Hearing George W. Bush in 2021


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September 22, 2021

Hearing George W. Bush in 2021

While not forgetting his disastrous presidency

  • 9/11
  • afghanistan
  • Democracy
  • George W. Bush
  • Iraq
  • January 6
  • Trumpism
From left: Former First Lady Laura Bush, President George W. Bush, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Stephen Clark, Superintendent Flight 93 National Memorial on stage at the Flight 93 National Memorial for the 20th annual September 11 observance. Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, PA – September 11, 2021. Source: WikiCommons.

It has been quite a while since I paid much attention to George W. Bush. And I had no particular interest in what he might have to say on the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There has been enough sacralization of a disaster that should never have led the country to such destructive, wasteful, and immoral war-making. And there was no reason to expect Bush to do anything about 9-11 but pontificate. I pretty much tuned out all media on that day.

Then some news headlines about his speech came across my computer screen, and I felt compelled to read the transcript. And when I did, it seemed to me that the speech was important in a political sense, notwithstanding its speaker’s awful presidency and moral failures. And so I started writing this piece. And I have edited it every day since, doing my best to be true to the nausea I experience at the mere thought of writing something positive about Bush, while at the same time working to articulate why I think his speech warrants at least a nod of appreciation. 

Here are the words that caught the attention of so many, myself included:

we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

Contrary to many pundits, I did not think his speech offered a strong and explicit repudiation of Trumpism. The “critical words” were too vague, and too surrounded by patriotic boilerplate, for that. 

But the words were nonetheless symbolically important, and for two reasons: (1) because they attested, in a high profile way, to the serious danger that constitutional democracy currently faces from the far-right, and (2) because, coming from the conservative Republican former President who made “anti-terrorism” his mantra, they might play some role in persuading some Republican or Republican-leaning opinion makers or voters to come out more strongly against the danger of future repeats of January 6. I don’t mean here the many millions of hard-core Trumpists who hate Bush as much as they hate Obama or Biden, nor do I mean the Republicans in both Houses of Congress who burnish the legacy of Trumpism. I mean swing voters who, at the margins, helped elect Biden in 2020, and perhaps helped Gavin Newsom avert a recall last week, and politicians, like Anthony Gonzalez, the former football star and Republican Congressman from Ohio who voted to impeach Trump in January, and just announced that he will not run for reelection because Trump is “a cancer,” telling the New York Times that he will work to defeat Trumpism within his party.

In short, the words were important, right now, as further evidence of danger and as rhetoric that might influence some to oppose Trumpism at a time when all such opposition should be welcomed.

This point was unsurprisingly, and powerfully, made by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin in her September 11 column, “ Yes, the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were terrorists. George W. Bush just indicted them.” Bush did indict these MAGA forces (even if, like Chris Christie, he did not explicitly name them). And it matters, to some, that the indictment came from him (I can attest that it mattered to many of my students, young Hoosiers that they are, when we discussed this in class).

At the same time, this is no reason to lionize Bush as defender of democracy, or to ignore his failure to speak out clearly against Trumpism until now, or his own contributions to the current state of affairs. To this extent, Jamelle Bouie, in “George W. Bush 2021, Meet George W. Bush 2001,” has it exactly right: 

Bush spoke as if he were just an observer, a concerned elder statesman who fears for the future of his country. But that’s nonsense. Bush was an active participant in the politics he now bemoans. . . It is frankly maddening to see anyone treat the former president as if he has the moral authority to speak on extremism, division and the crises facing our democracy. His critique of the Trump movement is not wrong, but it is fatally undermined by his own conduct in office.”

Bouie is one of the best political columnists around, and he is right to insist on an honest and critical reckoning with the malign legacies of the Bush years, and the ways that Bush helped to lay the foundation for the current Republican party and its takeover by Trumpism. Bush is no “moral authority.” 

At the same time, while it is a good thing to remind George Bush 2021 of the things that George Bush 2001 said and did, it is something else entirely to ignore the distance—in time, in situation—between these two different moments. Bouie, drawing on the argument of Spenser Ackerman’s new book, claims that “You can draw a straight line from the ‘war on terror’ to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol,”  and that “as much as his defenders might want to separate him and his administration from Donald Trump — the truth is that Bush is one of the leading architects of our present crisis.”

But these claims are surely exaggerations. The connections between Bush and Trump are obvious; but so too are the disjunctions. Here’s one: “you can draw a straight line from George W. Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s ‘war on terror’ to Liz Cheney’s relentless, loud, and consequential denunciation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.” Here’s another: “you can draw a straight line from Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the brave actions on January 6 of Democratic Congressman Jason Crow, who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq as an Army Ranger, and who has been a steadfast defender of democracy.” These kinds of connections matter. Of course, they do not “justify” U.S. war policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and surely do not exonerate Bush and his administration from very wrong decisions and the lies that justified them. But they matter, nonetheless.

And to simply regard Bush as an “architect” of today’s neo-fascist Republican party—as Bouie appears to do, and as many might understandably be inclined to do—is to make two mistakes, one historical and one contemporary.

The historical mistake: while Bush and his administration did many terrible things after 9-11, it is simply wrong or at least misleading to say that he “fed our most reactionary impulses.” Bush’s pursuit of “war on terror,” his licensing of the torture of terror suspects, and his support of the Patriot Act—all of these things warranted critique then and warrant it now (I critiqued this in Dissent back in 2003, in a piece entitled “Right-Wing Patriotism: What William Bennett Doesn’t Understand”). Yet in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, when many were calling for pogrom-like responses—Trump-like responses—Bush explicitly denounced xenophobia and the targeting of Muslims, and emphatically insisted on the importance of ethnic and religious pluralism.

One of the first and most consequential things that Bush did in the wake of the 9-11 attacks was to visit the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. on September 16 and deliver a powerful message of civic nationalism. He began by thanking his Muslim hosts for their “hospitality,” and noting that “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.  And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”

He then proceeded to observe that “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. . .  And they need to be treated with respect.” He explicitly denounced the persecution of “women who cover their heads in this country.” And he concluded that “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior. This is a great country. . .  because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.”  

So many things about Bush’s presidency deserve to be criticized. But this speech act is not one of them. Indeed, the basic rationale for Bush’s “war on terror,” and its awful extension to Iraq, was not xenophobic but Wilsonian—not to close borders and preach “America First,” but to incorporate diversity and “make the world safe for democracy.”

This was a disaster, it was supported by lies, and it generated a series of further disasters, and of course there is a path from all of this to Trumpism.

But Bush’s rhetoric was not a precursor of Trump’s racism and xenophobia. It was the antithesis of these things.

This historical “correction” is not intended to celebrate Bush or excuse any of his policies, and it would be of little current relevance, except that Bouie’s blurring of the distance that separates Bush from Trump feeds a political error: the temptation to regard all of those “Never Trump” Republicans who have become outspoken opponents of the Republican party—some of whom have loudly supported Biden and the Democrats, and even denounced their former party as a “fascist” party that must be decisively defeated at every level—with a similar sense of disdain. 

Of course, people are free to disdain whatever they like. And scorn can be a very productive emotion. But it can also cloud one’s vision. And Republicans who have broken with Trump do not deserve disdain. Whether in the pages of The Atlantic or The Bulwark or the Washington Post—where Jennifer Rubin has become one of the loudest and most consistent critics of the Republican capitulation to Trump—or on MSNBC or CNN, people who once supported George W. Bush or even worked for him now play an important role in public life as defenders of science, public health, an independent press, a Justice Department that prosecutes white supremacist terrorists and stands ready to protect the Capitol from “Justice for J6” marauders, serious voting rights legislation, and democracy itself.

To take the full measure of this is not to accord any of these people, from Bush on down the line, any special “moral authority,” to erase their pasts, or to mistake them for progressives or tribunes of “resistance.” It is simply to note that they are now playing a role as allies in the defense of democracy, and that this matters now politically, and ought to figure in our political judgments as much as their moral qualities as individuals or what they did decades ago.

It is deplorable that it has taken George W. Bush so long to say things that he should have said years ago. While many of his chief advisers came out strongly against Trump, in 2016 and more emphatically in 2020, he did not. And his speech last week would have been a lot more praiseworthy had he expressed some humility, and perhaps even owned up to some of his terrible decisions, especially the needless deaths of many thousands of U.S. soldiers but also Afghan and Iraqi civilians.

I don’t like Bush. I think his presidency was terrible, and “history” should not judge him kindly.

But he was not a fascist or a racist. And he did not attempt to subvert the election of Barack Obama (indeed by all accounts he organized a model transition). And now the party that he once led is a fascist and racist party that did try to subvert the 2020 election and is now doing its best to further undermine democracy and set the stage for future obstructions and subversions. And now Bush has, finally, spoken critically about this in a muted but also in a very public way.

And this is pretty good.

And that it is pretty good is a sign of just how bad things are.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.

Photo: From left: Former First Lady Laura Bush, President George W. Bush, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Stephen Clark, Superintendent Flight 93 National Memorial on stage at the Flight 93 National Memorial for the 20th annual September 11 observance. Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, PA – September 11, 2021. Source: WikiCommons.


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