BENTON HARBOR/ST. JOSEPH, Michigan – Private citizen George W. Bush poked his head out from his quiet, exclusive Dallas neighborhood last night to give his first major speech since leaving office. Ironically, the place he picked is near one of the nation’s poorest, most racially divided cities. It also happens to be in one of the reddest, most conservative congressional districts.
The Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan attracted 2,500 people who greeted the former president with great warmth and excitement. It was obvious that they must be the 30 percent of Americans who have remained loyal to Bush. Perhaps this is the way he now can attract a friendly crowd, a much different approach from his 2004 campaign rallies where dissenters were barred from attending.
However, it was evident that one of the lowest-rated presidents of all time is not someone office holders want to be around these days. Republican Representative “Freddie-boy” Upton, Bush’s nickname for him, was not there nor were other local political officials who are customarily introduced at such affairs.
Nevertheless, Bush was in his best form and he didn’t hold back his folksy informality. He looked relaxed and comfortable as he told a few tales of his presidency—without notes. The whole event felt much like neighbors gathering around the pickle barrel in a country store. And that’s his magic. He ingratiated the audience with his wit, charm and affability. Even his skeptics might be persuaded to accept his world view—until they recall the past eight years of Hell he put this country through.
Bush gave a self-effacing performance, especially when it came to pointing out his mistakes in following the evening’s format, but not the mistakes of his presidency. It appears that he truly believes he didn’t make any and that he exercised responsible leadership in a time of great trial.
For example, he told the audience that his guide for decision-making included five principles. They read like a cross between the Declaration of Independence, Grover Norquist and an MBA leadership text:
· Freedom is universal.
· The people can spend their money better than the government can.
· The organizational structure must allow information to get to the decision-maker.
· Timeliness is important.
· A leader has to be willing to make tough calls, stand by them and insist that they be carried out.
Choosing a vice presidential candidate was Bush’s first big decision, he said, and he looked for someone who could advance his own credibility. Cheney was a “thoughtful guy” who would “do a good job.” Besides, Cheney wasn’t interested in running for president so he wouldn’t distance himself from the president if something went wrong.
Such ironic comment was typical throughout the speech and Bush and the audience seemed quite oblivious to it.
In another instance, a woman asked what impact his strong religious beliefs had on his presidency. He replied that “religion and politics are a dangerous mix” and that he “made religion a personal matter” by trying to practice Jesus’ commandment to ‘love thy neighbor.’
“Muslim mothers want their children to grow up in peace,” said Bush. “There’s more commonality [between us and them] than you think.” And he seemed concerned that Americans had somehow taken to negatively stereotyping Muslims in the Middle East.
Such comments made it hard to believe that Bush’s perspective and reality could be one and the same thing and if this is how his book goes, he may risk losing sales.
The former president seems to have forgotten how quickly he called the 9/11 hijackers “evil doers” (code for the Religious Right) and how he later attacked Saddam, whom he now identifies as “a dangerous man who sponsored terrorism.” He also unfairly drew lines between Americans: those who were with him and those against him. Some fundamentalist Christians were so whipped up by his apocalyptic rhetoric that they called protesters against the war in Iraq traitors!
Bush still holds fast to the idea that we are waging an ideological struggle with “a group of people who murdered the innocent to spread an ideology of hate.” These enemies are similar to the fascists and communists in days gone by, only they do not represent nation-states and they plot and plan against us just the same.
His reaction to the September 11 attacks was based on how he viewed it, which author Reza Aslan calls a “cosmic war” view in his new book on the subject. A cosmic war is a religious war not between armies or nations but rather between the forces of good and evil where God is believed to be on one side against the other. How do you win a cosmic war? By refusing to fight one, Aslan answers.
Bush, however, indulged himself and the nation in this fight. He described his actions with a paternalistic tone by telling the audience of his vow “to take whatever steps that were necessary to protect you” and to do whatever it took to get information so that decisions could be made. He was not as brash as Dick Cheney usually is with the protection-of-America argument, but the message was the same.
Then Bush addressed and justified the torture memos without naming them.
“The first thing you do is ask, what's legal?” he said regarding the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003. “What do the lawyers say is possible? I made the decision, within the law, to get information so I can say to myself, ‘I've done what it takes to do my duty to protect the American people.’ I can tell you that the information we got saved lives.”
The declining economy was on everyone’s mind and Bush explained that his advisers told him to either make a move (institute the Troubled Asset Relief Program), or preside over a depression worse than the Great Depression.
Wall Street bankers, whom he benevolently characterized as “thoroughbreds” chasing after money, were responsible for the economic downturn but that the “lack of responsible regulation” was the major culprit. In trying to fix the situation, he also blamed Congress for its inaction and globalization for the lack of maneuverability.
“I’m a big free trader,” he said, “but the markets obviously need restraint and oversight.” If we export our products, all will be well with our economy and poverty can be eradicated, too, he said.
“We’ll recover. We’ve always recovered,” he said to great cheers from the crowd. “Capitalism works and it will work again.”
As usual, Bush relied on his words and force of personality to convince people of his best hopes.
The former president also received a standing ovation when asked what he wanted his legacy to be.
“Well, I hope it is this: The man showed up with a set of principles, and he was unwilling to sacrifice his soul for the sake of popularity.”
Little did Americans realize after the 2000 election that this administration would attack American civil liberties and regard the Constitution as just a piece of paper! Of course, September 11 pervaded his speech. Only this time he used it less to strike fear in his listeners but more to solicit pity for himself.
“You have to convey a sense of calm,” he said. “If you’re president of the United States, if you overreact, you send shock waves throughout society.”
Security at the event was surprisingly loose. There were no metal detectors or purse searches. Police and Secret Service were present, of course, but they did not occupy the area as though it were a fortress.
The former president spoke for about 30 minutes and then took spontaneous questions for nearly an hour. This was a diversion from the plan where questions were solicited before the event.
Officials for the event refused to say how much Bush received for the speech but the eight protesters who showed up to demonstrate outside the building claimed it was $150,000 too much.
So how will the country ultimately judge George W. Bush? Seeing him in action clearly illustrates that he is a tragic figure not because he presided over the worst attack on the United States in history but rather that he thought he could be a competent president.
“It was my honor [to serve as president]” he said. “I love America and I wanted to serve in any capacity.” Such statements belie his actions, starting with when he went AWOL from the Texas National Guard.
Bush also illustrated that he is not aware of whom he is: a man who took political advantage of a disaster and then ruined his own presidency. He will forever remain responsible for our fallen and wounded; the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani dead, wounded, and homeless; our shrinking treasury; and our reputation in the world.
Bush may have charmed his supporters in the room last night but it is doubtful he will have the same effect on most people. And after witnessing this first major speech, it is obvious that it will be difficult for him to be George W. Bush probably for the rest of his life.