When I think about George W. Bush as a leader, my mind turns first and foremost not to the dramatic public successes and failures of his two terms but to a quick closed-door exchange in 2005 that I will never forget.
I was working for Bush then, as a member of his domestic-policy staff, and among the issues in my portfolio was the embryonic-stem-cell debate, which was then heating up again. The House would soon pass a bill overturning Bush’s funding policy, and we knew that the Senate would ultimately do the same and force the president to decide whether to veto this controversial but popular move. At the end of an Oval Office meeting on another subject, my boss (the president’s domestic-policy adviser at the time, Claude Allen) asked Bush if he wanted a memo and meeting laying out options for how to handle the bill, or if he had already decided he would issue an unequivocal veto threat and just wanted to discuss how best to arrange that process and any publicity around it.
The president looked at Allen for a moment and said: “You’re asking am I going to sign or veto it?” And after a brief pause in which Allen nodded, he said: “Are all men still created equal?”
It was perfectly clear to us all what he meant. His position was a matter of principle, the basic principle of human equality at the heart of the pro-life cause, and he was not about to change it. None of us was surprised that he would veto the bill, but the nature of the answer really caught me off guard. It was Bush at his plainest and most serious, saying some issues really weren’t about politics for him. It was a lesson in leadership.
— Yuval Levin is editor of National Affairs and Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was a member of the White House domestic-policy staff under President Bush and executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ
Those last weeks of official summer in 2001 were unforgettable, for very different reasons. The remarkable stem-cell compromise President Bush announced drew an important line in the sand — and he held back those who wanted to rush into embryonic-stem-cell research and even cloning, a push that had become a shameless and merciless snake-oil campaign for all too many politicians.
As September 11 of that year came all too soon, the president’s faith and resolve were a comfort, drawing people deeper into a real, consoling, challenging faith, one that our nation was built to rely on.
I wish that the president and some administration officials hadn’t tonally approached conservative critics of comprehensive immigration reform as if they were racists. I wonder if there was a lost opportunity there, one we just don’t have with Washington’s current imbalance. In particular, because he very much does have a point: We all too often don’t speak like we’re talking about real people when talking about politics and policy. “Illegals” — a word I find jarring — are human beings, our brothers and sisters. They may have made bad choices, they may have made what they thought was their only choice. But it is our lack of enforcement of laws that let them in, and there needs to be a little humility on both ends.
But I’m more grateful we had George W. Bush as president than anything else. They were shocking, tumultuous, painful times. And he was a good man who led imperfectly but with a deep reserve of character, examination, and prayer.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.
JOHN J. MILLER
The best thing about George W. Bush was that he won elections, which is a quality that GOP presidential candidates and their supporters simply can’t take for granted — not at a time when Republican nominees have lost five of the last six popular votes and four of the last six Electoral College votes. The worst thing about him? His name wasn’t Jeb.
— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review.
JOHN j. PITNEY jr.
President Bush’s best moment was his address to Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001. Immediately after the attacks of September 11, he had seemed shaky. But day by day, his confidence grew stronger and his resolve grew deeper. By the time he entered the House chamber nine days later, he looked and sounded quite different. For a brief time, at least, his firm words and confident demeanor inspired the country. “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain,” he said. “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
Perhaps his worst moment came at a time of triumph. “Let me put it to you this way,” he said in a press conference right after his 2004 reelection. “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” In fact, he had won a very narrow victory that would provide him with no political capital at all. His boast revealed a sense of overconfidence that would lead to serious errors in domestic and foreign policy.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.