I ran across Walt Harrington’s remarkable essay last week in the American Scholar, but had only glanced at it until just this morning. If you haven’t yet read G.W. Bush’s “Decision Points” (or even if you have), I can’t encourage you enough to spend a few moments reading the words of an admittedly progressive journalist who, despite disagreeing with the former president on just about everything, demonstrates a sense of objectivity rarely seen amongst his colleagues when the subject turns to the 43rd President of the United States.
…at the University of Illinois, where I had become a journalism professor after leaving The Washington Post in 1996, I was surrounded by students and faculty angry about Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq. In my academic cocoon, Bush was called a stupid warmonger trying to avenge his father’s failure to oust Saddam Hussein, a stupid warmonger trying to make the world safe for Big Oil, a stupid warmonger trying to prop up his sagging popularity. I told colleagues that I believed Bush—right or wrong—sincerely considered Iraq a deadly threat to the United States, period. My view got me labeled a Bush conservative. Then one morning I got into my academic office building’s elevator and saw this scratched into the paint: “Kill Bush.”
I had to catch my breath: Was this America?
Harrington goes on to describe his print response to what had become the left’s biggest failure in the eight years of GWB’s presidency: mistaking his solid convictions (be they right or wrong) for stubborn ignorance.
“I have told various George W. haters that they had best not underestimate the man,” he wrote, “that he’s smart, thoughtful in a brawny kind of way and, most of all, a good and decent man. … What I’ve never mentioned is that I didn’t vote for George W. I disagree with him on the Supreme Court, environment, abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action. So I voted against this good and decent man. It pained me to do it. … It baffles me that grown people must convince themselves that those with whom they disagree are stupid or malevolent.”
Harrington goes on to describe an evening he spent with GWB shortly after the ill-advised “Mission Accomplished” event:
The president gestured for me to sit facing the beautiful, sunny vista, and he sat facing me, his back to the yard. We lit up, puffed on our cigars, caught up on family news, talked briefly about my memoir and my column in the Post-Dispatch, which he had read. I could think of only one question to ask him: “What is it like to be president of the United States?”
President Bush leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees, and stared at me intently. “Are we off the record?”
And he began to talk—and talk and talk for what must have been nearly three hours. I’ve never told anyone the specifics of what he said that night, not even my wife or closest friends. I did not make notes later and have only my memory. In the journalism world, off the record is off the record. But I have repeatedly described the hours as “amazing,” “remarkable,” “stunning.”
President Bush—and he was, no doubt, by then a real president—talked expansively about Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, China, Korea, Russia…He was the same confident, brash man I had met years ago, but I no longer sensed any hint of the old anger or the need for self-aggrandizement.
Needless to say, I wish Harrington had recorded that conversation. I’ve read Bush’s memoir, but from Harrington’s description (not to mention his astonished reaction), I would gladly pay triple the price to read the unedited, heartfelt words of this good and decent man.
It is, as I’ve said, a remarkable essay, and one that compels me to pay closer attention to my perception of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Unlike GWB, I remain convinced that Obama is in way over his head, and has consciously made the decision to enact his agenda “by any means necessary.” However, unlike those who continue to suffer from Bush Derangement Syndrome, I do not subscribe to the belief the he is intentionally trying to destroy this country. Obama is indeed incompetent and arrogant, but he’s not stupid and evil.
I will therefore continue to gleefully mock the left’s deification of BHO, but I will endeavor to refrain from indulging in the sort of self-destructive, irrational hatred of the man, simply because he has the misfortune of never being told he isn’t The Smartest Man In The World by everyone who claims to respect him.