Politics & Policy

Explaining Bush to Italy

The view from here to there.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay was commissioned for the August issue of the Italian journal Studi Cattolici. A shorter version appeared in Il Giornale (Aug. 2). It is reprinted with permission.

Since 1978, I have lived in Washington, D.C., and have seen every president since that time (beginning with Jimmy Carter) in public meetings and in private conversations. But I was a close follower of the presidents already two decades earlier; one of my first published articles (in the 1950s) was an assessment of Eisenhower presidency. I contributed some unsolicited speech drafts to the Kennedy campaign of 1960, and received a letter of thanks. A lifelong registered Democrat, although an increasingly conservative and disaffected one, I covered the presidential campaigns of 1964, 1968, and 1972 for various publications, especially Newsday (Long Island, N. Y.). Later I was hired by the presidential campaigns of Democrats Ed Muskie, and then George McGovern in 1972, and indeed became chief speechwriter for vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver from August on.

I loved riding around on the press bus, into small towns and flying between big cities, often three in one day. So four years later, I campaigned for Shriver, later Jimmy Carter, and then Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1976. In the 1996 and 2000 primary campaigns I went out on the campaign trail again for Steve Forbes (and thus in 2000 in opposition to George W. Bush). Although he eventually lost in both his campaigns, Steve Forbes changed the direction of American politics, by putting on the national agenda such powerful issues as fundamental reform of the tax code and the “flat tax;” personal old-age-assistance accounts; personal medical accounts; and crucial attention to the “moral ecology” of the nation. His speeches stand up still as solid intellectual contributions to the national discourse.

Thus, in writing about George W. Bush, I do so in the context of the candidates I have known in the last half-century, and in the light of the ideas I set forth in my book on the U.S. presidency, originally entitled Choosing Our King (1974), its latest edition re-titled Choosing Presidents (1992).

I cannot think of a president who, once in office, so surprised both his critics and his followers as George W. Bush. True, people expressed surprise at how adroit Reagan was as a political leader, particularly with the Congress, and how truly brilliant as a communicator. But George W. Bush as president had surprised everyone by the high quality of his speeches, and by the bold and ambitious agenda he has step by step organized, one stunning challenge after another. After the suicide attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, for instance, many who had earlier opposed him publicly thanked God that Bush (not Gore) had been elected the preceding year. The young Bush instantly became the voice of the best in the American spirit. He was prayerful and reverent. His public leadership was fearless and steely eyed. When he asked people for their prayers, people who had never met him before knew he meant it. Among evangelicals and others there are many highly active prayer groups, some of them worldwide, praying intensely for him daily.

The desire of G.W. to do the right thing, conscientiously, is palpable.


Never have Catholics had so solicitous a friend in the White House. Bush met early and often with the cardinals, usually without press attention. He also called into existence a lay Catholic “sounding board” led by the editor of the lay journal Crisis, Deal Hudson, to stay in almost daily contact with his top staff. No president has ever been stronger on “the culture of life,” or a more consistent supporter of the vision set forth by John Paul II. So pro-Catholic are the president’s ideas and sentiments that there are persistent rumors that, like his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, G. W. might also become a Catholic. These rumors probably have no substance but merely verbalize an impression: How could the president’s express ideas be so Catholic unless…?

Many Europeans have a hard time sympathizing with the American Republican party. For in Europe they are so inured to statist modes of thinking that there is nothing like the Republican party. From my own experience, I can sympathize on this point. Only slowly, and over intense inner resistance, did I myself come to side more with Reagan’s vision of the world than with the social-democratic Democrat-party ideas I had been educated in during my youth. For one thing, the Republican grasp of the dynamism of economic life is much closer to reality, and less statist and (yes) less corrupt. Republicans have a strong sense of community, but their community is the local communities, the “little platoons” written of by Edmund Burke, and families. These are what they reverence, not the state.

Show Democrats a problem, they look for a new state program — always costly, usually inefficient, and probably counterproductive in the long run. Republicans look to see what people, pulling together in associations, can do for themselves.

For the Republicans, “liberty” is the powerful and dynamic social ideal. For the Democrats, “security” is the most powerful organizing tool. Crying “security,” they seek to attract majorities, and to direct the flow of history toward the construction of an ever more watchful and solicitous state. The Democratic style suggests motherliness, the caring nanny. The Republican style suggests manliness and the valiant woman.

It is a kindergarten error to think that Democrats represent a social vision, whereas Republicans represent the lonely individual and a vision of “individualism.” The Democrats represent a statist vision; with them, it is always the state that cares, acts, regulates, watches over its helpless flock. The Republicans represent the “mediating institutions” of civil society — all those social forces that mediate between the individual and the state, and that turn a “mob” into a “people,” as Tocqueville observed in contrasting the France of 1789 with the America of 1776. “The first law of democracy,” he wrote, “is the law of associations.” Where the French, facing a problem, turn to the state, Tocqueville noted, Americans turn toward one another and form associations, local, national, and international. This vision of mediating structures is the social philosophy that President Bush named “compassionate conservatism.” It is a direct rebuke to the statist vision of compassion promulgated by the Democrats.

Another difference between the philosophy of “compassion” pursued by the Democrats and that pursued by the Republicans is that, in words President Clinton made famous, Democrats emphasize “feeling your pain,” sensitivity, caring intentions. (The left presents itself as a kind of parallel to, or substitute for, religious feelings.) This emphasis on the heart also accounts for the disdain which leftists express for those on the right, whom they regard as either stupid or evil, or both, and decidedly beyond the pale of human decency.

By contrast, the Republicans define compassion in view of results achieved. Good intentions don’t count. (The road to hell is paved with them.) They don’t much admire sensitive feelings, or delicate expressions of solicitude. “Talking the talk” doesn’t count — they think Democrats do altogether too much of that. What counts is results: actually improving the daily lives of the purported recipients of compassion. Europeans may have noticed how often Bush describes himself as a “results-oriented guy.”

For example, the War on Poverty launched by President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) in 1965 authorized immense federal expenditures to reduce poverty. It made Democrats feel better, even morally superior. But what were its results? Mixed, at best. A boon for the elderly, whose lot was on the whole much improved. But for young adults and their children, immensely destructive. Between 1965 and 1980, rates of violent crime, mostly among those the War on Poverty meant to help, soared from 200 per 100,000 citizens to 581 per 100,000. The percentage of children born out of wedlock exploded from 40 per 1,000 live births in 1965 to 110 per 1,000 in 1980. Why not? The state paid for it. Thus did the nanny state produce the fatherless family. By 1985, some 80 percent of black children in areas of concentrated poverty were born into a home from which fathers were absent; and the number (but not the percentage) of white children born out of wedlock surpassed that of blacks. To his credit, President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform legislation of 1996, pressed upon him for years by a Republican Congress, and this reform brought results that stunned the social science elite.

President Bush’s greatest weapon is that the press always underestimates him. (I think that the president’s malapropisms — as when he sometimes says something like “misunderestimates” instead of “underestimates” — may be deliberate, just to throw tinder on the bias of the press, so that it will blaze up higher.) He likes to be underestimated. People always say he can’t do whatever he announces, and then quietly and steadily he gets it done. He has gotten vote after vote through the Congress that way, after almost universal predictions that he was bound to lose.

During the spring and summer of 2002, for instance, the president had one spokesman after another — Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice — say in public that he already had the authority to go to war in Iraq even without consulting Congress or the U.N. The press said that was because he couldn’t win that vote in either place. But, then, the Congress began to demand a chance to vote on the issue. So did the U.N. After a long delay, the president finally agreed. By that time it was September, just before the November congressional elections, and now suddenly Democrats who had begged to have a chance to vote, dreaded the obligation they had begged for. The president won easily.

The vote in the U.N. was much more difficult, but Secretary Powell managed to build a powerful consensus behind a sufficiently strong first resolution in November, 2002. The U.N., after all, had demanded to take up the subject. (The second resolution, in February of 2003, failed.) In this way, Bush astutely feinted, inducing his opponents to introduce the most difficult issues for him at the moment of worst timing for themselves.

So successful has the president been at being “misunderestimated” that his Democratic opponents have stopped making jokes about how empty-headed he is. After all, if Bush is stupid, and still keeps beating them on every issue, then what does that make them?


Perhaps nothing has better revealed Bush’s character to the world than his steadiness in the face of overwhelming public opposition to his decision to go to war in Iraq. Agree with him or not, you have to say that in that one decision, he put his future as president on the line. There were a million ways in which his war plan could have gone wrong. For the sake of his career, it would have been far safer for him to hide behind public opinion. The chances of success — not sheer military success, but political success-seemed very slim. I know, because I supported him, and many close friends (and even family) urged me not to risk doing so publicly, because it could so easily end in disaster. But Bush knew his obligations as president and did not shrink from the dangers. He was a worthy commander-in-chief, and I suspect that the brave young men and women in the field were trying to live up to his example, and were grateful to be serving under such a commander.

I must suppose that it bothered the president greatly that Pope John Paul II was, in effect, encouraging the popular peace movement in Europe. These were in many cases the same people who back in 1982 tried to stop Reagan and the Allies from placing the Pershing missiles in Europe, in order to checkmate the Soviet SS-20s which were aimed at European cities, thus decoupling European nations from the United States in deterrence systems. On the one hand, it was hard for Americans who remembered those years to understand the Vatican’s current position. On the other hand, the pope made clear that he was no pacifist, and kept noting that self-defense is a legitimate reason for war, as a last resort. The pope said nothing anti-American. From an American point of view, moreover, it was better to have the pope antiwar than seeming to support “Christian” powers in war on an Arab leader, even if the latter was an unsavory dictator.

What Americans could not understand is why the Holy Father did not speak out against the horrific human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein; and, even if he did not, why did not the Vatican office of Justice and Peace, or the Vatican secretary of state, or the editors of Civilta Cattolica? We now know that over a million Iraqis perished under torture, in prison, or in various forms of mass killing under Saddam and the Baathist party. In March, I met an Iraqi bishop in Rome who was desperate to have Saddam’s killings stopped. Why was the Vatican silent?

Even worse were the gratuitous anti-American canards tossed to the press by a number of senior Vatican officials. Most difficult to understand is why such officials still (even now) keep boosting up the moral prestige of the United Nations, which has become a vicious secularist, anti-religious force in questions of sexuality and life, and whose political-military decisions are founded totally on the national interests of member states, rather than on desperate human suffering under massive savagery (as in Rwanda, Kosovo, and Iraq). Why would the Vatican commit its prestige to such a corrupt organization, which so often thoroughly opposes the Vatican’s moral agenda for a culture of life? Perhaps because we see its daily operations so close to us, in New York, many of us in America, while we believe the U.N. has its good uses, have slowly lost respect for it as a moral compass by which to guide one’s decisions.

Sadly, President Bush had to proceed in Iraq without the support of the one moral leader in the world he truly admires, and often quotes. Bush has learned a great deal from this Pope, as one can see from many of the president’s speeches.

Why, then, did the president go to war with Iraq? There were three dominant reasons: The weapons of mass destruction that Saddam was known to have had, and for which he had not accounted, as he was bound by the Peace Agreement of 1991 to do; the danger that al Qaeda was operating in Iraq, and had the delivery system (as manifested on 09/11/01) to do grave injury to the United States and many other countries; and the horrific abuses which Saddam regularly practiced upon scores of thousands of his own people, as well as the bribery and intimidation he employed to threaten many of his Arab neighbors. In brief, Saddam Hussein was a radical de-stabilizer of international order, and the fingerprints of his intelligence service had shown up in the first World Trade Center bombings of 1995, the plot disrupted in the Philippines during the Millennium Year to bomb a dozen international aircraft in flight over the Pacific, and elsewhere.

No man in history had ever killed so many Arabs and Muslims as Saddam Hussein, and with these bitter experiences in mind, neighboring Arab states were happy to see him removed from the scene. Many good fruits have already emerged: tentative steps toward a two-state solution for the Palestinian/Israeli crisis, the mutually agreed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, and a rethinking of past illusions nearly everywhere in the Arab world in the light of falsehoods earlier accepted about Iraq. The discovery of the extent of Saddam Hussein’s bribery of Arab journalists throughout the Middle East through records captured in Iraq has provided one rude awakening. Many turned out to have been on Hussein’s payroll. No wonder so much information had been false.

There is one feature of the war that Bush is especially proud of. The American force was extremely well trained in the demands of war-fighting in accord with jus in bello standards, and raised the observance of them in modern times to a new level of achievement. Ignored by American secularists in the press and the academy, just war doctrine is taught with rigor and devotion in the U.S. military academies and throughout the officer corps. New precision weaponry made it possible to use guided weapons to destroy one building, or part of a building, while leaving its neighbors intact, and thus to single out exclusively military targets as much as is humanly possible. Soldiers were trained to withhold fire against civilian targets, unless first fired upon — and a significant number of American youngsters lost their lives on that account. One clear proof: Refugee camps built at Iraq’s borders were only lightly occupied, for there was never reason for people to flee; they saw soon enough that the Americans were trying not to hurt them.

In a word, agree with him or not, one can see that Bush had given serious moral thought to this possibly presidency-destroying decision. He exhibited a kind of moral courage and toughness that not many world leaders have. He is not a follower of the crowd, but a leader, willing to go against the crowd when he believes he has good moral arguments to do so.

Another case of that occurred at the end of May, in domestic politics. Just having come out of a minor recession, the U.S. economy is weak and unemployment is 6percent — too high for Americans. Facing the expenses of the war, and already seeing fresh deficits in the national budget, opinion polls showed the American people were not much in favor of the tax cuts Bush was proposing to get economic dynamism moving again. Nearly everyone predicted defeat in Congress. So Bush took his arguments for the tax cut to the people, campaigning almost non-stop for more than two weeks in different cities in nearly all parts of the country. People may not like the tax cuts, but they do like Bush, and day-by-day his arguments made sense to more and more people.

The Democrats cried, “Tax cuts for the rich!” in typical leftist class divisiveness and appeals to envy and resentment. Bush argued that unemployment is the problem, that jobs are created by investment, and that people invest when incentives make investment attractive, not when taxation takes too much of what investors would otherwise gain. A majority of Americans are now investors, since all those with private pension plans, including a huge proportion of today’s unionized workers, depend on the steady growth of their investments. This new majority could see from their own experience the power of Bush’s argument. Bush attacked the longstanding government practice of taxing dividends twice — once when profits are received by corporations, a second time when these profits are paid out to stockholders. All those retired persons who see those dividends arrive in their monthly checks, high or low, felt that injustice when they opened the mail.

To make a long story short, Bush won again. One more victory that a month earlier everyone was saying was surely lost. Bush does not follow the polls. He changes the polls by leadership.


My conclusion has several parts. For there are many ways in which George W. Bush is a better man than I had imagined from what I had heard about him before he was elected three years ago. First, he gives the most consistently eloquent speeches since Ronald Reagan, and I believe a fair literary comparison will show that Bush has given really good ones more often and more consistently. He may not deliver them in as silken a way as Reagan, but they are intellectually and spiritually meaty. (At least two small volumes of these speeches have already been published in booklet form, and are available through the White House; the reader should look at them.)

Bush is also more analytical about political situations, foreign and domestic, than I earlier imagined he could be. He is bold and farseeing — whether the issue is taxes or war, he seizes the hidden dynamic behind reality and tries to change it. In the Arab world, the hidden problem is dictatorship and the daily abuse of the human rights of the vast majority of Muslims. That must stop. In Saddam Hussein’s case, it has been stopped. Each month, 5,000 children will not die as they had been because of Saddam’s diversion of funds for “Oil for Food.” In the matter of taxes, the hidden dynamic is that if you want less investment in new jobs, you place high taxes on it; if you want more investment — therefore, more dynamism in the economy, and more jobs — you cut taxes. No matter how popular or unpopular the idea is.

More and more critics, agree that Bush thinks big. He goes for the bold solution, not the timid one; the difficult agenda, not the modest one. Bill Clinton talked tearfully about Africa, but Bush moved swiftly from being touched by the immense sufferings from AIDS in Africa to moving into immediate action. He conceived of a dramatic and ambitious plan to attack AIDS in Africa, and then moved to mobilize the rest of world to double the amount the United States is committing to the task. Characteristically, he demands results, not warm feelings.

It is too early to say that Bush is a great president. But already people are asking themselves how great will he end up being? Only good, but not great — say, about the level of John F. Kennedy (whose promise was cut off prematurely)? Up to the world-changing level of Ronald Reagan? On the latter point, one can only say that comparisons are beginning to be made. As Reagan spurred a huge increase in the number of the world’s democracies — including a good number in the former the Soviet Union — will G.W. open up a tide of fledgling democracies in the Arab and Muslim world? Will he in that way undercut, and thus eventually defeat, world terrorism? Will he eventually come to be a figure much revered in the Arab world, as a Western leader who cared about their plight, and on their behalf demanded results?

History is always opaque. My task is not prediction but assessment of Bush’s performance so far. I judge it to have been, up to this point, far, far better than expected, even by many of his supporters, and even — well, let me say it — splendid. Not many in the past have faced more sudden and difficult dangers, and handled them with equal command.

Well done, sir. Keep it up.

— 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.

Michael Novak was a Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat.

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