Tag archives: George

Riding with “W”

by Robert Morrison

May 15, 2014

I’ve just completed three weeks of commuting with George W. Bush. I’ve been listening to his memoirs, Decision Points, on audio disc. It’s been an amazing journey. Ron McLarty reads the former president’s book. And he’s so good at capturing “W’s” accent and intonation that you soon think the Texan is riding shotgun through Washington, D.C. traffic with you.

I had not expected such a frank and funny book. Most presidential memoirs, to be candid, are rather like marble doorstops. They’re intended to be the author’s dignified and not-too-defensive statement of his case for history. And some of them are deadly dull.

Not so these memoirs. George W. Bush is amazingly honest about his drinking problem. He never says he was an alcoholic, for he may not have been. But he drank too much, too often. And it affected his relationships. It got him into some ugly scenes. His loving, faithful wife stood by him all the while and gently nudged him onto the right path. His parents showed him the meaning of unconditional love. For those of us who have loved someone with a drinking problem, this part of the book is worth the whole volume.

George on his fortieth birthday doesn’t go in for a twelve-step program. It’s more of a one-step program. He takes seriously what Billy Graham has been saying about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He invites Jesus into his heart. And Jesus comes in.

Of great interest to us who deal with policy analysis in Washington are the parts of the book — the greater part — in which the former president deals with various issues. He teases them out and handles them thematically. Stem cell research. Iran. North Korea. Education (No Child Left Behind). Tax cuts. Hurricane Katrina. The Harriet Miers Surpeme Court nomination. And above all, 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

By handling each topic separately, we get a sense of the complexity and considerations that go into presidential decision-making. But it also occasions some confusion as we jump around from the economic meltdown of late 2008 back to “A Day of Fire” on 9/11, early in the first term. The reality of the presidency, of course, is that issues come rushing at you from Day One. That’s why Harry Truman put a sign on his White House desk: The Buck Stops Here.

George W. Bush is most like Truman in his crisp, decisive manner. He once said: “I’m the decider.” It was seen as Texas bragging. And it didn’t play well in the too often hostile press. But that is what Harry’s sign meant. That’s why we elect presidents — to decide.

Like Harry Truman, George W. Bush was derided by many in the Eastern Establishment.

(“To err is Truman,” they jibed.) Truman was the last president not to go to college. But he had a keen mind and reportedly had read every history book in the Independence, Missouri Public Library. Harry was well prepared. And Harry identified with the American people. If Franklin Roosevelt was for the people, commentators said in those days, Harry Truman is the people.

George Walker Bush was not only the son of a president, and the distant relation of another (his mother traces her lineage to Franklin Pierce), he was also the first MBA to sit in the White House. His Yale and Harvard degrees made him one of the best-educated presidents in our lifetime.

Even so, “W” never lacked the common touch. And these memoirs prove it. Once asked what made him different from his much-loved Dad, W. answered without hesitation: Midland.

Those differences become clear in reading this self-deprecating and honest memoir. I had not expected to be moved to tears. But no one can read his heart-rending story of the death of little sister Robin from leukemia and not want to embrace this sensitive and decent man.

Despite my deeper admiration for this good and honorable man, I find myself flinching when he describes his thoughts on bringing democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. Our own State Department insisted, I have learned, on putting so-called Repugnancy Clauses in the constitutions of both of these “liberated” countries. Those Repugnancy Clauses say, in effect, notwithstanding anything else in this constitution, nothing shall be done by this government that is repugnant to Islam.

Who decides what is repugnant to Islam? The mullahs do! What if the mullahs disagree? Then the mullahs with more firepower win the argument. The mullahs agree with Napoleons’ dictum: God favors the side with the heavier artillery.

Because of these fatal flaws, democracy never had a chance in Iraq or Afghanistan. George W. Bush sincerely believes that everyone desires freedom. That may be true. But unless you desire that your neighbor who worships differently will also have freedom, you are unlikely ever to know freedom yourself.

It is good for Afghan women to join Afghan men in voting for a new government. But if they elect politicians who want to murder Abdul Rahman for converting to Christianity, you have no democracy. And virtually every elected official in Afghanistan did call for Abdul Rahman’s blood in 2006.

Enduring Freedom? Abdul Rahman had to be spirited out of that homicidal country under cover of darkness to save his neck. And even that might not have happened had not Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and many other Evangelical leaders raised a loud cry to spare his life.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been driven out of Iraq since the U.S. commenced “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The regime of Nouri al-Maliki is in league with the mullahs of Tehran, whom we have designated as the leading terrorists in the world.

When Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai met with Iran’s mullahs for a “future of the region” summit, President Obama’s late envoy Richard Holbrooke thought that was entirely appropriate. Really? Then what are we fighting the Taliban for?

Karzai is on record admitting to taking bags of gold from Tehran. And from us. Afghanistan has cost American taxpayers one trillion dollars.

President Bush acknowledges that he campaigned against U.S. attempts at “nation-building” in the 2000 campaign. He argues, though, that 9/11 changed all that. His Bush Doctrine said: 1. We will carry the fight to the terrorists. 2. We will regard those who harbor terrorists as equally guilty and go after them, too. 3. We will establish governments that respect the rights of their own people and do not threaten their neighbors.

It’s Point Three that is most vexing. You cannot plant democracy with bayonets. Facile comparisons to our post-WWII occupations of Germany and Japan obviously fail. We took the unconditional surrender of both countries. We forced Germany to de-Nazify and Japan to give up Emperor Worship.

Even Point Two of the Bush Doctrine is problematic. If Pakistan was not harboring Osama bin Laden for a decade, how was he allowed to build a top-secret ziggurat under the very noses of Pakistan’s military brass? If Saudi Arabia is really our ally in the War on Terror, why did that desert despot Abdullah refuse us access to Madani al Tayyib, the al Qaeda finance chief (see p. 122. of the official 9/11 Commission Report)?

Americans increasingly believe we are being played for suckers by treacherous allies. When I traveled by bus around America in 2012, I would make a point of saluting veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and asking them their level of trust for the national forces in both countries. The answer from our own brave warriors was always the same: Zero.

This substantial portion of the Bush memoirs must be read as tragedy. A good Christian man with a fine mind and a great heart pursues a flawed policy, with grave consequences. It costs thousands of brave young Americans their lives. He built his freedom house on sand. Too bad.

His discussion of stem cell research shows him honorably struggling to find a middle path. He is a nuanced thinker, a man with a heightened ethical sense. In the end, he crafts a policy that unfortunately provides federal funding to the killers of embryonic humans even as it denies funding for killing these nascent humans.

In these pages, the president never answers the obvious question: By funding experimentation on only a limited number of stem cell lines — on those embryonic humans whose lives have already been condemned — what if some treatment or cure should be found? How then would he or any future president resist the deafening cries in the media for experimentation-on-demand?

It’s worth noting here that no such treatment or cure has been found in the thirteen years since President Bush announced his restricted funding policy. (Nor, even more significantly, in the five years since President Obama cast aside all ethical restraints.

President Bush was hailed by pro-lifers, including this one, for signing such important legislation as the Infant Born-Alive Protection Act (which state Sen. Barack Obama managed to kill in the Illinois legislature), the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA — that President Obama’s administration declined to apply against Fort Hood killer Nidal Hasan), and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Bill Clinton had vetoed that legislation twice in the 1990s. One of the leading pro-abortion lobbyists later admitted “I lied through my teeth about [the numbers and instances of partial-birth abortions] and felt sick to my stomach about it.” Bill Clinton was never so distressed about lying on this or other topics.

President Bush appointed many strong constitutionalists to the courts and many pro-lifers to mid-level administration positions. This is something for which we should always be grateful. Nonetheless, in these memoirs, it becomes clear that George W. Bush is the only pro-life person in his White House circle of advisors. The only one. And this matters.

Thus it was that billions of federal dollars continued to flow uninterrupted for eight years into the coffers of Planned Barrenhood (Parenthood). They are the world’s largest trafficker in abortion. This outfit last year admitted killing 374,000 unborn children. As with his stem cell policy, President Bush never funded the killing of the unborn, only those who do the killing.

One of the least convincing portions in this book is his discussion of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Columnist George Will spoke for all of us when he said that you could poll the one hundred top conservative constitutional thinkers in America (are there that many?) and ask each one to provide a list of one hundred names, with no duplicates. On the resultant list of ten thousand names you would not find Harriet Miers.

FRC’s Tony Perkins worked this issue with the greatest of care. Always respectful of the president and his nominee, Tony nonetheless publicized Miss Miers speeches. Lacking a “paper trail” of serious judicial wrestling with weighty constitutional matters, we had to go with what we had.

Her speeches were simply deplorable. How could she possibly think the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Greater Houston would react well to her quoting with approval the radical feminist Gloria Steinem?

Those strong Texas women were achievers, not whiners. Did Miss Miers share Steinem’s man-hating views? (A Steinem sampler: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” “We have become the men we wanted to marry.”) If she did, we certainly didn’t want her to have a lifetime appointment to the High Court.

Or worse, did she simply think she would ingratiate herself with her audience? If so, is there a worse place in the entire U.S. government for such toadying than the U.S. Supreme Court?

For millions of Americans, George Bush’s handling, or mishandling, of the Hurricane Katrina crisis was the occasion of their disenchantment with his leadership, but for the conservative movement, surely the abortive nomination of the manifestly unqualified Harriet Miers broke the bonds of trust.

His chapter on education, and his ill-fated No Child Left Behind program, deserves attention. George W. Bush and his father were always sincere supporters of civil rights. The false, defamatory and contemptible charges of racism lodged against both men wounded them deeply.

But it was just as wrong to craft a policy based on racial disparities in academic achievement. As David Armor, one of our best academic researchers of education has noted, the test score disparities of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian students do not entirely equal out when family structure is accounted for, but they are greatly diminished.

The best thing George W. Bush could have done if he sought to address the lower academic performance of black and Hispanic students, as well as that of lower middle class whites, would have been to address the marriage crisis. As the work of Charles Murray has since shown, it is the collapse of marriage and the loss of church attendance among working class whites that has led to impoverishment. The collapse of marriage has as well harmed minorities. And the classic study of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) titled “Who Escapes?” showed that for the black community, students who regularly attended church had far better outcomes for school and work.

How are church and synagogue attendance related to the marriage crisis, if at all? AEI Scholar Mary Eberstadt’s compelling new book, How the West Really Lost God, argues that family breakdown has led to loss of religious practice. If she is right, the old 1950s Ad Council slogan is true, after all: “The family that prays together, stays together.”

It is painful for me to realize the errors of my much-admired George W. Bush. My wife and I watched his 2001 inauguration in our own family room. She was then a high-ranking naval officer. When those Hundred and One guns of the Presidential Salute Battery rent the air with their booming to signal the peaceful transfer of power, we both wept with joy. We were relieved for we believed our country had been saved.

I would go on to campaign for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. I was in Pittsburgh to hear him address a large, enthusiastic rally the day before the election. In front of me sat a big family of supporters. These home schoolers had gotten up before dawn to crowd into the stadium. The metal detectors we passed through reminded us of the changes we had seen in our country under this good man’s leadership. Johnny was a fifteen-year old member of this family.

When President Bush made has rousing speech, the whole crowd roared its approval. Johnny was standing on top of his folding chair, yelling loudest when the W. spoke of the right to life and the defense of marriage. Johnny has Down Syndrome.

The next day, George W. Bush was re-elected President of the United States. He carried the critical state of Ohio on the strength of the marriage referendum that had brought half a million more voters out than in 2000. And his percentage of the black vote in Ohio was his highest anywhere.

I never heard him speak in public about the right to life or the defense of marriage again.

Nor have I heard him speak of either vital question in the five years since he left office. We know where his family is on these questions.

George Bush is avoiding political issues, he says. He hikes and rides with Wounded Warriors, which is nothing less than noble of him.

But he could still do more. He is a young and fit retiree. He could begin giving speeches at fundraisers for Pregnancy Care Centers. Many of these volunteer-staffed, faith-based groups he recognized during his White House years.

He doesn’t have to criticize anyone or do anything other than lend them his presence — and his heart. Those who sincerely say they are pro-choice cannot object if George W. Bush were to help young women and their boyfriends choose life for their unborn children.

In 2006, I had lunch with a conservative talk show host in Bethesda, Maryland. We enjoyed a hearty meal and a good conversation. “What should I thank President Bush for,” my friend asked? It was a time of some deep disillusionment among conservatives with the Bush second term.

I answered: “We are having this lunch on a quiet Saturday. And when we go to our cars, they probably won’t blow up. We can thank George Bush for that. It’s no small achievement.” I still believe that. Thank you, Mr. President, for protecting us. And may God preserve you.

George Washington Takes the Oath: “So Help Me God” — April 30, 1789

by Robert Morrison

April 30, 2014

It remains my favorite portrait of President Obama and the one I hope will be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Showing our first black president in the attire of our first president is a mark of greatest respect. The New Yorker Magazine cover — which was published in 2009 — even shows our young president wearing the brown American-made suit that George Washington was careful to have made for his Inauguration. He studiously avoided any likeness to a military uniform. On this most auspicious of occasions, our first president took care to emphasize civilian authority over our military.

I took my young family to New York City for the Bicentennial of George Washington’s Inauguration in 1989. There, my wife, our seven-year old son, five-year old daughter, and I witnessed the re-enactment of that first Inaugural ceremony.

We watched as the Washington figure recited the presidential oath, adding the four words “So Help Me God.” Then he bent low to kiss the Bible. No one in 1989 questioned any of this.

President George H.W. Bush came to Lower Manhattan to lend his dignified presence to the observance of two hundred years of constitutional government in America. Ours is now the oldest written constitution in the world.

Only now, twenty-five years later, are there some people confused enough or mendacious enough publicly to express doubt that George Washington actually added those words to the constitutionally prescribed presidential oath. Or, question whether he kissed that Bible.

So great is the acid bath of skepticism today that if I claimed that the sun rose at 6:12 (EDT) this morning over the Washington Monument, there would be doubters yelling “prove it.” (Here’s the U.S. Naval Observatory’s confirmation, adding one hour for Daylight Saving Time.)

It’s also the case that some of our best historians casually inform us that Washington was “not very religious.” So they tend to minimize his life membership in two Episcopal parishes — Christ Church (Alexandria) and Pohick Church (Lorton). And they must not have taken seriously his frequent references to God in his public statements. When he resigned his Commission to Congress in Annapolis in 1783, he gave an important address. In it, he did not thank his soldiers, his officers, or even the French allies who made our victory in the War of Independence possible. Instead, he thanked “the Supreme Power of the Union and the patronage of Heaven.”

Sen. William Maclay was a sometimes waspish observer of events in the First Congress. The Pennsylvania Jeffersonian did not much like the formal manners and practices of New Yorkers and the “Republican Court” that formed around President and Lady Washington. Maclay thought it all seemed too monarchical.

Even so, Maclay was impressed when Washington took the Oath for the first time.

even the great Washington trembled when he faced the assembled representatives and senators. “This great man was agitated and embarrassed,” Maclay added, “more than ever he was by the levelled Cannon or pointed Musket.”

Maclay was not the first one to notice that George Washington, who charged into British cannon at Princeton and who had several horses shot out from under him on the Pennsylvania frontier during the French & Indian War, trembled when he stood in a vast public assembly and performed great civic duties.

Perhaps that’s because George Washington feared God and no one else. He believed that Providence — that eighteenth century expression for God’s Hand among us — was physically present on these august occasions.

How do we know that? He told us so, repeatedly. In his Inaugural Address, he offered:

my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes: and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. And in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their United Government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, cannot be compared with the means by which most Governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me I trust in thinking, that there are none under the influence of which, the proceedings of a new and free Government can more auspiciously commence.

George Washington felt the presence of God in this first presidential swearing-in ceremony two hundred twenty-five years ago today. In his habitually dignified language, in his eighteenth century locutions, he says so explicitly. And we all know Washington could not tell a lie.

Washington in Annapolis: “The Greatest Exit in American History’ December 23, 1783

by Robert Morrison

December 23, 2013

The day will doubtless pass quietly in Maryland’s capital. Christmas shoppers will crowd onto Generals Highway, mostly unaware that its name comes from General Washington’s visit to this little town two hundred thirty years ago. Still, General Washington’s resigning his commission in Annapolis deserves to be remembered.

It was the final scene of the American Revolution. Congress had been meeting for months in Annapolis, working on ratification of the Treaty of Paris. That was the signed and sealed document by which Great Britain would officially recognize our Independence. The final great military clash of the war, the Battle of Yorktown, more than two years earlier, had resulted in an American victory with the indispensable aid of thousands of French soldiers and sailors.

A tall and powerful figure in the saddle, Washington was described by his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, as the best horseman of the age. Washington had ridden all the way from New York to Annapolis for this occasion, his journey interrupted by countless tributes and toasts. Many of the towns through which he passed saluted his arrival with booming cannon and ringing church bells.

Now, nearing the holidays, Gen. Washington had one last duty to perform before returning to his beloved Mount Vernon plantation for Christmas Eve. Washington spent four days in Annapolis in a round of dinners and receptions. The night before his resignation was spent in dancing. He was a superb dancer and the ladies of what was called “first fashion” wanted to dance with him. He danced every dance.

The General entered the Old State House to appear before Congress. The members made a point of remaining seated; there would be no bowing to Washington, as if he were a monarch. Instead, His Excellency bowed to them. It was his way of showing his deference to the civilian authority that he had obeyed faithfully throughout his eight years as Commanding General of the armies and navy of the United States.

Jefferson, a member from Virginia, especially appreciated this in Washington. Years later, he would reflect: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”

Washington was not abandoning the country he loved. He commended the nation to “the protection of Almighty God” and asked Him to keep those who governed America in His “holy keeping.” Washington’s hands shook as he pronounced the words. A cloud of witnesses recorded the scene in letters and diaries. And the Maryland Archives proudly preserves his handwritten speech. Yet, today, some historians persist in telling us Washington was not very religious.

Perhaps no other military figure in American history deserves such acclaim. Most of Washington’s battles were defeats. Yet, Washington held the Army and the Union together with his firm leadership.

Author Richard Brookhiser tells this remarkable story of Washington’s steadying presence, not at a great victory, but at a planned and carefully staged retreat. A Rhode Island veteran of the Continental Army described the scene. You can tell the men were on the verge of panic, but:

There was only one bridge over the stream, and as his unit was hurrying across it, he saw that Washington had posted himself on the other side, to oversee the retreat. All the while there was an artillery duel going on between the British and the Americans on the other side of the creek. As he crossed the bridge, [the teenage soldier] was jostled against Washington’s boot and the flank of his horse. He remembered — 50 years later — that the horse was as firm as the rider and seemed to know that he was not to quit his station. What the man did not say is that, at the moment of contact, he also knew this because Washington’s presence gave him a sense that all was not chaos, that the battle was under control,

Before Annapolis, some of Washington’s young officers pleaded with him not to surrender his commission to Congress, but to seize the reins of power. The country was adrift, they said, and the hard-won prize of Independence was in jeopardy as the economy languished and foreign states — including Muslim hostage takers along the Barbary Coast of North Africa — held American liberties in contempt.

I cannot act, Washington firmly replied, the people must act. But, Your Excellency, his worried young aides retorted, the people do not understand how bad things really are. Unmoved, Washington answered with that same firmness he had shown at the bridge, at a hundred bridges: “The people must feel an evil before they can see it.”

It’s worth considering as we face another critical period in our country’s life. At home, ObamaCare threatens basic freedoms as no other measure has in 230 years, especially religious freedom. Abroad, hateful regimes that murder missionaries and imprison pastors are bent on obtaining nuclear weapons. Americans are certainly feeling the evil.

Our task is to remember that steadfastness of Washington at the bridge. He showed his respect for constitutional principles when he freely surrendered his commission to those from whose hands he had received it. King George III, once his bitter foe, said if he does that then he truly will be “the greatest man in the world.” And historian Joseph Ellis calls it “the greatest exit in American history.”

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