January 18, 2009
Bush at the Stone Table: The Sacrificial Presidency of George W. BushBy Paul Kengor
Some time ago, writer Andrew Klavan wrote a compelling review of the movie "Batman," comparing the caped hero to George W. Bush. Both figures gave of themselves on behalf of good in a knock-down, drag-out battle against pure, unmitigated evil, and neither was appreciated -- quite the contrary, they were often viewed as the bad guys by an ungrateful public. Klavan's analogy was right on.
My mind, however, for several years now, has raced back to another movie when I think about George W. Bush -- actually, a scene in the movie, based on a scene in a book by the same name. These final days of the Bush presidency seem an apt time to share it.
The scene is from C. S. Lewis's classic, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." It takes place when the Christ figure, the lion, Aslan, is led like a lamb to the slaughter at the Stone Table, where he is killed by the White Witch and every ugly hobgoblin of the netherworld. Aslan knows this is what he must endure for the larger good. Lewis described it this way:
She plunged the knife. It was finished.
The movie portrays this bracing scene vividly and unforgettably. It needs to be seen to be appreciated.
What also needed to be seen to be appreciated was the hellacious assault on George W. Bush. No future biographer will be able to fully capture the gruesome, fierce, shrieking hatred of this good man. No matter what his flaws as president, they pale to the depths of depravity achieved by his tormentors. It was so bad that it reminded me, many times, of the scene at that table.
Not only did Bush's self-ascribed enemies frequently turn themselves into ogres, but they joyously ripped into the man while he quietly accepted it all -- a stoic, turn-the-other-cheek, faith-based, upward-looking response, as they twitched and plunged into him. It enraged the rabble all the more when he never moved, sticking unshakably to his mission, resigned to his fate, seeming a little sad, but neither angry nor afraid -- nor deterred. His faithfulness, more than anything else, set them seething, especially the secular among them.
They called him a fool -- a moron. Then, after all that, they won the presidency, the Congress, and will now win the judiciary.
The long-term effect for Bush was a killer. It seems that everyone is at him now.
Before those same Bush haters go wild on me, let me add these caveats:
I'm not saying this president made no mistakes. In many respects, this presidency, at current time, could not be ranked very successfully. More so than any president since Harry Truman, judgment will not be possible for decades, likely not in Bush's lifetime. Bush knows that, and has conceded it publicly and privately.
Another key qualifier on my analogy: I'm a Christian, and I understand my analogy might strike some as blasphemous. That's nonsense, since I'm undoubtedly not equating George Bush with Jesus Christ. I'm making a smaller but dramatic comparison to the Christian allegory employed by C. S. Lewis, which I do for an added motivation:
More than any aspect of George W. Bush, I know his faith -- having written a book on the subject. I know he acutely identifies with Christ's passion. He understands that one who stays true to principle, who tries to do right, and who stumbles on the way to his destination, sometimes cannot earn his rewards until his earthly life is finished.
Such, too, is pure leadership. Americans, whether they realize it or not, have just witnessed eight years of remarkable presidential leadership, especially compared to the poll-driven president who preceded Bush. Sure, there's much George W. Bush should have done better. As someone who has studied Ronald Reagan, I wish Bush had a sliver of Reagan's communication skills to win hearts and minds, to shape public perception. I wish he had better people working for him on Iraq in the bad years. Still, this was leadership.
What was the mission? What was the reward that must wait?
As an effective primer, I direct readers to November 2003, when Bush gave the best speech of his presidency, the text of which ought to be required reading in every Poli Sci class, and by Bush friend and foe alike. In that speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush invoked Ronald Reagan's June 1982 Westminster Address, Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and FDR's Four Freedoms, in concluding: "The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country.... We [Americans] believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history.... [T]his is, above all, the age of liberty."
Bush sought to take liberty to the area of the world where it has been most resistant: the Arab-Muslim Middle East. He sought to sow a long-term democratic transformation in the worst of regions, before it went nuclear. He looked to take Reagan's "March of Freedom" into the region with the starkest "freedom deficit." He endeavored to initiate a "democratic peace" in that cesspool of terror.
He pursued that most commendable task knowing he will not live to witness its fruits, if they occur, and with no political gain for himself and his party -- precisely the opposite. If the sacrifice works, Bush will have changed the course of history, but only after he leaves this world.
There is another Bush speech I find somewhat profound in retrospect -- a witty but forgotten commencement address to his alma mater, Yale University, on May 21, 2001. Recalling his life after Yale, where he had studied history, Bush averred:
When I left here, I didn't have much in the way of a life plan. I knew some people who thought they did, but it turned out that we were all in for ups and downs, most of them unexpected. Life takes its own turns, makes its own demands, writes its own story, and along the way, we start to realize we are not the author. We begin to understand that life is ours to live but not to waste and that the greatest rewards are found in the commitments we make with our whole hearts -- to the people we love and to the causes that earn our sacrifice.
Bush said that four months before September 11, 2001, and roughly two years before he sent troops into Iraq -- the unexpected causes that earned his sacrifice. It was his plan for Iraq that began his descent into the worst disapproval ratings in the history of Gallup's presidential polling.
George W. Bush took up his cross, walked the walk, and then silently let his persecutors enthusiastically carry out his political crucifixion. He committed his whole heart to a great reward earnable only much later.
We know how C. S. Lewis's allegory plays out: good triumphs in the end. Let's hope it does for George W. Bush as well, for the best of everyone, from America to the Middle East, from his defenders to the haters leaping up and down around that table.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007) and God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life (HarperCollins, 2004).