SAN FRANCISCO DEL RINCÓN, Mexico — A sign of Mexico’s political evolution is the creation of its first presidential library and museum, in the fashion of the libraries archiving and commemorating the administrations of Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and other United States presidents.
Mexico was a one-party dictatorship of the statist bureaucrats of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) for 70 years before the upset victory of Catholic, conservative Partido Acción Nacional candidate Vicente Fox in 2000. In a disheartening pattern, many if not most of Fox’s PRI predecessors became personae non gratae in their countries — nomads with bulging Swiss bank accounts — following their tenure in the presidency. Presidential records, instead of being objects of reverent examination by historians, instead were kept — or often destroyed — as state’s evidence.
Like United States presidential libraries, Vicente Fox’s is in his native state — in this case, adjacent to his home and ranch near the postcard-perfect colonial university and vacation towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. Centro Fox’s warm, dry, ranch-country setting and the high quality of its architecture and museum and research facilities are reminiscent of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. Fox and President George W. Bush made Fox’s Rancho San Cristóbal the site of their February 2001 summit meeting at a moment of optimism during their new presidencies.
Fox is a man of action and is not bookish, but this rancher and corporate executive-turned-politician has a keen, Jesuit-trained mind that helped him overthrow the dictatorship of the PRI. He also had good judgment in finding talented writers and editors to help him produce a highly readable and thought-provoking English-language memoir, Revolution of Hope. The volume is informative and insightful about the achievements and disappointments of his administration and its relations with the United States. More than a memoir, Fox’s book puts forward a bold proposal for deepening the North American Free Trade Agreement into a more cohesive economic community along the lines of the European Union. In this regard, it is unfortunate that another politician already had used the title, The Audacity of Hope.
Fox speaks flawless English, learned during a year as an exchange student at a Jesuit boarding school in Wisconsin. In his book Fox attaches importance to his formation in pre-Vatican II Jesuit education, at the prep school in León, the city near his native ranch, and at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Fox’s Guanajuato was a center of Catholic resistance to the atheistic and socialistic regime of Plutarco Elías Calles. During Fox’s childhood, as well as now, Mexican Catholics have venerated 20th-century martyrs including the remarkable Jesuit, Father Miguel Pro. The Jesuits who taught young Fox in the prep school and university were closer in mind and spirit to James Schall than to Robert Drinan.
Fox’s Mexican variety of conservatism is not the same stuff that is advertised as conservatism in the populist, and often nativist, echo chambers of talk radio north of the border. Fox gets red in the face as he expresses his hot disdain for Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly — obstacles to Fox’s aims for closer economic and political relations between Mexico and the United States. Fox and the PAN’s closest counterparts outside of Mexico are the European Christian Democrats. Fox’s dream of North American economic integration may be overshadowed by the flaws of the European Union, but anyone who knows Fox’s stubbornly anti-bureaucratic temperament should recognize that he does not want to install a Brussels-style bureaucracy in the New World.
If there is a parallel to the Fox phenomenon, it might be Lech Walesa, the charismatic leader of a drive to end a dictatorship. Once in the presidential office, Walesa, like Fox, had great difficulty administering a government that had been designed for the bureaucracy of the old regime.
Fox’s impatience is legendary. It drives him, and it inspired Mexicans in the 2000 election to make the extra effort to try to elect an opposition candidate. The man’s carpe diem character is apparent in a conversation with him at Centro Fox. When this interviewer had the temerity, or perhaps it was timidity, to suggest that Fox’s vision of a North American economic union was a good idea that might take a generation or more to come to fruition, Fox’s “NO!” shook the rafters. “We can’t afford to wait!”
I don’t have the nerve or the bad philological taste to try to translate “misunderestimate” into Spanish. But however one might say it, don’t try to do it to Vicente Fox.
(Mr. Duggan is a visiting professor in politics and communication at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City.)