our age and declaring unashamedly that the American experiment in democracy has a purpose which is not simply to provide comfort and contentment to its citizens but to deliver freedom and liberty to all humanity. Savagely attacked as simplistic and hubristic, Bush nonetheless gave voice to the strongest emotional undercurrent of American life: that the American people stand for something beyond themselves and that this is a cause they will die to defend and live to advance.
Say what you want about George Bush’s skills as an orator or his level or his powers of communication, these speeches and the philosophy they outlined, were defining moments in his presidency and may come to be regarded eventually as two of the most important presidential addresses in U.S. history. They define a moment in time when the American people were reawakened to the perils of living in a world where evil is tolerated and to the reality that only assertive action against such evil can ensure security, stability and national cohesion.
Abraham Lincoln understood this. As did Harry Truman. Both knew that hard truths are not so easily swallowed and that a democratic leader must sometimes be prepared to endure unparalleled dissatisfaction and personal vilification in advancing a cause vital to the country’s security and future. They stand today in the pantheon of great presidents because they withstood the rancor of their critics and hewed to their beliefs and convictions without waver.
The 43rd president was also such a man. And history will remember him for it.