On Thursday, George W. Bush delivered a speech at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World” event in New York City. Headlines are touting the speech as an attack on Trumpism. That’s accurate, so far as it goes. But it’s clear from Bush’s words that he was aiming for (and achieved) something loftier than yet another complaint about the 45th president. Bush was making the case against the pervasive discontent that’s driven many citizens throughout the Democratic West to a politics of grievance and revenge. Trumpism is but one example.
Without mentioning Trump by name, Bush said: “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” Without uttering the words “America first,” he offered his critique of it: “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism—forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade—forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.” He went on to remark: “Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.” A beautiful statement justly applauded.
Those quotes have garnered the most attention because they relate directly to Trump and his followers. But, in truth, the entire speech was a masterpiece, offering up brilliant gems throughout.
There was this description of our political divide: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions—forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.” There was a kind of philosophical proof of the rightness of democracy: “No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies. Democracy remains the definition of political legitimacy.” And on a day that found the president and a congresswoman sparring over whether or not the president had insulted a war hero’s widow, there was this: “We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
If Bush had merely attacked Trump, his speech would have been subsumed into the sordid us-and-them squabbles he was denouncing. (If some pundits have their way, it still will be.) Bush, recall, has an aversion to criticizing other American presidents. “I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president,” he said while Barack Obama was in office, “I think it’s bad for the presidency for that matter.”
It’s also a way of avoiding the larger moral challenges we face. And Bush, the most misunderstood leader of our time, is all about large moral challenges. This is the man who said, three days after 9/11, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” For Bush, ridding the world of evil still means, in part, advancing the cause of human liberty. And that’s really what his speech was about. As he said, “This is part of the reason we meet here today. How do we begin to encourage a new, 21st-century American consensus on behalf of democratic freedom and free markets?”
To find answers to that question he turned to Tom Melia and longtime COMMENTARY contributor Pete Wehner, both scholars at the George W. Bush Institute. In response, they drafted a paper titled “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World,” and, yesterday, Bush talked up some of its recommendations. These include adopting a stronger defense against foreign attacks on American democracy, leading the fight for freedom around the world, placing a priority on civics education, and restoring trust to American institutions. These are all excellent ideas, and the paper elaborates on them in creative and useful ways.
The trickiest challenge of all, however, is cultural: how to encourage the American people to abandon destructive political fads and reclaim the higher ideals of our country’s founding. There is little that policy can do to strengthen our faith in the “American creed.” But toward that end, Bush’s speech was itself an effective step. His words will stand as a marker of where we want to be after the current political enthusiasms fail to deliver. The decency of the man, contrasted with the indecency of the moment he was describing, was the most powerful rebuke to American self-doubt that we’ve seen since Trump was elected president.