Magazine | May 20, 2013, Issue

George W. Bush Day

Some notes on a dedication ceremony

Dallas, Texas – They’re streaming onto the grounds of Southern Methodist University, at 7:30 in the morning. They’re dressed in their Sunday best, too — even though it’s Thursday. They, we, have come for the dedication ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. That will begin at 10, but we were told to be here very early, to go through the security rigmarole. At the ceremony, five U.S. presidents will appear: the incumbent and the four living former ones.

People have traveled to Dallas from all over the world — but mainly they’ve traveled from somewhere in Texas, I think. Observing them, I get the impression they’ve been supporting the Bush family for a long time. Is this kind of a last hurrah? Well, Jeb — who became a Floridian, true — may run for president. And his son George P. is running for land commissioner here in Texas.

George W. is suddenly back in the national media — because of this ceremony, to be sure, but also because of the terror attack in Boston a week and a half ago: It reminded people of 9/11, and of the president’s resoluteness in the face of it. This week, journalists have been writing reassessments of Bush. One of them was by Ron Fournier, the veteran Washington reporter, and it was titled “Go Ahead, Admit It: George W. Bush Is a Good Man.” To some of us, that’s like saying, “Go ahead, admit it: Two plus two equals four.”

Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House, provoked a few gasps last summer when she described Bush as “really a lovely man.”

In a blogpost this week, the Daily Telegraph’s Will Heaven reminded us of some of the old venom. He cited the British historian Nigel Hamilton, who in a recent book claims that Bush is “ill-read to the point of near-illiteracy.” What’s the point of literacy if you have to read lies like that?

The GWB Center at SMU is a combination of library, museum, and public-policy institute. It holds some 40,000 artifacts. These include a container of chads (a symbol of Election 2000); the bullhorn used by Bush at Ground Zero; and the pistol taken from Saddam Hussein when he was dragged from his “spider hole.”

Serving as architect for the center was Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture. When Stern’s design was unveiled in 2009, Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post wrote of the difficulties of designing a building for W. Architects are defined by “intellectual sophistication” and “aesthetic refinement,” he said, and Bush is “seemingly hostile” to those things. At least he said “seemingly.” Earlier this month, by the way, Kennicott won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

This day in Dallas, there is not only a Bush celebration but a Bush denunciation, too — a series of counter-events called “The People’s Response.” Some of the People featured in the Response are Code Pink, Phil Donahue, and Lawrence Wilkerson. This last figure was chief of staff to Colin Powell. In citing Bush’s mistakes, critics tend to say, “Iraq! Torture! Katrina!” A few of us are tempted to say, “Powell!”

For celebrators and denouncers, the weather is heavenly in this city: about 70 degrees, without a trace of humidity. Here at SMU, the atmosphere is one of a happy, elegant party. There are celebrities in the crowd, including athletes: Troy Aikman, for example, and Dikembe Mutombo. The former was a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys; the latter was a center for the Houston Rockets.

#page# Waiting for 10 o’clock, we are entertained by singing groups, and by a slideshow. The Bush presidency is depicted in a glowing, heroic light, to the accompaniment of Coplandesque music. We see the president with his fellow statesmen, but also with dissidents and former political prisoners. One of them is Kang Chol-Hwan, a survivor of the North Korean gulag. “If our opinion-shapers were of a different nature,” I think, for the thousandth time, “Bush would be known as a human-rights president.”

At last, the ceremony begins, starting with a parade of special guests, led by W.’s vice president, Dick Cheney. He is wearing a cowboy hat and looks thin and determined. Then come children of deceased presidents — led by the Johnson girls, both of whom look chic and splendid. Then come the first ladies, all of them from Rosalynn Carter onward, except for Nancy Reagan, who is apparently unable to make such a trip. Michelle Obama looks embarrassed to be here, a little contemptuous — nose-holding.

And I don’t know about you, but I sort of forget that Hillary Clinton was first lady. She has been other things since.

Out troop the husbands, the presidents: Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Bush 41 (in a wheelchair), Carter. Bush 43, of course, gets a bigger cheer — a much bigger cheer — than Obama. I think, “Is this the only place where that would happen?” I have another thought: “Say Romney had won last November. Would the Obamas have shown up for this?” They would have had to, right? It would have been a miserable, almost impossible duty, though.

Condoleezza Rice comes to the podium, to acknowledge distinguished guests in the audience. Among them are Tony Blair, John Howard, and José María Aznar — in other words, the Bush-friendliest foreign leaders. When Rice acknowledges Silvio Berlusconi, there are a few titters. For once, Bill Clinton may not be the randiest statesman in the house. In reading the long list of names, Rice performs feats of pronunciation. She throws a “th” into “Aznar.” And she tries to pronounce “Bahrain” Arabicly — which is a little awkward.

In due course, we have the Pledge of Allegiance. When all rise, Mutombo turns to the people behind him and says, with a bright wonderful smile, “Can you see?” (He is 7 foot 2.)

The first president to speak is Carter, wearing shades. He gives a good, crisp, vigorous speech. He credits Bush with settling the war between North Sudan and South Sudan (known formally as the Second Sudanese Civil War). I remember something Congressman Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican, once told me: He would have nominated Bush for the Nobel Peace Prize, but Khartoum was committing genocide in Darfur, and it would have looked odd to make a Sudan-related nomination.

In further remarks, Carter praises Bush for his help to Africa in general. And he ends with an exceptionally warm encomium: “Mr. President, let me say that I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you,” because of “the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth.”

I have another memory: One of the best speeches President Reagan ever gave was on October 1, 1986 — Carter’s 62nd birthday. They were dedicating the Carter Library in Atlanta. Carter responded, “As I listened to you talk, I understood more clearly than I ever did in my life why you won in 1980 and I lost.”

On the stage at SMU, Bush 41 is next to speak. He does so from his wheelchair. He has no notes. “It’s a great pleasure to be here,” he says, “to honor our son” — then he switches to “our oldest son,” for there are three others, two of whom aren’t really famous. He continues, “This is very special for Barbara and me.” Is Bush the last person in America to use “I” and “me” correctly?

#page# His remarks last a grand total of 25 seconds. Afterward, W. shakes his hand and says, “Good job.” His father cracks, “Too long?” which breaks up his son.

As for Clinton, he’s on pretty good behavior. I could pick at him, but I should give him a rest. He notes what some people have said: He’s so close to the Bush family, he has become “the black-sheep son.” And that gives me a memory of W. himself — who in 1991, during his father’s presidency, identified himself to Queen Elizabeth as the black sheep of the family. Exactly ten years later, he was president himself.

Like Carter, Clinton heaps praise on Bush for his activism in Africa. This is obviously something Democrats can concert on. And he enlists Bush in the cause of the present immigration reform in Congress, whether Bush wants to be enlisted or not.

President Obama does the same thing, and he, too, repeats the praise concerning Africa. Overall, he is good and gracious. He refers to 43 as “George,” and does so with apparently genuine friendliness. “To know the man is to like the man,” says Obama, “because he’s comfortable in his own skin. . . . He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”

Giving the final speech, Bush is completely himself: folksy, formal, cocky, humble, idealistic, hard-boiled — that whole, strange package. He pays tribute to Cheney, saying, “I’m proud to call you ‘friend.’” It sounds to me the slightest bit strained. I think of the dispute between the president and the vice president over the pardon, or non-pardon, of Scooter Libby, the Cheney aide.

In the last couple of weeks, Bush has become a grandfather for the first time, and he talks of the “joy” of it. The child is a girl named Mila. I don’t think I’ve heard that name since Brian Mulroney was prime minister of Canada, and the country’s first lady was Mila. She was “Yugoslav,” as we used to say.

Naturally, Bush talks about freedom, his perpetual subject. The idea of freedom “sustains dissidents bound by chains” and “believers huddled in underground churches.” Freedom this, freedom that. It occurs to me that Bush is talking more about freedom in this one speech than Obama has done in all the speeches he has given as president. But that can’t be true (quite).

Bush also answers a criticism of the Left, I believe. In recent years, they’ve been painting conservatives as dog-eat-dog Darwinians, radical individualists, caring for nothing but the Self. Bush says, “Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors, and the strong protect the weak, and public policies promote private compassion.”

Winding up, he says, “I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country.” I think of what Martin Luther King said at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo: “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.” Bush says, “Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.” Does he really mean it, or is he expressing more like a wish? Either way, his face is wet with tears.

And the crowd goes nuts. People thrust three fingers in the air, in a “W” sign — I don’t think I’ve seen that since the 2000 campaign. Later in the day, someone tells me, “In a way, that was the last speech of the Bush presidency.” It was a good one, by a good man, yes. I appreciate him anew, though I’ve never actually stopped.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

American Dawa

Deep-blue, multi-culti Boston is the latest target of jihadist terror. The spree began on April 15, when terrorists remotely detonated two improvised explosive devices near the finish line of the ...
Politics & Policy

George W. Bush Day

Dallas, Texas – They’re streaming onto the grounds of Southern Methodist University, at 7:30 in the morning. They’re dressed in their Sunday best, too — even though it’s Thursday. They, we, ...

Features

Politics & Policy

The Rubio Amnesty

When Mitt Romney lost last November, the Republican establishment decided that his moderately hawkish stance on immigration had been a major cause of his defeat. Never mind that his share ...
Politics & Policy

iPencil

Everybody knows the first words spoken on a telephone call — Alexander Graham Bell’s simple demand “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” April marked the 40th anniversary ...
Politics & Policy

Faith and Family

Following heavy losses in the same-sex-marriage fight, traditionalists are anxious. “Conservatives have been routed, both in court and increasingly in the court of public opinion,” writes Rod Dreher in an ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Explaining the Gulf According to Kevin A. Hassett in his April 22 column, a “gulf has emerged” between the academic achievements of boys and girls — women now earn 57 percent ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ New line of attack on Ted Cruz: He doesn’t act like the other senators. New slogan for Cruz campaign: See above. ‐ A Washington Post/ABC poll taken the week before ...
Athwart

Let Us Rage Together

The Sanctioned F-Bomb finally appeared in the wake of the Boston bombings. Speaking at a televised baseball game, Red Sox player Big Papi said, “This is our [bleepin’] city.” The ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

Koan Practice On one hand, what Is it not? But on one hand it Isn’t everything. The beer I do not drink With the friend I have never met In the café that doesn’t ...
Happy Warrior

Jihad Abhors a Vacuum

Post-9/11, we in the omniscient pundit class were all Afghan experts. Post-Boston, we are all Chechen experts. Strictly between us, I can count what I know about Chechens on one leg. ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More