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Gene Collier is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
George W. Bush’s best moments as president came nine days after his worst, nine days to wade through the horror and toxic disbelief, nine days to sort out the origins, meaning and terrifying implications of a nearly unimaginable morning that went into history as its own numerical shorthand, 9/11.
On Sept. 20, 2001, Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress with an eloquence, an earnestness, an empathy and an analytical global clarity few thought were within him or even within his potential.
“Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?'” he said. “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
That night was the first time I ever thought I’d underestimated the 43rd president, though it rarely tempered my criticism of the guy no one would have rated among the smarter baseball owners when he was running the Texas Rangers in the early ’90s. Thus, I contended, he was probably not even qualified to be the governor of Texas (which seems almost laughable, given current events), and he was definitely not qualified for the White House.
I considered Bush only reluctantly engaged in the family business of politics, mostly ignorant of the way the federal government works (Karl Rove had to explain the whole business to him), reliably incurious about the world and dependable only in his fealty to Republican orthodoxy. In sum, he was the perfect tool of neocons and military hawks.
But not on that night, when he was so much more.
“I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world,” he said. “We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends.”
In our worst moments, Bush showed our best side. He probably didn’t get enough credit for it.
Last week, he spoke of 9/11 again on its 20th anniversary. Bush stole the show near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, in a speech every bit as pitch perfect as on that night two decades past.
“A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument and every argument into a clash of cultures,” he said. “So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
“We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. … There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. … They are children of the same foul spirit.”
Of course, Donald J. Trump immediately suspected Bush was talking about him and his MAGA followers.
“So interesting to watch former President Bush, who is responsible for getting us into the quicksand of the Middle East (and then not winning!) as he lectures us that terrorists on the ‘right’ are a bigger problem than those from foreign countries that hate America,” Trump bleated.
Bush didn’t mention terrorists or the right — those are Trump inferences — and didn’t say anybody was a bigger problem than anybody else, but Trump seemed stuck on the “lecture” imagery.
“He shouldn’t be lecturing us about anything,” said the former president. “The World Trade Center came down during his watch. Bush led a failed and uninspiring presidency. He shouldn’t be lecturing anybody.”
Yeah, nobody died on Trump’s watch, unless you’re stuck on some half a million preventable deaths from COVID-19. And yet it appears Trump would prefer that Americans sit for his lectures, despite the fact that Bush has probably forgotten more history than Trump will ever know.
It was Trump whose appraisal of Abraham Lincoln went, “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican. Does anyone know?”
So many times during the Trump administration, I found myself thinking, “Boy, I’d take George W. Bush as president in a heartbeat right now.” That’s because next to Trump, Bush was and is Abraham Lincoln. Did you know all three were Republicans?