With the publication of Decision Points — a curious title for the memoir of a man who learned of some of the most important decisions of his presidency* only after they’d caused mass resignations — the canonization of President Bush, through the same antifactual procedure that continues to glorify Reagan out of all merit, has begun aright. Let us play Devil’s Advocate.
Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review leads the charge. We can take her panegyric as final proof that her publication has ultimately abandoned the goal that first animated it, and its founder: the subjecting of the conservative movement to the intellectual rigor that it had lacked for so long. By focusing on Bush’s words, rather than his deeds, Lopez truly returns us to that dark age.
We hear at absurd length about Bush’s piety, and “deep appreciation for human life,” without any mention of the acknowledged fact that this appreciation, if it existed at all, was at all times heavily mediated by an exclusionary and narrow worldview. A Presidency predicated on divisive social policy is not one lived out “with malice towards none, with charity for all.” This is the price of Bush’s “faith”: grace towards some, and ignorant hatred toward the remainder.
Decision Points itself can form the basis of this judgment. We learn how Bush ran, headlong, into and illegal an inhumane torture program. To the legality and propriety of torture, “Damn right” is not the answer of a man with “appreciation” for life. Nor can one mention Bush’s work on AIDS in Africa without noting that he did less than he could have, because his God prefers that foreigners risk death, than His agents be thought to encourage promiscuity by teaching people about condoms. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Lopez attempts. (Colin Powell’s polite dissent and leadership deserve a mention here.)
Like all of us, President Bush is entitled to look back on his life, and try to reconcile the thousands of isolated incidents experienced in its course towards a unified portrait, with some story to tell. This is how we all approach our lives: they must have meaning, and emphasizing certain episodes over others is one way to reach that goal. But we don’t have to suborn a second author choosing inspirational quotes, devoid of reference to the deeds that give them context. Bush was a flawed man, whose shortcomings translated to destruction. Posed piety ought not (and does not) save him from that judgment.