BENTON HARBOR/ST. JOSEPH, Michigan – Private citizen George W. Bush poked his head out from his quiet, exclusive Dallas neighborhood last night to give his first major speech since leaving office. Ironically, the place he picked is near one of the nation’s poorest, most racially divided cities. It also happens to be in one of the reddest, most conservative congressional districts.
The Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan attracted 2,500 people who greeted the former president with great warmth and excitement. It was obvious that they must be the 30 percent of Americans who have remained loyal to Bush. Perhaps this is the way he now can attract a friendly crowd, a much different approach from his 2004 campaign rallies where dissenters were barred from attending.
However, it was evident that one of the lowest-rated presidents of all time is not someone office holders want to be around these days. Republican Representative “Freddie-boy” Upton, Bush’s nickname for him, was not there nor were other local political officials who are customarily introduced at such affairs.
Nevertheless, Bush was in his best form and he didn’t hold back his folksy informality. He looked relaxed and comfortable as he told a few tales of his presidency—without notes. The whole event felt much like neighbors gathering around the pickle barrel in a country store. And that’s his magic. He ingratiated the audience with his wit, charm and affability. Even his skeptics might be persuaded to accept his world view—until they recall the past eight years of Hell he put this country through.
Bush gave a self-effacing performance, especially when it came to pointing out his mistakes in following the evening’s format, but not the mistakes of his presidency. It appears that he truly believes he didn’t make any and that he exercised responsible leadership in a time of great trial.
For example, he told the audience that his guide for decision-making included five principles. They read like a cross between the Declaration of Independence, Grover Norquist and an MBA leadership text:
- Freedom is universal.
- The people can spend their money better than the government can.
- The organizational structure must allow information to get to the decision-maker.
- Timeliness is important.
- A leader has to be willing to make tough calls, stand by them and insist that they be carried out.
Choosing a vice presidential candidate was Bush’s first big decision, he said, and he looked for someone who could advance his own credibility. Cheney was a “thoughtful guy” who would “do a good job.” Besides, Cheney wasn’t interested in running for president so he wouldn’t distance himself from the president if something went wrong.
Such ironic comment was typical throughout the speech and Bush and the audience seemed quite oblivious to it.
In another instance, a woman asked what impact his strong religious beliefs had on his presidency. He replied that “religion and politics are a dangerous mix” and that he “made religion a personal matter” by trying to practice Jesus’ commandment to ‘love thy neighbor.’
“Muslim mothers want their children to grow up in peace,” said Bush. “There’s more commonality [between us and them] than you think.” And he seemed concerned that Americans had somehow taken to negatively stereotyping Muslims in the Middle East.
Such comments made it hard to believe that Bush’s perspective and reality could be one and the same thing and if this is how his book goes, he may risk losing sales.
The former president seems to have forgotten how quickly he called the 9/11 hijackers “evil doers” (code for the Religious Right) and how he later attacked Saddam, whom he now identifies as “a dangerous man who sponsored terrorism.” He also unfairly drew lines between Americans: those who were with him and those against him. Some fundamentalist Christians were so whipped up by his apocalyptic rhetoric that they called protesters against the war in Iraq traitors!
Bush still holds fast to the idea that we are waging an ideological struggle with “a group of people who murdered the innocent to spread an ideology of hate.” These enemies are similar to the fascists and communists in days gone by, only they do not represent nation-states and they plot and plan against us just the same.
His reaction to the September 11 attacks was based on how he viewed it, which author Reza Aslan calls a “cosmic war” view in his new book on the subject. A cosmic war is a religious war not between armies or nations but rather between the forces of good and evil where God is believed to be on one side against the other. How do you win a cosmic war? By refusing to fight one, Aslan answers.
Bush, however, indulged himself and the nation in this fight. He described his actions with a paternalistic tone by telling the audience of his vow “to take whatever steps that were necessary to protect you” and to do whatever it took to get information so that decisions could be made. He was not as brash as Dick Cheney usually is with the protection-of-America argument, but the message was the same.
Then Bush addressed and justified the torture memos without naming them.