The American Scholar article by Walt Harrington entitled Dubya and Me is reminder that “man is a mystery”. Harrington, whose politics were very different from Bush admired him to the point of fascination. Defending him against critics who saw the Texan as a chimp, Harrington retorted, “I didn’t vote for George W. I disagree with him on the Supreme Court, environment, abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action. So I voted against this good and decent man. It pained me to do it.”
No one can read Harrington’s piece without wondering whether we can know Barack Obama either. “In the remaining years of his presidency, I visited Bush several more times, always in the Oval Office.” Harrington wrote. “His only remark about Barack Obama was, as I recall it, ‘No matter who wins, when he hears what I hear every morning, it will change him.'”
That is of course the sub-theme of Harrington’s long article: the change in men. He had met Bush many years before, when he was just emerging from the shadow of his by then vice-President father. As it happened, their first meeting occurred at nearly the same instant GWB decided to clean up his life, stop drinking and change himself, but in precisely what way Harrington did not at first understand. The apparent transformation when they next met, when GWB was President, was striking.
I left the White House in a daze. I even got lost in the pitch-black darkness and had to drive around the small parking lot for a few minutes to find my way to the gate. I called my wife, and she asked how the evening had gone. I couldn’t answer.
“I’ve never known you to be speechless,” she said, genuinely surprised.
I finally said, “It was like sitting and listening to Michael Jordan talk basketball or Pavarotti talk opera, listening to someone at the top of his game share his secrets.”
My takeaway: what a difference a decade had made.
Let us stop and freeze that frame for a moment because it is essential for unraveling the mystery, or at least towards getting closer to its heart. What about that decade had made a difference? Was it the effect of great challenge, the necessity of growing into the Presidency? Was it the culmination of whatever process had begun when Harrington had first met the forty year old Bush, determined it seemed to start on a new life?
Or did it simply happen, in the way things sometimes do, like Paul on the road to Damascus, without warning and an enigma even to object of change? Although Harrington was surprised to find GWB such a voracious reader of books he was not — according to the caricature of him in the press — even supposed to know how to read, the Rosetta Stone seemed to be the Bible. There was something in that compendium of lore, the distillation of thousands of years of religious tradition, that called out to him.
I also found an open Bible in the house. “I’ve read it cover to cover, and it wouldn’t hurt you, Walt, to do the same,” Bush said, laughing. Within the last year, W. had begun a new lifetime regimen of daily Bible readings, as I and all of America would later learn.
The kind of God that GWB seemed to believe in was one you did not put to the test. He did not give you answers, as a jukebox played back a tune when you inserted the coin. The most theologically revealing of their talks about God was whether over Bush ever sought ‘divine guidance’ in the matter of war. Bush answered that it was not a fair question to put to God; almost as if it were a matter for man that the Almighty would subsequently judge. To passively leave things to God would be like not answering your father when he asked you a question. You answered, He judged.
He prayed before his presidential debates, kept a little cross in his pocket that he would squeeze: “ ‘Dear God, I pray that I speak clearly and bring calm.’ ” He prayed before his State of the Union addresses, alone in the little holding room: “ ‘Dear God, I pray that you shine through me today.’ ”
“And the prayers of the people,” he said, referring to those who pray for him, “this is where I get into a little shaky ground because I can’t prove it.” But Bush said he had actually felt the prayers of people asking God to comfort him. “And so the pop psychologists say, ‘Well, he’s grasping for affection.’ … I tell people all the time this—that the prayers of the people matter. And I do have a sense of calm.” Perhaps, he said, his prayers and the prayers of others are the reason. “I’ve been asked this some: ‘Do you think God wanted you to go to war?’ I didn’t ask in prayer. … I don’t think that’s fair to God to do that.”
If there was one intellectual purpose which God served in Bush’s intellectual world it was to square the universal books of account at the end of time. It was to weigh people and give them the due or punishment they never had in life. He did not trust people to do that; and if they ever got around to it then far too late. That is perhaps the most astonishing glimpse into the soul of GWB.
Things had to be done for their own sake, because they were good or alternatively they were called for in opposition to evil. But the world fell short and if you could not accept that and still act within in then you were bound to be disappointed. He told Harrington:
“Some people walk up and say, ‘Oh, man, history is going to judge you well.’ And my quip is, ‘I’m not going to be around to see it.’ And to me, that’s one of the most important lessons you learn through history—you’re just not gonna be around to see it. … I’m confident of this: that those conclusions will be more objective with time than they could conceivably be now.”
Which brings us back to the present. One of the perils of living on earth is the ever-present possibility of getting it wrong. One can be mistaken about GWB or even about Barack Obama. Perhaps Obama is getting it all right. Perhaps not.
But that’s how it is. You live your life and run your risks. You express your opinions and mayhap they will turn on you. But you must give your answer all the same. As Dubya told Harrington, you can’t let questions you can’t answer keep you from dealing with issues that you understand. “I’m not sophisticated enough in prayer, evidently, to be able to pray for Osama bin Laden and at the same time go hunt him.”
As Dostoevky said, “Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted time.” And don’t expect to succeed either. If GWB is right, then we’ll all get the answers when the boxes under the tree are opened.