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Bush Reconsidered

by Quin Hillyer

The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, by Timothy S. Goeglein (B&H, 241 pp., $19.99)

The late administration of George W. Bush has found its Dr. Pangloss. In some respects, that might be a good thing.

Pangloss, of course, was the character in Candide who insisted against all contrary evidence that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” In this new memoir, Bush’s longtime deputy director of public liaison, Tim Goeglein, paints his former boss as the best of all possible presidents. Indeed, his account of Bush sometimes borders on hagiography, as he gushes that in various ways Bush compares well historically with Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, and even George Washington. He also makes the extravagant claim — ludicrous even for those of us who to this day defend the decisions to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq and who credit Bush for the famous “surge” in the latter — that Bush was “one of our country’s most effective wartime presidents ever.” Goeglein marshals little evidence to bolster this extraordinary declaration.

To appreciate this book, a reader must move beyond this annoying over-enthusiasm and beyond numerous instances where stronger editing could have improved the final product. Moving beyond, however, is well worth doing. Goeglein’s account is a convincing and necessary reminder that, on some fronts, Bush was a superbly dedicated and effective conservative president. Goeglein also provides a moving testament, on multiple fronts, to Bush’s essential human decency. Most of all, the author frequently, and with great eloquence, makes an intellectual and moral case for full-throated conservatism “without prefix or suffix,” and outlines an attractive vision for a conservative American “renaissance.”

Goeglein’s job as coordinator of the administration’s outreach to conservative-activist groups, combined with an earnest and eminently likable personality, made him a well-regarded professional friend for literally hundreds of right-thinking activists. It also meant that his well-publicized fall from grace in a plagiarism scandal sent waves of disbelief through the conservative-activist world. Goeglein forthrightly addresses his culpability, makes no excuses for his dishonesty — and, in an account almost chill-inducing, tells of the president’s grace-filled response to the staffer’s deep transgression. The Bush who emerges in this vignette, told at the book’s very beginning, gives the reader reason to excuse the grateful Goeglein’s overabundant praise for Bush’s job performance. A soul redeemed can be forgiven for looking through rosy lenses at a mentor who served as a key vehicle for that redemption.

In retrospect, it is undeniable that George W. Bush was the most dedicated and policy-effective social-conservative president this nation has known. Goeglein ably recounts Bush’s thoughtfully considered decision to block federal funding for any new embryonic-stem-cell research; his largely (but not entirely) realized commitment to aiding, rather than discriminating against, faith-based initiatives; his embrace of the cause of traditional marriage; his various protections of religious liberty and freedom of conscience; his dedication (often, but not always, unyielding) to appointing originalist judges; his life-saving assistance for health care in Africa; and his strong stands against abortion. The reader sees that the president’s stances, contra the media image of a fundamentalist yahoo in the Oval Office, grew both from religious conviction and from careful analysis of law and empirical evidence.

The author also reminds us that Bush stood tall (and with great effectiveness) for missile defense and for lower taxes and (unsuccessfully but bravely) for reforming Social Security via a system of private accounts. Finally, The Man in the Middle makes an effective case, too little credited by conservatives, that the president’s overall results in fighting terrorism were far more admirable than not. Goeglein doesn’t admit that the president stumbled and bumbled frequently in managing the two wars half a world away; but the fact remains, as he recounts, that Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar, and Moammar Qaddafi all were dangerous threats before Bush’s efforts, but all were either off the scene or neutered by the time Bush left office.

None of this, however, gets to the heart of why this is a valuable book. Its best parts are not the testimonials to Bush, marred as they are by beatifying impulses. Instead, the choicest reading comes in the form of two charming accounts of Goeglein’s fortuitous friendships with conservative giants Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr., and in his learned and attractive expositions of the conservative intellectual tradition and its practical applications.

In one long sentence, Goeglein achieves a summation of the cause that, while hardly original in substance, is about as apt and concise as any we are likely to see:

The essential nature of 21st-century American conservatism is a view that the federal government is too large and should be relimited; that governments like families should live within their budgets; that the market economy is the road to prosperity and is consistent with human nature; that our defense budget must be robust in defense of our liberty; that above all we need to preoccupy ourselves with the moral framework of our freedom; and that we need to preserve the values of Western civilization in the Greco-Roman but especially the Judeo-Christian traditions as the bulwark of virtue that nurtures freedom.       

If somehow we manage to achieve all those ends in the American renaissance Tim Goeglein envisions, Dr. Pangloss’s assessment of the world would become a happy reality. Goeglein certainly makes the reader want to try.

– Mr. Hillyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editor of The American Spectator.

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