Ex-presidents don't make a lot of speeches about current politics, so when they do, it's usually headline-making news. And when an ex-president makes a speech that's intensely critical of a sitting president from his own party, it's understandably an even bigger deal.
That's what George W. Bush did on Thursday. Even though he never mentioned Donald Trump by name, his implication was clear. Bush's speech was an eloquent, even inspiring call to a more humane brand of politics — one his party has enthusiastically turned its back on. "Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts," Bush said. "Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication." He insisted that "our identity as a nation — unlike many other nations — is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood," going on to say that "this means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed."
For this, Bush has gotten and will get plenty of praise, and deservedly so. But before we start lionizing America's 43rd president as a representative of a nobler age and a nobler GOP, there are some things we need to make sure we don't forget.
Since President Trump took office, I've sometimes caught myself thinking almost fondly of Bush, something that often happens at moments when Trump is acting in a particularly boorish fashion. I know I'm not alone. For instance, in reaction to Trump's insensitive treatment of the family of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson, some have noted a story from a book written by former Bush aide Dana Perino, in which she describes an emotional visit to Walter Reed hospital she made with Bush. Though most of the families were happy to see him, one mother of a soldier yelled at Bush, asking why it was her son who lay dying and not the president. Bush, Perino says, "just stood and took it, like he expected and needed to hear the anguish," and later said he didn't blame the mother a bit for being angry at him.
This story is used as a demonstration of Bush's decency, not to mention a contrast with Trump; we all know that if the same thing happened to our current president, he'd be on Twitter soon after insulting the mother. But this story also demonstrates something else: that you can be a decent person, which Bush certainly is — friendly, engaging, even kind — and do terribly indecent things, like lie repeatedly to the public to get them to support a disastrous war that winds up killing thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for no good reason.
That mother should have been angry at Bush, as should the families of the thousands of other Americans who died in his needless war. That he treated the families respectfully afterward does almost nothing to mitigate the harm he caused. The entire Middle East is still living with the consequences of what was undoubtedly the single most disastrous decision in the history of American foreign policy, something that should always be attached closely to Bush's name.
You might argue that his intentions were good, that Bush really believed what he was saying about how a wave of liberal democracy would flow across the region once we deposed Saddam Hussein. Many people surely do still believe that. But how can they defend the fact that Bush made torture the official policy of the United States? He set up a program that subjected prisoners to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, beatings, stress positions (which are designed to produce excruciating pain), and even mock executions (a favorite technique of the Iranian regime). The torture was carried out a series of "black sites" intended to be beyond the reach of American courts, the conditions of which were positively horrific (I discussed some of the details here).
Bush clothed it all in legal and rhetorical rationales that would be comical if they weren't so monstrous. His administration invented a euphemism ("enhanced interrogation") to allow itself to claim that its torture wasn't actually torture, even producing a document written by lawyers which claimed that if the pain a prisoner received during his torture sessions wasn't so encompassing that he went into organ failure, then legally speaking he hadn't been tortured.
I could list a hundred other things Bush did that ranged from misguided to malicious, from gutting environmental regulations to showering tax cuts on the wealthy to telling a seemingly endless string of lies on all kinds of policy issues. Personable though he might have been, he showed once and for all that the measure of a president isn't how friendly he is or even whether he has some humane impulses. It's what effect the things he does have on people's lives and on the nation's spirit. President Trump happens to combine cruel policies with a personality of surpassing loathsomeness, but the two aren't necessarily related.
We can give credit to Bush for some things (he took serious and meaningful steps to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa, for instance), and acknowledge that he has been a far better ex-president than he was a president. He has, generally speaking, conducted himself with dignity and care. Even while Barack Obama was in office, the mania of Tea Party-era Republicans made him seem ideologically reasonable by comparison, not to mention how good Trump makes him (and every previous president) look. And he should be commended for the things he said in Thursday's speech, sentiments that would be praiseworthy even if Trump were not the unspoken referent of his remarks.
But we shouldn't let the intense and bizarre conflicts of our current moment make us forget what George W. Bush did as president, the harm he caused so many, and the damage he did to our moral authority. That history should never be forgotten.