Former President George W. Bush stepped back into the limelight to assess the state of the union. During a rare public appearance at the Bush Institute’s “Spirit of Liberty” forum, the former president delivered a wide-sweeping analysis of the current political landscape, touching on Russian cyber-attacks, the tribal warfare of partisan politics, and globalization. His harshest criticism, however, alluded to the current president.
“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush warned. “And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”
Bush stood at the same spot at New York’s Time Warner Center where former President Barack Obama delivered a similar plea following President Donald Trump’s isolationist speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Without referring to the current president by name, Bush decried U.S. leadership and the existential crisis America faces in a world of global networks and populism.
“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization,” said the former President. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, [and] forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”
Though the remarks offer a hopeful message amid today’s hostile political climate, they could have used a different messenger. By this time during Bush’s first term in office, the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan and entrenched itself in a decade-plus long foreign conflict defined by occupation, guerrilla warfare, and the further expansion of the military-industrial complex. The betrayal of the American people by the Bush administration led many U.S. citizens to embrace Trump’s brand of nationalism; it was, after all, establishment politicians who so carelessly grew an eroding empire at the expense of working class families.
As the United States reconciles past sins, neoconservatives from the Bush-era like David Frum and Bill Kristol are given prime platforms to voice outrage towards Trump. The media embraces them; Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a frequent guest on Bill Maher, while Kristol’s tweets are promoted by left-leaning academics and journalists.
Now, the former president himself has joined the fray. But just because Bush now boasts an optimistic message for American democracy, and opposes what many consider to be a greater threat for the Republic, doesn’t mean history should temporarily be re-written to include him as a leader of virtue.