George W. Bush unplugged

Call it a motivational series or a legacy-burnishing tour: President George W. Bush has been on a cross-Canada speaking tour conveying the lessons he learned over the course of his eight years in the White House. He governed through some of the most challenging crises in U.S. history and has been using the events to explain and defend the policies he implemented during those tumultuous times. Furthermore, his speaking tour serves as a prelude to the book he intends to publish next year. With Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld soon to publish their own accounts of the Bush years, it will be interesting to see if Bush’s view of his tenure differs in any substantial way with that of his collaborators. Historians and critics will surely have a field day parsing through the interpretations.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should note I acted as moderator for last week’s stop in Montreal. The event began with a speech by Bush and was followed by a conversation on topics related to his remarks and his overall presidency. It was not meant to be a substitute for a journalistic interview nor was it intended to be a debate on some of the more controversial aspects of his presidency. The segment with yours truly lasted approximately a half-hour and covered, among other topics, the events following 9-11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his view of the future of the Republican Party, and his own assessment of his achievements and shortcomings. Time being short, some topics like the financial meltdown and Canada’s role in the world were not covered.

It became clear from the outset of his address that Bush enjoys these events. Whether or not you agree with him, he is certainly entertaining and engaging. He showed he still possesses that “I’d-have-a-beer-with-him” quality many say played a big role in his political success.

Bush expressed few regrets with respect to his policies in the aftermath of 9/11. One critic wrote that he envied Bush’s no remorse view of his presidency. To be fair, his speech was not just bluster; he admitted some things could have been done differently and did offer some regrets, especially with respect to Hurricane Katrina. On the whole, though, he remains certain his decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq were correct, and that his efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East and prevent a new attack on U.S. soil are the stuff historians will take into consideration in their assessment of his years in office. He was most eloquent and appealing when he spoke of family, the spread of freedom, and the importance of values in the conduct of his office.

Those opposed to Bush’s policies, both domestic and foreign, will no doubt remain so despite his affable nature. And there are compelling accounts to support the critics’ claims his decisions were not based on sound intelligence and accurate information. Harsher critics point to the “criminal” nature of his administration’s alleged disregard of the U.S. Constitution—the torture memos, for instance, remain an important factor behind the decline of his popularity and have led to some strong early indictments by some historians. Still, it cannot be ignored that some of Mr. Bush’s opponents conveniently forget they failed to ask the key questions or challenge assumptions at critical moments, preferring to follow the popular tendency of the day. And that is saying nothing of the obvious complicity of some of the media outlets who embedded themselves with troops on the battlefield.

In the short term, it is difficult to see how the Bush 43 presidency can be salvaged. I have been very critical of the past administration and suggested that George W. Bush’s presidency was a factor in the rise of Barack Obama. In the long term, however, it is less certain that his presidency will be seen in such a negative light. Should democracy become well installed in the Middle East beyond Israel over the coming years, Bush will deserve much of the credit. Bush likes to remind his audiences that Harry S. Truman left office as a very unpopular president. Sixty years later, Truman is considered a successful president.

A prominent Democrat suggested to me that when Bush is forced to choose between decency and ideology, he generally chooses decency. This explains his attempt at achieving a bipartisan solution to immigration reform and his dedication to the fight against AIDS in Africa. At the Montreal meeting, Mr. Bush showed a side of himself that was gracious, charming, unpretentious, and downright likeable. Sure, he remains a polarizing figure. But, at the end of the day, in the interests of enriching our historical perspective of the man, it is a worthwhile exercise for Bush to be out there unplugged.