It was a tough job, but three Democrats figured out how to do it.
Called to speak at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama talked about Bush’s paintings, his sense of humor, and the compassion that led him to fight AIDS in Africa and push against the political tide for immigration reforms. On a day when a headline in The New York Times warned that “Rising Violence in Iraq Spurs Fears of New Sectarian War,” nobody talked about Iraq.
There were, of course, oblique references. Clinton said it was good of Bush to design his library in a way that encouraged visitors to think about how they might respond differently to the crises Bush faced. Bush himself noted wryly that he had given the country many opportunities to exercise “one of the benefits of freedom,” the right to disagree.
Obama chose to focus on a powerful symbolic moment—“the incredible strength and resolve that came through that bullhorn as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of Ground Zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.” It was one of the many artful ways he circumvented mention of a war he called “dumb” before it had even started.
The Democratic speeches were short, which was helpful, given the huge chunks of Bush’s presidency they have sharply critiqued and, in Obama’s case, run against twice. All three congratulated Bush on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that has saved so many lives. Carter also thanked him for keeping a promise to help resolve a conflict in Sudan. Clinton, who handed Bush a nation with a hard-won budget surplus and saw it fall into fiscal disarray, said he’d limit himself to areas “beyond controversy”—and mentioned, in addition to AIDS, Bush’s immigration efforts and post-presidential humanitarian work.
Obama, who inherited from Bush the Great Recession, a soaring debt, and two mismanaged wars, gave away the underlying tensions of the day when he failed to clap at a mention of the Bush tax cuts that Democrats have tried for years to repeal. Still, Obama did credit Bush with bipartisanship, education reforms, and restarting an important conversation on immigration that he said may bear fruit this year.
And perhaps because he felt he couldn’t completely ignore Bush’s role as commander in chief, Obama found a way to address and evade it simultaneously. “We share a profound respect and reverence for the men and women of our military and their families,” he said.
He could have expanded on that to thank Bush for the drone policy that has been a critical component of his own counterterrorism strategy. But that would have been bad timing. The objective was to avoid controversy, and everyone got an A in that.
The most expansive comments about Bush were those Obama and Clinton offered about his personality: unpretentious, direct, and disarming. “To know the man is to like the man,” Obama said.
Bush reinforced his likable persona in a short, gracious, and at times funny speech. But he also reminded us of what he called his “deepest conviction” and the “guiding principle” of his administration, that the United States “must strive to advance the reach of freedom.”
That’s how we ended up in Iraq, and why we’re still in Afghanistan. Bush’s simple and idealistic “guiding principle” seems overmatched at this point in a complicated, dangerous world. It’s one of the most appealing things about him, but also one of the most exasperating and—as we have seen repeatedly—fraught with the potential for unintended consequences.