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November 21, 2008

Ignorance is Bliss, Isn't It?

Eric Bogosian, writer, actor, host of the National Book Awards ceremony, takes a political tone in his remarks: “As far I know, Barack Obama is a reader,”... “hopefully we will have a president who reads history and hopefully is not condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps if Eric got his nose out of the NY Times and The Nation now and then, he'd realize that our current President is quite well read, thank you very much:

Bush is famous for reading history books. He and Karl Rove supposedly had a book-reading contest, and Bush read 99 books in one year.

Reading contemporary historians be quite enlightening. Mr. Bogosian ought to try it, sometime. Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has this to say on the subject of Presidents, history, and reading:

George W. Bush, whatever else one might say about him, has been a most remarkable President: Historians will be debating his legacy for decades to come. If past patterns hold, their conclusions will not necessarily correspond to the views of current critics. Consider how little is now remembered, for example, of President Clinton’s impeachment, only the second in American history. Or how President Reagan’s reputation has shifted from that of a movie-star lightweight to that of a grand strategic heavyweight. Or how Eisenhower was once believed to be incapable of constructing an intelligible sentence. Or how Truman was down to a 26 percent approval rating at the time he left office but is now seen as having presided over a golden age in grand strategy—even a kind of genesis, Dean Acheson suggested, when he titled his memoir Present at the Creation.

Presidential revisionism tends to begin with small surprises. How, for instance, could a Missouri politician like Truman who never went to college get along so well with a Yale-educated dandy like Acheson? How could Eisenhower, who spoke so poorly, write so well? How could Reagan, the prototypical hawk, want to abolish nuclear weapons? Answering such questions caused historians to challenge conventional wisdom about these Presidents, revealing the extent to which stereotypes had misled their contemporaries.

So what might shift contemporary impressions of President Bush? I can only speak for myself here, but something I did not expect was the discovery that he reads more history and talks with more historians than any of his predecessors since at least John F. Kennedy. The President has surprised me more than once with comments on my own books soon after they’ve appeared, and I’m hardly the only historian who has had this experience. I’ve found myself improvising excuses to him, in Oval Office seminars, as to why I hadn’t read the latest book on Lincoln, or on—as Bush refers to him—the “first George W.” I’ve even assigned books to Yale students on his recommendation, with excellent results.

So much for the opinions of actors. If there is one thing I won't miss come January, it's the constant litany of ill informed and petty commentary from small minded pundits whose eagerness to criticize what they clearly don't understand only highlights their own poverty of spirit:

The Sunday before the American election, the Observer in London published an assessment of President Bush’s legacy by several well-known American writers. One of them, Tobias Wolff, wrote: “When I see someone being rude to a waiter, or blocking the road in a Ford Expedition, or yakking loudly on a cell phone in a crowded elevator, I naturally assume they voted for George W. Bush.”

Wow. That's quite a leap, from disagreement with a politician to painting every single one of his supporters with the same broad brush, liberally dipped in venom. But setting aside the ridiculousness of blaming Bush's supporters for his supposed failings as a President, the implication of rudeness has no basis in reality.

None, whatsoever. Despite countless times during the past eight years when the President's opponents have been disprespectful, openly insulting, and rude to him, it's hard to think of a single instance in which George W. Bush has descended to their level. In the face of the most vile and childish provocations, he has displayed an almost inhuman self control.

A few days before the election I opened the New York Times and was shocked to see a series of vignettes about the President. This one brought tears to my eyes:

One spring morning last year, I happened to be strolling through the Congressional cemetery east of Capitol Hill with the White House press secretary Dana Perino as she walked her dog. Ms. Perino was candidly describing the challenges of her job, which were only mounting as George W. Bush’s approval rating continued to drop. Then she looked directly at me and said, “But it’s all worth it, because I so believe in the president.”

It would have been easy for me to dismiss Ms. Perino as a bright and likable but ultimately Kool-Aid-stricken peddler of talking points, were it not for two things. First, my interviews with current and former Bush staffers constantly veered off into similar testimonials. Their belief in Mr. Bush transcended ideology: as much as anything else, they just loved the guy. They loved how he treated the elevator man with the same courtesy as a foreign leader; how he often picked up the phone to congratulate the bride of a junior staffer; how he never pointed fingers, harbored grudges, snubbed, publicly belittled or boasted. Above all, they loved how they never had to worry which George W. Bush would show up to the Oval Office. It was fitting that he worked at a desk carved from a British warship, the H.M.S. Resolute — clarity of purpose being the admirable flip side to his at times infuriating certitude.

A few days later, this assessment was echoed by a different source:

... he was classy, magnanimous, a gentlemen, ripped for being out of touch, he chose just the right touch, a man who critics say only mangled his words, conjured just the right ones. I'm not talking about John McCain yesterday. I'm talking about president bush today. McCain gave a very classy speech. The president made a very classy gesture, offering only good words for the man who repudiated his run at the white house, but going one better, inviting Barack and Michelle Obama to the white house to see the place, talk about the place, and the pressures of the place, in private. These were not empty words. The president put a transition team in place months ago so that a smooth transfer of power could take place. President bush didn't have the same offer when he came into office. Lots of hurtful words since then. He wasn't even running this year, but it seemed everyone, including his own party's nominee was running against him all year. If he minded, he really didn't show it. I remember talking to the president on the White House south lawn about it. "Does it all bug you?" I asked him. "Nah," he said, shrugging his shoulders and adding simply, "I understand." A man of the people and the nation seemingly at war with him, some for good reason, and others apparently lacking any reason. He did nothing personally, always handled himself with dignity, not by what he said but precisely what he did not. I have read that the president is as kind to the elevator operator at White House as he is to a visiting [head of] state to the White House. Every time I see him, he sticks around and personally shakes the hand of each member of my crew. That is each member of my crew for one of our interviews, every single one of them, every single picture. Now, I know [these are] little things, but to me these are big things, that speak of a man far bigger than the petty things I see in the press or I hear in a harsh campaign. That ended today with a quiet gesture today, from a president who would be in his right to wag a certain finger, but instead simply [offered] something else: his hand. Not a popular thing to say, is it? But it was, it is, and he's a good fellow.

That is my President, the man I have loved and supported since I first began writing back in 2004. I will miss him greatly when he goes back to Crawford. I believe in him because he had the courage to believe in freedom, and to back up his words with courageous and principled actions.

I believe in him because he has always supported our military families, and has done so quietly, without fanfare, and without credit for all the long years we've been at war. He has taken a lot of heat for us. When military leaders have made mistakes (and they have, as is entirely normal) as Commander in Chief he has taken the blame. This President is a man who understands what it means to lead. He leads from the front.

And that means his shoulders have had to be wide enough to bear up under a world of blame. He never throws anyone else under the bus. The buck always stops with him. In a world where no one is ever accountable, where people are continually reinventing themselves to meet every shift in the political winds, I find his constancy and forthrightness comforting.

He may not be perfect; who among us can lay claim to that virtue? Great men often have outsized flaws to go with their outsized strengths. But George Bush, in his essentials, will be looked upon kindly by history... even if some people continue to believe he was reading a book to a goat on 9/11.

You see, I believe in him too, Dana. And I always will. Godspeed, Mr. President.

Posted by Cassandra at November 21, 2008 08:07 AM

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“hopefully we will have a president who reads history and hopefully is not condemned to repeat it.”
Unless I missed something in the translation, it is really not important if someone "reads" history; the real import lies in "learning" from history.
If we have learned anything from history it should be that socialism/communism/humanism and all them other isms do not work: except for the chosen elite who sit on the exalted throne screwing life up for everyone else.

Posted by: gunnypink at November 21, 2008 09:53 AM

I like George Bush as a man, even if he and might disagree on some things.

Eric Bogosian? Never heard of him.

Posted by: spd rdr at November 21, 2008 10:08 AM

I know there is a lot of disagreement about his presidency.

It is just that I have read enough history that I don't think we see things the same way now that we will later on.

I look at the way Reagan is venerated now by conservatives. There was never that feeling when he was in office - these same folks hated his guts because he was too moderate for them. I find it beyond strange.

History gives us a different perspective. I guess I'm content to wait. I just am not content to live with baseless slander.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 21, 2008 10:19 AM

I honor the man beyond all my power to express. That's not to say I agreed with every decision he made (just almost all of them). But he never gave me any reason to make me regret the faith I put in his character. Thanks for a great post, Cassandra.

Posted by: Texan99 at November 21, 2008 11:47 AM

I voted for Bush both times. I've agreed with him on some things and disagreed on others. But, I have never doubted his good character or intelligence. I am always amazed by the number of people who would not even be considered by Yale or Harvard who constantly talk about how stupid he is.

The comments about Eisenhower reminded me of a couple of stories I read about him.

Once, he had to talk to the press about some crisis. Aides were worried he might give away what his plans were. Ike said "I'll just go out and cofuse em".

After the Bay of Pigs, he met with Kennedy and gave a stern lecture about what JFK did wrong. Ike then went out and told reporters he supported Kennedy's actions. Contrast that with the way Carter and Clinton have behaved these last eight years.

I would be surprise to see Bush treat Obama the same way his oponents trated him.

Posted by: Schnauzer at November 21, 2008 11:59 AM

I have an interesting job, in many ways.

I have to help people make decisions that involve numbers and lots and lots (sometimes millions) of dollars. They are usually pretty smart people. Usually more educated than I am. Usually more experienced, professionally. Varying levels of intelligence and expertise in the field I'm in.

I've found that the "quickest" studies aren't usually, or even the most often the smartest folks. A lot of times it is the people who are a bit more deliberate thinkers - more thorough - who arrive at the right answer. There are a lot of folks in life who can't wait to "leap to" the answer before they've really thought things through. As a tech person, I get incredibly frustrated with these people. They NEVER want to listen to the (*&^% people they hire to tell them things they NEED TO KNOW in order to make intelligent and informed decisions.

And then they shoot their own feet off and hop around cussing and bitching and moaning "Why the hell didn't anyone TELL ME?"

Well, they did, bright eyes. You just were so insufferably full of yourself that you wouldn't listen. People like me just sort of sit and wait for your head to explode, because we've seen it all happen a million times before.

Of course we're not always right either. Tech people can get lost in the weeds. You have to find the right balance and that's a tough thing to do. As Obama is about to find out. It looks a lot easier from the cheap seats.

Perhaps that's why he's retaining all those hawkish types - I always said that once he got into office, he'd quickly find his options weren't really any different than the Shrub's :p

Posted by: Cassandra at November 21, 2008 12:10 PM

I would be surprise to see Bush treat Obama the same way his oponents trated him.

Were I George W. Bush, I'd go home to Crawford, and refuse to give the press a blessed thing. No interviews, no comments, nothing. Except maybe a politely worded request to get the hell off my lawn.

Posted by: MikeD at November 21, 2008 12:50 PM

Except maybe a politely worded request to get the hell off my lawn.

Cindy Sheehan gonna put her house on the market now?

Posted by: BillT at November 21, 2008 12:59 PM

A very nice tribute and well deserved. My wife and I both love President and Mrs Bush; but today we were having a conversation and she lamented that he is not a conservative. I think that is questionable assesment, because he is conservative in most, perhaps the essential, ways.

I have not agreed with all that he has done. I think he puts too much store in government's ability to do good--compassionate conservatism. But, one thing I am confident of is that he never, never did anything except for the good of the country. There are some other reasons I respect him so much. He has never pointed the finger at anyone for failure; he has never failed to step up and take the criticism. His steely resolve has never overwhelmed his compassion and humanity.

I hope that some day, during his liftime, people will recognize that this man has represented the country magnificently, with grace and an endearing, if not always understood, style.

Posted by: BobG at November 21, 2008 09:59 PM

I think a big part of my reluctance to jump back into the discussion of politics is my overwhelming sadness. Sadness that not only have we taken for granted (and by "we" I mean the American public of whom the majority voted for Barack Obama) one of the best Presidents our country will ever see but also that our generation won't have the perspective to ever truly comprehend just how good he was.

Posted by: HomefrontSix at November 21, 2008 10:25 PM

Thank you so much for this article. My heart aches reading it. Although I have disagreed with several of the things our President has done, I have always admired him for his steadfast determination in the war on terror and his unwillingness to cave in to political pressure no matter the cost. He is a good man who has been maligned beyond imagination by people who could not tie his shoes.

Let us hope and pray that President Obama can govern with the same wisdom and steadfastness.

Posted by: Antimedia at November 22, 2008 12:58 AM

...our generation won't have the perspective to ever truly comprehend just how good he was.

September 11, 2001 was the wakeup call. 52% blinked and hit the snooze button.

When the alarm goes off again, the perspective will accompany it...

Posted by: BillT at November 22, 2008 01:31 AM

Thanks for this, Cass. I wanted to get into full Bulwer-Lytton mode and join in the earlier thread, but I could not make fun of this great man. I love President Bush. And I hope that the Presidency affects Mr. Obama in the same way a religious conversion can - and I hope he becomes worthy of the office. Right now in my opinion he is not. He ran a disgusting, deceitful and despicable campaign. He is not fit to wipe his shoes on the same doormat as President Bush. He doesn't even have the class to keep his private conversation with President Bush private. But President Bush will make sure that the "O"s are on the keyboards when he arrives.

There are times when I have thought the weight of the office and the intensity of the venom spewed at and hatred heaped upon President Bush would break him. But he is still doing his job, and we still have not been attacked again. Thank you, President Bush, for staying the course. Thank you for ignoring those who feel they are your betters, but are actually insignificant ninnies.

I believe we will be hit again, now that Obambi will be in charge. And I believe they will try to pin it on President Bush, but we must always remember the NY Times and the other big papers that exposed very important secrets to our enemies, and made the future attacks possible. They are at fault. When it hits the fan, I hope the fan is pointed in the direction of those who caused it to happen.

God bless you and keep you, President Bush. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Posted by: MathMom at November 22, 2008 07:45 PM

my husband is from Texas and has sometimes complained that Bush wasn't allowed to be Bush, When the west Texas comes through in what Bush says is when he is most eloquent but unfortunately it was also when he was seen as the most cowboy-ish. Too bad the MSM is so stuck on nuanced and what really amounts to a form of dishonesty (that Clinton and Obama are so good at--telling whoever is in the room what they most want to hear). It's sad that George W. Bush was so misunderstood by the MSM and a large portion of the populace.

Posted by: zombywolf at November 23, 2008 07:16 AM

This is excellent Cassandra. I linked it.

I don't anyone truly understands how incredible it was that Bush kept us safe. We just take it for granted.

Posted by: Rightwingsparkle at November 23, 2008 01:22 PM

Bush got the job done. He took his primary responsibilities very seriously. I don't know how he has managed to keep his composure with all the criticism.

Posted by: Jason at November 24, 2008 12:34 AM

I don't know how he has managed to keep his composure with all the criticism.

He did it by concentrating on getting the job done.

Posted by: BillT at November 24, 2008 04:01 AM