After yesterday’s opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, many in the media are taking a look back at the presidency of George W. Bush after a little time to put it in perspective, and the results do a Catholic heart good: Former fierce critics are acknowledging the kindness and accomplishments of the man.
When millions of Catholics see Bush standing in between Presidents Clinton and Obama in those pictures, surely we remember him more fondly than ever.
Because of the abortion extremism of Bill Clinton, pro-life Catholics were rooting for Bush to win. When he did, pro-lifers cheered. When Gore challenged the win, pro-lifers took action.
If you were on faithful Catholic e-mail lists back then, you remember the Lepanto 2000 Rosary Crusade. Organizers gathered 570,000 Rosary pledges and prayed for a pro-life victory in the contested election. These were shortly followed by the emails celebrating how Lepanto 2000 had triumphed. Key dates in Bush v. Gore happened to fall on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
No one seriously considered him Mary’s Chosen One, but the dates were suggestive. When his term started, hopes rose higher still.
On the first weekday of his presidency, the newly inaugurated president announced to the 2001 March for Life that he was re-instating the Mexico City Policy of Ronald Reagan, stopping federal funding of overseas abortion.
On the sixth day of his presidency, Bush made an unprecedented visit to the home of Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick to chat with him and plan another unprecedented meeting: A February gathering of 37 Catholic leaders. The picture from that meeting, showing Bush joking with Mother Agnes Mary Donovan of the Sisters of Life, brought joy to the hearts and tears to the eyes of Catholics who had fought in the trenches — and back benches — of politics their whole lives.
The only time the Clinton administration had united Catholics that way was when all eight U.S. cardinals protested President Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban.
Bush told our Catholic leaders that the partnerships he had proposed between the government and faith-based initiatives was to be his first step in a grand pro-life plan: first, service; then legislation.
In March, millions of Catholics were basking in the new president’s world once again: He cut the ribbon of the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., praising John Paul for the culture of life. The night before the dedication, Bush filled the White House with Catholic leaders and said, “The best way to honor Pope John Paul II, truly one of the great men, is to take his teaching seriously.”
Of course, there were dark shadows even on those bright days: President Bush was miles away from Pope John Paul II on the death penalty and (we would soon find out) war. His cabinet was stocked with pro-abortion Republicans — the kind who might recognize Bush’s faith as authentic and find it “useful,” not refreshing. Then, on Aug. 10, Bush signed an order allowing funding for limited research on existing lines of fetal stem cells and serious pro-life jitters started.
Sept. 11 stopped them. The cover of the Register was an eerily lit shot of the Ground Zero destruction that looked like a postmodern cathedral, with rescue workers raising the American flag, and a call-out quote of the scriptural words George W. Bush had used to comfort the nation: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”
When the United States went to war in Afghanistan — on Oct. 7, the Lepanto feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — even L’Osservatore Romano seemed to cheer Bush on. The Register did, too, with a Father Richard John Neuhaus-penned editorial “Just War Returns.”
Meanwhile, we urged Americans to take advantage of the moment to encourage another New Awakening. In editorials like “Don’t Be at a Loss for Words,” “Love America” and “How America Can Be Great,” the Register’s advice was to double-down on “God Bless America” and the spirit of helping others and accomplish plank one of Bush’s pro-life plan.
It didn’t turn out that way.
In the months and years to come, we found ourselves vociferously insisting on John Paul II’s argument that invading Iraq was not a just cause of war — but we also found ourselves arguing with the anti-Iraq war company we were in.
Michael Moore epitomized a growing anti-Bush hysteria by claiming that the war was about Dick Cheney’s personal profit, or that the Bush family had dark ties to the Middle East, or that Bush was obviously a ridiculous figure because he was reading a story about goats to elementary school children on the morning of 9/11.
That was all nonsense. Bush’s mistakes grew out of his fear for Americans’ safety, not his grasping for money. The best critique of Bush’s first term is Bush’s own Second Inaugural Address. It shows what he learned and what he would change going forward.
But pro-family forces were disappointed in Bush. Bush promoted traditional marriage in his first term, when he needed pro-family people’s support. In the second term, when we needed his support, he did a lot less.
But perhaps Catholics’ disappointment in Bush is tied to their unrealistically high hopes in Bush. Consider his:
- He put Chief Justice John Roberts* and Justice Samuel Alito on the bench of the Supreme Court, arguably putting the nation one vote away from overturning Roe v. Wade (*After last July’s Obamacare decision, pro-life articles have to put an asterisk by Roberts’ name).
- He took the GOP’s Contract With America per-child tax credit and raised it significantly. His opponents still haven’t been able to take that away, and we heads of large families rely on it to make ends meet.
- He gave us the 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act (as contrasted with Obama, who tried to stop “born alive” protection three times).
- In addition to the Mexico City Policy, Bush cut off funding for the UNFPA, a U.N. agency friendly to China’s one-child policy. His administration was cited by Austin Ruse for bravery at the United Nations.
- He said he would sign a ban on human cloning, but Congress never sent him one.
- His administration attempted to keep federally-controlled drugs from being used in assisted suicides in Oregon, but judicial sins of commission and congressional sins of omission prevented that from happening.
- And one that was close to Catholics’ heart: He signed into law a measure designed to save Terri Schiavo when her former husband got permission to starve her to death. Saving Terri was John Paul II’s last request to the United States before his death; the Eucharist was Terri’s last meal (Obama said his greatest mistake in the Senate was allowing Bush to try to save Terri).
Yes, Bush made his share of mistakes. But he also withstood the withering hatred of the abortion industry’s supporters in the media and politics and defended innocent life. For that we owe him thanks.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.