A Visit with 43, Part III

President Bush with the Dalai Lama in 2007. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
George W. Bush on Japan, Korea, the Dalai Lama, political prisoners, and more

Editor’s Note: In our March 14 issue, we had a piece by Jay Nordlinger: “43 and His Theme: A visit with George W. Bush.” This week, he is expanding the piece in his Impromptus. For Parts I and II, go here and here.

Bush wants to return to an earlier subject: “Part of the problem that people had with the 2005 inaugural speech is that it was an easy way to say, ‘All he wants to do is impose American values.’” This, he rejects entirely. Freedom and democracy are universal values, not national ones.

“So, was I troubled by that?” — meaning the charge of imposing American values. “Not really.”

I butt in with this: “My line is, I’d like to impose American values on America. That’s a little bit of campaign rhetoric.” Chuckling, Bush says, “Yes, it is.”

‐He then talks about Junichiro Koizumi, who was prime minister of Japan from 2001 to 2006. “On September the 12th, he called me to say, ‘We stand shoulder to shoulder with you, to enhance our mutual security and spread freedom as the alternative to the ideology of those who murdered 3,000 on American soil.’”

Bush found this an interesting statement on several levels. For one thing, his dad, the future president, had fought the Japanese in World War II. For another, Koizumi was understanding something that other leaders did not understand, and still don’t: Our current conflict is in large part ideological.

“You have to ask the question,” says Bush, “‘Was it inevitable that the former enemy would call and say, “We stand shoulder to shoulder”?’ I don’t think so.”

I say, “Japan was lucky they lost that war. What I mean is, it was good for Japan.” “Yeah, well, yes,” says Bush. “Interesting comment.”

He continues, “I bet you, if you had said in the 1940s, ‘Someday America and Japan will be standing shoulder to shoulder,’ people would have said, ‘What a hopeless, idealistic person you are!  How naive! How Wilsonian!’ And in fact, in this case, freedom was transformative.”

Just for fun, Bush notes that he took Koizumi to Graceland in 2006. Koizumi is a big, big Elvis fan. At Graceland, he sang “Love Me Tender.” This “flew in the face of traditional Japanese diplomacy,” says Bush, wryly.

‐He then talks about Korea — South Korea. He has a friend named Billy Kim, who was an interpreter for Billy Graham. Kim, a minister, asked Bush to speak in Seoul. This was a religious speech, not a political one. Bush spoke to some 30,000 Christians in a soccer stadium.

“I thought of Harry Truman,” says Bush. I ask why. “Because Harry Truman never saw the benefit of a free society in Korea. And yet here were people allowed to worship freely. And I then thought of the soldiers of the Frozen Conflict, many of whom had no clue what their sacrifices meant. And yet people were able to worship freely.

“You have to ask the question, ‘Does it matter to American interests that people in Korea can worship freely?’ I think it does. I think it not only upholds our values, but Korea is now a partner in peace, in what used to be a pretty bloody part of the world.

“And so, you know, the basic themes and values of the inaugural speech are reconfirmed constantly for me.”

‐We talk a bit about political prisoners. I mention Oscar Biscet, the Cuban democracy leader. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, in absentia. Biscet was in prison; he was released in 2011.

Does something like the Medal of Freedom help keep political prisoners alive? Help prevent their persecutors from killing them? Bush thinks so. He puts it like this: “For America to embrace individuals and publicize their plight is somewhat of an insurance policy. I hope it is.”


‐When he was president, Bush often talked about individual cases, not just human rights in general. He named names — names of political prisoners, names of dissidents. I mention that Andrei Sakharov considered this very important.

“He was an awesome guy,” says Bush. True.

This leads to discussion of Natan Sharansky — another awesome guy. I ask, “Are you in touch?” “He’s on our Freedom Advisory Board,” says Bush.

During his presidency, Bush embraced and talked up Sharansky’s book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. He told one and all that the book embodied his own views.

“You helped sell that book,” I say to Bush. I also note that he helped sell a book by Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. Bush made sure to be seen walking with it. I discussed this with Cohen recently.

Bush chuckles. “It’s amazing. Kind of a non-commissioned agent.” He adds, “I think I helped The Aquariums of Pyongyang as well.”


‐“Natan is … I wish more people could hear him,” says Bush. Then he says this: “The isms of isolationism and protectionism and nativism run deep in our history, and we’re seeing some of that now in the political arena. Not some of it. We’ve seen a lot of it.” He believes that, in succumbing to these “isms,” we Americans are “endangering ourselves more.”

‐People love to mock Bush for saying that a desire for freedom beats in every human breast. My brethren on the right especially love to mock this. “What about all the tyrants and terrorists?” they say. “Their desire is to tyrannize and terrorize!”

Well, duh. Bush does not mean them. He’s talking about the run of people, who don’t want to live their lives under a boot.

Tyrants “love the fact that people aren’t trying to topple tyranny,” says Bush. “They’re comfortable. Look, tyrants stay in power by a variety of means. One is bribery: They gotta have a handful of elites, paramilitary elites, supporting them. Why do they support them? Not out of love. Out of spoils.

“I noticed that Kim Jong-un recently killed the highest-ranking general — like two days ago. Somebody’s gonna take this guy’s place, and he will be driving a Mercedes-Benz and eating caviar, so long as he pays great homage to the dear leader.

“Same in other countries, where people need coercion and bribery to stay in power. The alternative to that is, the people decide — and therefore coercion and bribery don’t work.

“So you’re seeing an interesting clash in China right now, where corruption is irritating a lot of people, like it does everywhere, and yet the Internet enables the disgruntled to spread messages like never before.”

‐I ask the former president, “What can we do about political prisoners in China? I mean, they have a Nobel peace laureate in jail.” “It requires the president,” says Bush. “I mean, truthfully, sadly — it’s a diplomatic issue.” There is only so much the Bush Center can do. They can host people and spotlight people and talk to people in power here and there.

Which is better than nothing, in my book.

‐“The Dalai Lama has been here,” says Bush. “He’s one of the great freedom-agenda men of all times.” “And a defender of George W. Bush in unfriendly forums,” I add.

Bush smiles. “I thank him for that,” he says. “I say, ‘Hollywood must love you when you go there and say that,’” i.e., compliment the 43rd president. “He’s not gonna stop.”

Bush continues, “We’ve had him here three or four times. I’ll show you how good a friend he is. He’s willing to come have a lunch with some of our donors and answer questions.”

In short, “I view him as a very close friend.”

Bush was the first president to appear with him in public — something the Chinese government cannot abide. In 2007, Bush went with the Dalai Lama to the Capitol Rotunda, where the Tibetan received the Congressional Gold Medal.

“I informed the Chinese I was going to do that ahead of time,” says Bush. “I tempered it somewhat by telling them I was coming to the Olympics” — the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

Smiling once more, Bush observes, “The old sweet ’n’ sour.” In other words, good news, bad news.

See you tomorrow for Part IV? Good.

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