As the changing of the guard takes place at Pennsylvania Avenue, there will be no paucity of words about the man who has been the White House’s occupant since 2001. Since many will typify the less-than-complimentary view that some hold towards him, perhaps some space can be spared for genuine gratitude.
Thank you, President George W. Bush, for your actions and guidance during 2001, the most shocking terrorist attack on our nation’s soil. Years before, I had read about sports commentator Jim McKay, who, prior to going on the air with the tragic news of the 11 Israeli athletes being slain at the 1972 Summer Olympics, had to keep that horrible secret to himself. I was reminded of McKay as you quietly internalized the sudden news of the attack while you were spending time with schoolchildren, in what should have been a pleasant respite from your executive duties. You would later be derided for your demeanor there - including, ridiculously, for the book you were reading to the students by people who would perhaps have preferred you to have terrified everyone in the room by screaming bloody vengeance with your fist hoisted to the ceiling.
Even though many wanted The War on Terror to begin on September 12, military action was deliberate rather than hasty and ill-prepared. And you did the right thing by stressing to Americans that our enemies should be identified by their ideology, not their race. Leading by example, you visited a mosque in your painstaking efforts to differentiate between the radicals who committed the atrocities and the hundreds of millions of peace-loving Muslims living here and abroad.
Thank you, President Bush, for not allowing science to be divorced from ethics. In 2001, you struck a balance on embryonic stem-cell research, limiting the millions of federal funding toward that field of study to those stem-cell lines already created, from human embryos already destroyed. You also devoted generous amounts of funding to studying adult stem cells which have already treated thousands of actual human patients, and signed an executive order for more study of “alternative” methods of obtaining stem cells. Your opponents mischaracterized your view as “religious,” and reviled your policy as “anti-science” (or, worse, as “anti-cure”), but the positive results speak otherwise.
A little more than a year ago, scientists successfully reprogrammed ordinary adult cells to an embryonic-like state - one of the “alternative” methods you had outlined. Many researchers are now turning away from embryonic research and toward these induced pluripotent cells - for reasons of both ethics and practicality. Your policy did not impede research; it helped it to advance.
Thank you, President Bush, for what you’ve done for Africa. You initiated a bipartisan program that allows more than a million Africans to receive HIV antiretroviral drugs free of charge. You allocated billions in humanitarian aid in the fight there against AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, poverty, and hunger, earning you praise from activist-rockers Bob Geldof and Bono, who may or may not agree with your foreign policy, but nonetheless hold Africa close enough to their hearts that they see you as a champion for their cause.
Your successor, Barack Obama, said in one of his television ads that the question should not be whether we’re better or worse off now than we were four years ago, smugly adding, “We all know the answer to that.” It was part of the centerpiece of his campaign: disparaging you. And yet you’ve been nothing but gracious while preparing to hand over the reins to someone who fashioned his presidential run around being your polar opposite.
When you yourself were running in 2000, you explained that great leaders and decisions are made by principle, not polls. That can be a dangerous philosophy to embrace, when the nightly news includes continual updates on your approval numbers (more often, oddly enough, when they’re down than when they’re up … hmm). Many, indeed, will be sneering and cheering as you head back to Crawford, Texas. But more than you might realize are thanking you sincerely today, just as I am.
Brian Gillin works as an educator in Pennsylvania.