Commentary Magazine


Bush’s “Decency” Was Always There, but Where Was the Media’s?

As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”

Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”

I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”

Here is the fourth item on the list, and an explanation:

• Bush is a personally decent fellow

When he ran for president in 2000, the notion that Bush was on balance a likable guy — if not uniformly respected for his intelligence or preparation for the presidency — was widely assumed.

By 2009, his divisive policies and defiant political style had been so polarizing for so long that much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.

Since leaving office, he has avoided partisan politics and taken up painting. Several pieces of his art have ended up online, including a self-portrait of him in the shower.

Yes, two veteran political reporters actually wrote this. They never thought much of the former president while he was in office, but then, a few years later, they saw a painting. And you have to love their explanation for why they didn’t think Bush was a “decent fellow” earlier: “much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.”

And what was that toxic cloud? That would be the political reporting. So we have our answer: the press believed their own miserable propaganda. “Just remember,” George Costanza tells Jerry Seinfeld, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” It is of course a lie that Bush wasn’t a thoroughly decent person throughout his presidency, so it was crucial for liberals and the press to believe it.

It’s not as though Bush’s obvious decency wasn’t visible to reporters. Ron Fournier, now with National Journal, had covered the Bush presidency, and a couple of days ago wrote about the decency he saw in Bush. The whole thing is worth reading, but one key takeaway, as Fournier gives example after example, is how Bush’s sense of personal decency was clear as day to anyone who interacted with him.

So yes, there was plenty of absurdity coming from the right and leveled at President Obama, and history will not look kindly on the disrespect and indignity of making the president feel compelled to show his birth certificate. Plenty of the attacks on Bill Clinton were–or should have been–out of bounds too. But ask yourself this: can you picture John McCain screaming at the top of his lungs that Barack Obama is a traitor to the country he leads, or jokingly suggesting he should assassinate Obama? And can you imagine political reporters writing four years after Obama leaves office that they never knew he was a personally decent man?

I hope you cannot imagine those things, but that is the reality that George W. Bush endured and absorbed with grace, good humor, unrequited compassion, and above all, yes, personal decency.

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