By Jonathon Van Maren
The election of George W. Bush and the vote-counting fracas that followed make up some of my first conscious political memories, with the exception of a few hazy conversations amongst the adults about the various pelvic peccadillos of Bill Clinton and whether they would prematurely end his presidency. Bush, on the other hand, was an unabashed Christian—I would read Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of George W. Bush several times over the next few years—and assured the pro-life movement that he would have their back.
Over the next eight years, Bush did just that. I know that there are some who criticize him for not doing enough, but I think the Bush has by far the single most impressive pro-life record of any American president. He appointed two rock-solid pro-life Supreme Court justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. There is no doubt that if Roe v. Wade were to come to another vote, both justices would vote to overturn it. He signed the partial-birth abortion ban into law. He ended funding for abortions overseas with the Mexico City Policy.
He also withstood immense pressure from all sides and vetoed any government funding for fetal stem cell research, describing in his memoir Decision Points how he made the announcement surrounded by children who had been adopted as frozen embryos. In the same book, Bush described how his pro-life position was formed by seeing his own miscarried sibling. He and his brother, then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush, even worked together to do everything they could to save Terri Schiavo. Here again there are those who claim that the Bush brothers didn’t do enough, but when I posed that question to Terri’s brother Bobby Schindler, he would have none of it, speaking of his family’s eternal gratefulness to the Bush family for all they did during that awful time.
And so, like other political junkies who have retained a fondness for George W. Bush, I’ve been extremely curious to know what the 43rd president of the United States thinks of the 45th. So far, Bush has kept up his post-presidency policy of refusing to discuss his predecessors, a courtesy he granted to Barack Obama even though it was nearly five years before Obama stopped blaming his own political problems on Bush. His fundamental decency, dignity, and integrity—which the media and the elites refused to recognize while he was president—began to finally get recognized, and Bush has made chummy media rounds for the release of three books, including a biography of his father and a collection of paintings of veterans. Despite much cajoling from interviewers, he still refuses to criticize Trump.
There’s only been a few hints so far. George H.W. Bush obviously despises Trump, and apparently indicated that he wouldn’t be voting for him during the election. Trump’s decision to focus most of his mockery on Jeb Bush initially obviously explains that dislike. Bush 43 dismissed questions as to whether Trump’s targeting of Jeb bothered him, noting that he’d been in politics a long time and was used to this sort of thing. Only Bush’s comments after Trump’s short, raw Inaugural Address—confirmed by several witnesses—have indicated that he views the current presidency with some measure of disbelief. “That was some weird s**t,” he reportedly said as he left.
But earlier this week, I finally got a glimpse of what Bush might be thinking. I attended a small fundraiser in Alexandria, Virginia, for gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, courtesy of one of my pro-life friends in Washington, DC. Gillespie is a solidly pro-life politician, and had previously worked in the Bush Administration. He and his wife were friends with George and Laura, and Bush had come in from Texas to attend the event and support his former employee. “Only Eddie could have gotten me away from my paints,” he joked to us. “Y’all know I’ve become a painter. It’s very centering. I’ve become very sensitive.”
As Bush bantered with the group—there was a couple of senators, a former governor, and at least one Congressman present, along with quite a few former members of his Administration—I was reminded that Bush is one of the most talented but underrated campaigners. Bill Clinton is widely recognized for his skills on the stump, but Bush really knows how to work a crowd, disarm them, and get them roaring with laughter. He has an instinctive warmth and a talent for self-deprecation that doesn’t feel feigned. Many of his stories mocked his own infamous verbal missteps: “The guy from SNL thought he invented the term ‘strategery.’ I asked him if he was going to take credit for ‘misunderestimated’ too!’”
When it came time for Bush to make his pitch for Ed Gillespie—a pretty easy job considering that it was a small Republican crowd—he revealed, to my mind, some of what he was thinking about the current political climate in America. We need politicians that embody decency and honesty again, Bush said. There were murmurs of understanding and agreement all around. Most of all, Bush told those present, we need leaders who “do not exploit division, but appeal to the better angels of our nature.” It was pretty hard not to interpret Bush’s remarks as a powerful criticism of Trump’s modus operandi. Not only is Trump disinterested in appealing to decency or even values generally, it strikes me as very unlikely that he would recognize the “better angels of our nature” reference even if he had been present to hear Bush’s remarks.
I know that many are still conflicted about Trump, especially because immediately after he finishes trashing various people on social media and embarrassing all but a few shameless poodles (Sean Hannity comes to mind), he turns around and actually takes steps to keep his promises. Not only has he appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but as the Wall Street Journal put it, his appointments are “Scalias all the way down.” He reinstated and strengthened the Mexico City Policy, and has expressed his support for both the twenty-week abortion ban and defunding Planned Parenthood. Whether or not Trump actually has any pro-life convictions is anyone’s guess—what seems apparent is that he’s not planning to renege on his promises.
But what I think is important to remember is that Trump, unlike some past presidents, is not one of us. We may be occasional co-belligerents on certain important issues, but he likely views his relationship with pro-lifers and others as a purely political marriage of convenience. In fact, a profile of Vice President Mike Pence this week in the New Yorker has revealed that Trump spends quite a bit of time mocking Pence’s social conservatism:
A staff member from Trump’s campaign recalls him mocking Pence’s religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence’s office, Trump would ask them, “Did Mike make you pray?” Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”
This is not to say that Trump won’t deliver politically for those groups who have extracted promises from him. It is simply to point out that Trump is, very obviously, someone who finds social conservatives rather ridiculous a lot of the time, and that a lot of his Administration’s virtue-signalling towards America’s Christians has a lot more to do with Mike Pence and savvy speechwriters than any sincerely-held values on Trump’s part. George W. Bush actually proposed a constitutional amendment that would have prevented activists from redefining marriage. Trump waved a rainbow flag at one of his rallies.
As I said, Trump has proven that he can be an eminently useful political ally. But I doubt that I’m the only one who gets exhausted by the endless and sordid trivialities and fights, the midnight tweets and the nearly absolute lack of self-awareness and decorum. Bush had many faults, and I have no desire to relitigate the successes and failures of his presidency. But seeing him speak and hearing him talk about the “better angels of our nature” reminded me what it was like to see a leader who understood dignity and integrity, and strove, with all his human failings, to live by them.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.