This time next week, we’ll have a new U.S. president (perhaps you’ve heard). The inauguration parties will be breaking up, and we’ll be in a new political era. I shan’t be celebrating much myself: a quick toast to old Bush, and good luck to the new Obama (there seems to be a new one every day). Then back to reading Ausonius.
No predictions today; I intend to look only backwards.
I was young and callow then (now, at least, I’m no longer young), when Pierre Trudeau was installed as Canada’s 15th prime minister. I was, well, 15 myself, and already beginning to recover from Trudeaumania. I’d worked my little behind off for the Liberals (can you believe it?) and had had the honour of meeting the Great Man. I think it was in the moment I looked into his icy blue eyes that my enthusiasm began to relax.
Still vaguely remember: the attitudes among such of my elders as did not like or trust him, in the moments immediately before the Great Man took power, and the foreseeable catastrophe began. People think, “Nah, this isn’t going to be so bad. In fact he’s going to be like every other prime minister.” And anyway, the whole thing happens in slow motion.
Let us complete the highly unoriginal observation. The lobster hardly notices the temperature rising in his pot. Time passes. And what has changed, after all? Before he was green, afterwards orange. But it’s the same lobster!
Not everyone agrees that the Trudeau years were a disaster for Canada. My own view is based on a candid assessment of the before and after, and it is the view of a lobster. From the point of view of the diner, in our Nanny State, much was improved by expending the country’s moral capital.
But you know me, gentle reader: I tend to disregard received opinion, itself a transient product of passing history. This includes, to return briefly to the present, the view that George W. Bush was, if not the worst president the United States ever had, at least the worst in living memory.
He has been demonized, in the progressive media and among the progressive classes—to the point where even those who are inclined to defend him, instinctively flinch. Which is to say: he has been demonized by people who do not concern themselves overmuch with the question, “What would you have done in his position, instead,” given each successive crisis he faced. Or, when asked that question, they reply in some rhetorical way that betrays no serious interest in the likely consequences of the alternative course.
I have found that one cannot argue with history: things happened just as they did. But also, one cannot argue with people who are not anchored in prudential reasoning.
After eight years of him, I would say, that of all the U.S. presidents in my life (from Eisenhower forward), Mr. Bush has been the most impressive, except Reagan. This is mostly a judgment on his foreign policy, in which—instant history requires clichés—he has taken various bulls by their horns, and has not been flipped by them.
I think it will be seen more clearly, as hindsight develops, that the stand he took in Afghanistan, then Iraq, prevented the exponential growth of Islamism. Ditto: his refusal to be horse-whipped by international public opinion very far along the ridiculous “roadmap to peace” between Israel and her fanatic adversaries. His confrontational attitudes toward other rogue regimes held the line—against Libya, Syria, North Korea, and even Iran. We would be in a far worse position if such regimes had been persuaded that America really was a “paper tiger.”
Mr. Bush, as the saying goes, “kept America safe,” and in so doing, defended universal Western interests. We are all indebted not only to him, but to the American taxpayer, and American soldiers, for missions to which we did not contribute adequately. Forward positions were taken and maintained. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Obama will give all these positions away.
In domestic policy, as Mr. Bush has himself been confessing in final interviews and a rather moving final press conference, he very likely sacrificed too much. His own free-market instincts, and his sense of the limitations of the U.S. federal government, were overcome in the course of various tax-and-spend responses to domestic problems over-magnified in the media. More precisely, spend alone, for he did fight taxes, and thereby left (as Reagan before him) a legacy of public indebtedness. At least this will crimp his successor.
No matter how he is depicted, the man himself has been honest, thoughtful, courageous, modest—and remarkably free of personal vindictiveness. He has done consistently what he thought right under the circumstances, from a far broader view of those circumstances than his vindictive enemies have acknowledged, or would be able to acknowledge.