I've decided—and it wasn’t much of a decision: more a “duh” moment—that arguments over the legacy of former President George W. Bush will cease, oh, around the time we get an accurate count of all those angels said to be breakdancing on the head of a pin.
The opening, on May 1, at Southern Methodist University, of the $250 million George W. Bush Presidential Center will further the discussion (or slugfest, whichever) in ways both predictable and unexpected. This is what happens, is it not, when individuals, however highly placed, seek to direct the course of public conversation.
(Actually I’m worn out on the word “conversation,” due to its overuse by national leaders and pundits who intend, we always learn, to do most of the talking themselves, content that the rest of us should grunt knowingly from time to time.)
Whatever hum of voices arises from the Bush Center—the newest feature of my neighborhood in Dallas—should find ready listeners, if only because what’s on display in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere for “conversational” purposes has so loud and dark and sinister an edge.
Public discontent with George W. Bush, before his administration closed up shop in January 2009, was high and rising. The housing market had collapsed; unemployment was growing fast, along with a deficit swollen by the ambitious new government programs of “compassionate conservatism,” from a Medicare prescription drug benefit to No Child Left Behind. There was likewise the matter of a couple of foreign wars we had initiated without hard-and-fast plans for winding them up. Nothing seemed to be working at the time the 43rd president of the United States skipped town, as it were, resuming the good life he had led in Texas.
A Bush successor radically different from Barack Obama—non-Keynesian, mildly bipartisan, disposed to trust and work with business leaders rather than mock them at political rallies—might have crowded George W. Bush into the crevices of historical memory. That truly genial and well-intentioned man, the 43rd president, would have been remembered mainly for waterboarding and “Mission Accomplished.” Who would sit still to hear another word out of his mouth?
Maybe a larger number of folk than would please the staggeringly talkative Barack Obama. We’ll have to see. The second coming of George W. Bush and a reassessment of his circle as brimming with policy masterminds hasn’t occurred and in fact may never occur. My point is that the fresh-as-dew Bush Center and its policy institute have the chance to make an impression on minds starved for policy ideas that don’t involve new taxes, don’t sub-lease the job of governing to public employee unions, don’t try to regulate everything that moves, and don’t write off the possibility that among foreign critics of the United States are many who downright hate us and would be ecstatic to see American power laid flat in the dust.
NO FORMER commander in chief seeks to sets himself up as a shadow president, the head of a disloyal opposition. That certainly won’t be happening in Dallas. What will be happening instead—maybe—is in some measure the revival of respect for the horizontal mode of governance in this country as distinguished from the style that presently prevails: the here’s-what-we’re-doing-and-if-you-don’t-like-it-well-tough style of governance, the style of the Obama White House. Only time will tell.
Presidential centers, with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s in Atlanta (“Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.”), tend to exhibit low public profiles. What’s the last thing you ever heard of the Lyndon B. Johnson library and museum in Austin doing? Besides conferences and that sort of thing, I mean? (Upcoming at LBJ, on the day I last checked, were “An Evening with Condi Rice” and an appearance by Jodi Picoult, the novelist.) But of course that’s fine, wouldn’t you agree? You dance with who brung you. The Johnson library was never intended as anything but a library-cum-shrine that would, additionally, offer training in public service.
George W. Bush’s aims seem more—what’s the word that sits so pleasantly on Obama’s ear?—transformational, or at any rate prescriptive. By design the Bush Center and Institute will focus less on yakety-yak than on the outcomes of such ideas and proposals once put in practice.
The Bush Center will house the obligatory library; 70 million pages of documents is the initial estimate. There will be a museum, complete with restaurant, gift shop, and 43,000 artifacts. We neighbors, um, can’t wait. One guy whose property SMU bought up for the project allowed cheerfully several years back that the Bush name on the building would render us the number-one target in the world for the revenge of the terrorists. As for the anticipated traffic: buses, vans, police cars…
Mushroom clouds notwithstanding, the center’s visibility is supposed to stem mainly from the work to take place at the Bush Institute. President Bush and his people want to try out “specific projects that achieve practical, measureable results, rather than proposals that require the assent of Washington or state capitals.” The idea is to “assemble a team of researchers and on-the-ground practitioner partners, find solutions, work with partners to put the solutions into practice, evaluate the results, make mid-course corrections, evaluate again…Our credo is think big, collaborate, and get results.”
HMM. “Think big.” Haven’t we done that more than once during both 21st-century presidencies, Bush’s as well as Obama’s? Let’s hold that thought while we look at the Bush Institute’s preoccupations. These are, in the order they are listed on its website: economic growth, education reform, global health, human freedom, military service, and women’s initiative (inspired by Laura Bush). The lineup sounds more impressive than closer inspection proves it to be. Yet there are high points, of which the tip-topmost may be the agenda of economic growth.
Growth? Imagine that, in Year Five of Obamanomics. In the last quarter of 2012, thanks to the ministrations of a government with little or no brief for capitalism, the U.S. economy surged by a titanic 0.1 percent. Don’t spend it all in one place, folks. The promotion of growth policies makes sense not only from the standpoint of reviving lost prosperity but also from that of paying down overdue national bills, addressing at last the financial deficiencies threatening to undermine and curtail Medicare and Social Security.
The well-respected Amity Shlaes, currently basking in acclaim for her new book on President Calvin Coolidge (reviewed on page 12), heads the center’s Four Percent Growth Project, which aims for—yes, you guessed it—“real, sustained GDP growth of 4 percent annually.” The idea is to create jobs, reduce government debt, and generate wider prosperity.
Is it polite—and should we, at this point, care if it’s not?—to note that under President George W. Bush, from 2001–2009, federal obligations and debt took off toward the heavens? The budget rose by $700 billion; the national debt doubled—from $5.8 trillion to $10.6 trillion; the Medicare drug entitlement enacted at the instance of the Bush administration is projected to cost $800 billion in its first decade.
It goes without saying that by comparison with the free-spending Barack Obama, George W. Bush was Scrooge McDuck—a hoarder of tuna fish cans, a cadger of cigar stubs flicked to the pavement by prosperous passersby. There would seem in any case an opportunity here for sharp contrast, not just with Obama, but likewise with all apostles of big government, quick to redistribute the proceeds of commerce, lest some big bad businessman make too much money (with exemptions, naturally, for generous friends of the Obama cult). There just might be, after all, an audience for proposals and experiments aimed at achieving growth of 4 percent a year. The Bush Institute’s explicit commitment to economic freedom has at a minimum, I would suppose, considerable possibilities to achieve interest and popularity. A few of us will be hoping Ms. Shlaes proves as good an entrepreneur of free market ideas as she is a chronicler and promoter of them in books such as Coolidge.
WHAT ABOUT the goal of better education? Here the lights go down, the expectations turn murkier. We need to be realistic. No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration’s marker in public education policy, was an odd one for the former Texas governor to lay down upon arriving in Washington. Despite gestures of one kind or another during Bush’s gubernatorial term, and the strong rhetorical support he accorded the ideal of quality education, during his tenure the caliber of public education in Texas failed to rise notably, sometimes failed to rise at all. Bush wasn’t entirely to blame. Racial-balance busing had by the late ’70s emptied big-city schools of white students; meanwhile, the sharply increased presence in schools of Hispanic students with limited English skills taxed state educational resources more and more. Vitriolic squabbles commenced over the means of funding a system dependent largely on property taxes. Bush as governor gave lip service to vouchers without ever pressing for their enactment.
NCLB made the federal government senior partner in our educational endeavors, but without much visible contribution to improvement. The NCLB requirement that 100 percent of children within a school achieve by 2014 the same competency standard is—and always was—a utopian pipe dream. Differences in intellectual wherewithal are spread across all races and social classes, contrary to the egalitarian convictions of government meliorists. Education remains, paradoxically, more a social and cultural challenge than a problem remediable by the plans and programs of its funders. What’s Bush’s latest take on these realities, and what will the center propose?
Global health? One can’t object conscientiously—I will bet not even Jimmy Carter could—to the Bush Center’s participation in the worldwide cause of saving lives in failed societies and countries. Just because something’s fashionable in Hollywood doesn’t mean—though investigation never comes amiss—that the idea is necessarily a bad or even a suspicious one. The Bush Institute, as best I understand its intentions, means to spotlight health problems abroad and promote various partnerships in response.
I have a feeling the Bush Institute’s human freedom program may come to seem less egregious and sentimental, more logical and hard-headed, than it might have at the height—or depth—of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Nation-building,” in the Bush days, proved a harder slog than the White House had imagined: a result of intractable human nature. That Afghan tribesmen aren’t of Lockean-Burkean-Jeffersonian stock is the crucial point that should have struck anyone reflecting on the gap between that sad country’s historical realities and the peaceable aspirations of, for the most part, its young. Nation-building isn’t, so far as I can discern, what the Bush people have in mind; rather, the goal is to “extend the reach of freedom through non-violent means by empowering and educating pro-democracy dissidents and helping develop networks of activists around the world.” Which is more than the Obama administration has essayed in terms of asserting the superiority of the American model to most others.
The present administration’s studious inattention to prospects for mitigating tyranny abroad, or for that matter its reluctance to call terrorism terrorism, looks more and more like the polar opposite of nation-building: no better in its own, disconnected way than brazen intervention in Mali or Syria might prove. Whether Obama has a foreign policy based on anything but avoidances and head-duckings seems much in dispute. Holding up freedom as a precious ideal, without putting lips to the cavalry bugle? It seems a judicious way of recalling Americans to their vacated sense of pride in national accomplishments.
I have to own up to a soft spot in the heart—maybe the head as well—for a fellow Texan made again and again to run the gantlet for the offense of not being Ronald Reagan on the one hand or Barbara Boxer on the other. Our ex-Guv might have done well with better advice and, certainly, better luck, not to mention sharper instincts for philosophical imperatives like the superiority of federalism to unitary, top-down government. Nonetheless, when you read that national “peace and justice” groups plan to converge on the Bush Center dedication ceremonies, organizing teach-ins (as in the good old days of the ’60s) fancifully charging their host, the ex-president, with war crimes and transgressions of international law…well, it kind of broadens the perspective, adds useful information to the back-and-forth. Like him or loathe him, George Walker Bush will dwell in our midst yet a while longer.