Today my mood is not so very good, and that’s why, once again, I have decided to take the risk of losing some of my readers by writing this post. In fact, Dubya is a notoriously dangerous subject to write about, unless you speak not too well of him, of course! The truth is that I’ve just finished reading Dubya and Me (“Over the course of a quarter-century, a journalist witnessed the transformation of George W. Bush”), by Walt Harrington—who is now a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after being a long-time staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine—and couldn’t wait to share this piece with you [HT: Camillo].
For instance, did you know about George W. Bush’s passion for reading history?
“So what is it about history that grabs you?” I ask.
“I’m fascinated by people,” Bush says, “and a lot of history is the study of individuals making a difference. … I haven’t really sat and tried to figure out why I was interested. All I can tell you is I have been for a long period of time.”
“When I got elected governor and president, history gave me a chance to study the decisions of my predecessors,” Bush says. As governor, he read The Raven, by Marquis James, a biography of Sam Houston, the father of Texas statehood. “I was fascinated by the story of Houston voting against secession, and reading a description of him basically being driven out of town by angry citizens. … My only point is that one lesson I learned, if they’re throwing garbage on Houston, arguably Texas’s most famous politician—Sam Houston Elementary School, where I went to school in Midland, was named for him!—if they’re throwing garbage on him, they can throw garbage on me.”
Bush remained calm and confident during his tumultuous presidency. Critics saw him as delusional; defenders saw him as self-assured. Bush believes that one of the most important stage requirements of the presidency is indeed never to signal weakness or self-doubt or confusion: “One of the things you learn about great leaders is that they never project the burdens of responsibility on others.” He remembers Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (one of 14 Lincoln biographies Bush read while he was president), which recounts the 16th president’s perseverance through not only military defeat after defeat, stupefying troop casualties, and public ridicule, but also the death of his son Willie and the debilitating emotional turmoil of his wife.
“You’re not the only person that’s ever gone through hard things,” Bush says of the lessons he has learned from history. “In other words, can you imagine the signal I would have sent had I said, ‘Ah, why me? Why am I thrust in the middle of all this stuff?’ And they had kids on the front line of combat who were actually having to do all the work.”
“You faced some vicious personal attacks,” I say.
“I did. But so did Abraham Lincoln.” He recalls opening the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. “There’s an exhibit, and the voices of opposition to Lincoln were being played. I said, ‘Wow!’ This guy, America’s—remember now, I got Lincoln’s portrait on the wall at the White House and I got a bust of Lincoln—and I hear the people calling him a baboon, just vicious.”
And when asked what he believes is the most important quality in great leaders…
“Willingness to stand on principle, the notion that public opinion changes back and forth and that you shouldn’t chase public opinion. … Lincoln had a set of principles that were important to him. ‘All men are created equal under God’ is the ultimate. It’s the ultimate principle for America’s freedom. … But Lincoln acted on it in a difficult political environment. People forget that he was in a very tough reelection campaign, and it wasn’t until Sherman makes it to Atlanta that his prospects brightened. Secondly, Lincoln had a strategic vision for the country. One of the great presidential decisions ever was to keep the country intact. … The question oftentimes in history is what would have happened if a different decision were made. We’d have been Europe.”
Furthermore, when asked about his principles, he says:
“One of them was ‘freedom is universal,’ which was unbelievably controversial for a period of time during my presidency, which, frankly, astonished me, given my reading of history.” He paraphrases his Second Inaugural: “We’ll resist tyranny at all times, all places, basically. Well, to me, you could say that was inspired by Lincoln. … Based upon the principle that deep in everybody’s soul is the desire to be free. And what’s interesting is, it’s playing out right now,” he says, referring to the populist uprisings in the Middle East.
And, to conclude, how will history judge his presidency?
“Some people walk up and say, ‘Oh, man, history is going to judge you well.’ And my quip is, ‘I’m not going to be around to see it.’ And to me, that’s one of the most important lessons you learn through history—you’re just not gonna be around to see it. … I’m confident of this: that those conclusions will be more objective with time than they could conceivably be now.”