When billboards featuring the likeness of former President George W. Bush and the words “Miss me yet?” started popping up in 2010, it was understandable that many people initially thought they were an Internet hoax. After all, the Bush years were exhausting. Even for many of us who aren’t fond of Barack Obama’s politics, until recently, the answer to the question of whether we missed the former president was still decidedly “no, we do not miss you.”
Recently, though, I am starting to find a renewed appreciation for 43—and I bet I’m not alone. In comparison to some of today’s politicians, he looks like Demosthenes. As someone tweeted the other day: “It’s probably not a good sign that current GOP candidates make me miss the quiet, intellectual dignity of George W. Bush.”
I’m still not a fan of Bush’s brand of big-government conservatism, nation-building adventurism, shortsighted economic tinkering, or even the famous loyalty to, well, the Bush loyalists (“Heckuva job, Brownie!”). And I suppose you could even argue in a roundabout way that, from the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS to the rise of Putin, all the bad things that have happened since he left office are examples of Bush backlash.
But if we just compare the former president to what passes for today’s “leaders,” the comparison has him looking pretty good.
At the risk of sounding hackneyed and partisan, it is worth saying that after a disastrous beginning to the Iraq war, Bush—to his credit—made the gutsy decision to double down and back the surge. It worked, and Iraq was fairly stable until Obama withdrew troops and opted not to push the Iraqis to leave a sizable reserve force behind.
For all his faults and mistakes, Bush deserves credit for making this tough call. (I also give President Obama the same credit for his decision to get bin Laden in Pakistan, a decision that was far from a slam dunk—and might have gone disastrously wrong.)
President Bush should also get credit for being good at something that we sorely need—symbolism. Sometimes this skill came back to bite him (see the “Mission Accomplished” sign). But there are times when both rhetorical moral clarity and symbolism are vital to inspire a weary nation to band together—and summon them to face a challenge. Whether it was his speech at the World Trade Center (“Well, I can hear you!”) or his throwing out a perfect strike at a New York Yankees game, Bush rose to some pretty big occasions—something that no American leader has quite lived up to since.
But it was Bush’s decency and insistence on preserving the compassionate side of conservatism that, I think, we are beginning to miss the most. For all the talk about his “you’re either with us, or against us” mentality, six days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush made remarks at the Islamic Center of Washington.
“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” Bush said at the time. “Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
This sent a very specific message that we weren’t at war with people who practice Islam, but instead with a form of radical Islamism that was engaging in terror. It was a needed appeal at an emotional time, and may have helped prevent retributive attacks on innocent American Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. Our current crop of GOP presidential candidates could all take note.
Yes, compassionate conservatism has unfortunately been associated with big government spending, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Throwing the baby out with the bath water hasn’t exactly resulted in electoral success.
Bush managed to win two elections. For all his flaws, he was classy and serious. We have now arrived at a point where what is being spouted by Donald Trump, and others, amounts to a shallow, vulgar, uncompassionate conservatism. Sadly, to many Republicans, Bush is now a punchline, and Trump is the fad of the moment.
This trend, like the leisure suit, won’t age well.
They say hindsight’s 20/20. I suspect that Bush, like Harry Truman, who also left office as a bit of a joke, will enjoy a bit of a grudging resurgence in popularity in years to come. Do we miss him yet? More and more each day.
Matt Lewis is author of the forthcoming book Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots).