But I do not want to argue here the question of his greatness (I have heard voices call him the worst ever) because the question of ranking is above my pay grade and my foresight.
What I do want to argue is that, after Washington and Lincoln, Bush is the bravest of our presidents. He has faced the most intense fire, hatred, contempt, heavily moneyed and bitterly acidic partisan opposition, underhandedness, betrayal, of any president in the last hundred years. He has faced hostility over a longer time, in possibly the most dangerous period of international warfare in our national history. He has remained constant, firm, decided, and generous (to a fault) with his opponents.
He has faced almost unbroken contempt from the academy, from the mainstream press, from Democratic elites, from Moveon and all the other holders of the Democratic-party purse strings, from the Democratic Congress, from his treacherous (if not treasonous) Central Intelligence Agency, and from many levels of the permanent State Department. Almost every day, he has been pummeled and undermined by powerful forces of American power. Still, he has stayed firm, with clear arguments, and an even clearer vision.
On the number-one issue facing the nation–the war declared upon us by fascists who pretend to be religious–he has not wavered, he has not bent, he has stayed on course and true.
In Iraq, civil society, nearly comatose under Saddam Hussein, is today alive and full of vitality. Newspapers and television and magazines are full of diversity and energy, political parties multiply, private associations are functioning by the thousands, most of the country is more secure than some American cities. Iraqi exiles from around the world, far from fleeing, are coming back in droves.
In Paris, France, more cars may have been set on fire this past year than car bombings in Baghdad. In the decade of the Algerian war some time ago there may have been more bombings in France per week than there are now in Iraq. A tiny band of extremists, led by a crafty but crazed Jordanian, are still capable of impressive resourcefulness and ruthless killing, especially within camera reach of the hotels in Baghdad, where the American press is bunkered down. But they represent only a small fringe of Iraqi voters–and of course they loathe democracy with all their writhing intestines.
Despite the depredations, beheadings, and homicide bombings aimed at American public opinion, and especially elite opinion, President Bush has bravely kept his focus on eliminating one by one the dwindling band of terrorists, on the reconstruction of Iraqi civil society, and on the ability of Iraqi parties to broker and bargain and argue themselves into consensus in a political manner.
Whatever American voters may say of him to opinion pollsters–and his polls are now very low indeed–the survival of democracy in Iraq will in the future count as an enormous achievement. Moreover, the exchange in Arab minds of the “big idea” of democracy for the grand illusions of the past (Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, Baathist dictatorship, pan-Arabism), may a generation from now confer on President Bush the unmistakable honor of having been one of those presidents who actually changed the course of history. A president who changed the course of history, yes–and also one who did so against unprecedented opposition at home, bitter and hysterical opposition, even from those who were formerly of the party of democracy, human rights, and international outreach.
It takes more bravery to continue walking calmly through immense hostility at home, than to face down a foreign foe, with a united nation at one’s back. This, as I say, is a very brave president.
It may also turn out that, despite currently swirling furies, the president’s stout refusal to be merely partisan or to throw red meat to some of his best supporters (he knew as well as anybody what they most wanted now), alongside the five interlinked courses of action he proposed, will have empowered a much more thorough immigration reform than seemed possible even four weeks earlier.
Despite a normal diet of failures and setbacks, common to all presidents, it is also worth counting up his steady, always surprising successes in cutting taxes, in reshaping the Supreme Court, in getting personal Social Security accounts and personal medical accounts on the agenda of public discussion (the first president since Roosevelt to touch the third rail and live to tell of it), and in presiding over the most amazing economy in the world during the past six years.
Polls may be fickle. Notable accomplishments endure, as rock-solid facts. The full record of this president may yet turn out to be as highly ranked as his bravery is bound to be.
If you were in his shoes, would you not prefer the fame of 30 years from now to popularity in your own time? Being popular is neither within one’s own control nor, in the larger scheme, a goal worth pursuing. Doing the right thing steadily, as best one can, is.
I like this guy. And I admire his guts, and his decency.
— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.