This editorial is the sole opinion of its author and is not endorsed by the United States Department of Defense, the United States Army, or the United States Military Academy (“West Point”), nor does it constitute or reflect an official opinion of the same.
In the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign, I discovered that my own political sensibilities had been slowly shifting towards a state of apolitical apathy. After non-stop news coverage, mudslinging, politicking, and blatantly empty promises, I realized that I was not particularly enthusiastic about the upcoming election. Politics — which has occupied my interest ever since my parents taught me the meaning of the word “propaganda” fifteen years ago — no longer held the appeal it once did. If anything, it has made me a more cautious skeptic when I hear anyone speaking at any length about any national policy.
Therefore, it was with some measure of reserve that I anticipated a certain meeting on Tuesday, December 9, 2008. The week prior, the dean’s department — and by extension, most of my instructors — were somewhat flustered by a sudden change in class schedules and lesson plans. “Something’s happening on Tuesday and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell you,” they cautiously whispered to us. “Someone big is coming.” I thought I knew the secret already — the presidents of the Patriot League universities were scheduled to come to West Point for a conference the following Monday, December 8. But surely the administration wouldn’t upset a week’s worth of classes because a few university presidents showed up at the Academy — even the secretary of the Army doesn’t draw that much fanfare.
So on the Friday prior to the December 6 Army-Navy game — lo and behold — the tight-lipped officers finally spilled their secrets: our surprise visitor would be the president of the United States.
Now it’s no secret that George W. Bush was unpopular; it’s also no secret that he was probably more popular within the ranks of the military’s officer corps than in any other sub-group of American citizens. Thus, his last-minute appearance at the Academy, a mere month prior to the inauguration of the next president, was somewhat unexpected and met with a mixture of unbridled enthusiasm and suspicion. Was he trying to make a “state of the presidency” address at the Academy? Was his appearance at the 2008 Army-Navy game another move at garnering support from the military, perhaps to build resistance to what many Republicans feared would be an abandonment of the Iraq reconstruction by soon-to-be-President Barack Obama?
On the bus ride down to Philadelphia, the president’s pending visit was a favorite topic of conversation. When he appeared on the field, all of the energy we normally reserve for taunting Navy instead focused on getting his attention. Cadets leaned over the concrete railings, almost falling onto the playing surface at Lincoln Financial Field, all in an attempt to win a presidential handshake. For the second time in four years, the corps shouted, albeit not as wholeheartedly as in 2004, “George Bush rocket! George Bush rocket!” while trying to convince the commander-in-chief to perform the traditional West Point football cheer.
Bush, of course, declined — he still had to sit with the Navy fans during the second half of the game.
After suffering another ignominious defeat at the hands of our archrivals, one bright spot in the calendar remained: the president’s Tuesday visit. At first, the plan was to move classes around his arrival time, brief all the cadets and faculty at once in Eisenhower Hall, and then dismiss us to continue our normal routine. However, to the surprise of the faculty, the president’s advisors returned the following Monday with a new plan: he would brief the underclassmen in Eisenhower and the soon-to-be-lieutenants (the “firsties” or seniors) in Thayer Hall’s Robinson Auditorium during a separate meeting. This second meeting came with some strings — only firsties would be permitted to attend. The Academy’s administration knew that the first class, by itself, could not fill all of the auditorium’s seats, and in a move to ensure that no seat would be left empty for the president, mandated attendance for several of the academic departments.
The president’s staff demurred once more. President Bush’s instructions were explicit: only senior cadets would be permitted to attend. Not only that, he wanted as much time with us as he needed. The Academy brass then made the only logical move and canceled all Tuesday classes.
Needless to say, we were positively gleeful. Class here doesn’t get canceled for anything; most living Academy graduates would not be able to recall such a thing as a snow day.
Come Tuesday, the corps was buzzing with anticipation. No cadets were more hyped up than the firsties — what was this meeting going to be about? Firsties in previous years had received sensitive and secret-level classified briefings before, many straight from lieutenants in Iraq. What made it stranger was the prohibition on the other officers and instructors; normally, they’d be sitting in the auditorium with us. Someone mentioned a question-and-answer session with the president. My commander told us to submit questions for review just in case. If it was going to be a moderated meeting, how would that differ from any other speech that he has given in the past?
As we settled into our seats and waited for the televised part of the meeting to begin, the first captain (the top-ranking cadet at West Point, the cadet brigade commander), the commandant, Brigadier General Michael Linnington, and a senior White House aide whose name escapes me all stood on the stage and very loudly, very emphatically, very explicitly — they really wanted to be clear on this — told us that there was to be no audio or video recording of the event, no note-taking, and no paraphrasing of the president’s words. “He doesn’t want anything ending up on YouTube,” they all insisted.
President Bush arrived at around 10:00 a.m. and gave his pre-prepared speech (broadcast over the internet via CNN). As he spoke, many of my classmates observed, “Well, it kinda sounds like a State of the Union address.” We’d all heard him say the exact same thing before, and nothing in this speech surprised anyone. He spoke at length about the status of the Iraqi conflict and the successes the military has seen there. He addressed our current and future involvement, and then dismissed the underclassmen.
“That’s it?” This was quite anticlimactic. If he was planning on impressing us, he’d have to do better than that. Little did we know …
About ten minutes later, the first captain called the room to attention. After introducing the superintendent, he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the 43rd president of the United States!” The auditorium filled with a deafening applause, much louder than the rather tepid response to the speech he had just concluded.
The president quickly motioned for us to sit down. His demeanor was far different than the one I’d seen on camera hundreds of times before — this man clearly was not comfortable being a politician. Far from the stiff that he’d always been when reporters were around, he seemed relaxed, excited, almost like a kid on Christmas.
The next two hours were inspiring, amazing, and ultimately very revealing about who the commander-in-chief really was and what he really believed. After repeating the same injunction about recording devices, he began to take questions. Real questions. Unmoderated questions. Cadets, normally somewhat reticent about asking questions during a briefing, couldn’t get their hands in the air fast enough. He answered everything we threw at him, both the easy and the difficult. As time passed, I began to see this man for who he really was — contrary to all the most popular stereotypes, he was not a power-monger, not an evil oil baron, not the clumsy, bumbling fool as he has often been accused of being.
This was not the George W. Bush that we all thought we knew. Immediately, it became apparent why he didn’t want the press there — he wanted the freedom to be as candid with us as he knew how, as a classic Texas straight shooter down to the last word. Intimately familiar with the new media’s habitual mistreatment of any and all of his verbal missteps or lapses in diplomatic, politically correct language, he knew they would have pounced on this meeting. There would have been no end to the howling coming from his enemies’ camps.
Not politically correct? Yes. Not eloquent? True. Aware of his faults and shortcomings? Absolutely. Honest and sincere in pursing what he believes? Concerned for the welfare of the country, and especially for the welfare of soldiers and their families? You’d better believe it.
He finished, almost reluctant to leave, and thanked us from the bottom of his heart. For the next fifteen minutes, he took the time to chat with the horde of cadets pressing up against the barrier next to the stage. He talked to us, asked us personal questions, and shook every hand offered to him, lingering longer than the average “politician hand squeeze.” No one dared leave the room until after he’d disappeared into the hallway.
As we ascended the stairs and headed back to our rooms, I could hear almost every cadet expressing amazement and admiration for the man, even if they didn’t agree with his policies. I can say that I feel the same. There’s much I feel that he could have done better during his time in office; however, in person he was powerful, honest, and compelling. There’s a reason why he’s popular with the military. In that auditorium, the West Point Class of 2009 came to know firsthand that he actually cares about us.
What will President Bush’s real legacy be? Just ask the members of the United States military.