What if a president, on his own initiative, under no demands from staff or from supporters or opponents, set out to spend an unprecedented amount of money on AIDS in Africa, literally billions of dollars, at a time when the nation could not afford it, citing his faith as a primary motivation and, ultimately, saved more than a million lives?
Wouldn’t the story be front-page news, especially in top, liberal newspapers? Wouldn’t it lead on CNN, MSNBC and the “CBS Evening News”? Might statues be erected to the man in the nation’s more “progressive” cities?
What if the president was George W. Bush?
I pose these uncomfortable questions for two reasons: 1) President Bush did precisely that regarding the African AIDS tragedy; and 2) a study claims that Bush’s remarkable action has indeed saved many precious lives.
And as someone who has closely followed Bush’s humanitarian gesture from the outset, I’m not surprised that the former president continues to not receive the accolades he deserves — including even from conservative supporters — for this generous act.
Bush himself realizes the lack of gratitude and media attention. I personally witnessed it very recently, on June 17, when I was in attendance for one of Bush’s first postpresidential speeches, in Erie, Pa. There, too, he mentioned the AIDS initiative — even adding that one of his daughters is in Africa today, working on the epidemic — and, there again, it received no press coverage whatsoever.
It all began in January 2003, during the State of the Union. In a completely unexpected announcement, Bush asked Congress for $15 billion for AIDS in Africa — drugs, treatment and prevention.
America soon learned this was not the typical State of the Union throwaway line: To show his seriousness, Bush followed on April 29 with a press conference in the East Room, where he exhorted Congress to “act quickly” on his “emergency plan.”
Accompanied by the secretary of state, he prodded America’s wealthy allies to join this “urgent work,” this “great effort.” He explained that AIDS was a “dignity of life” issue and “tragedy” that was the “responsibility of every nation.” This was a “moral imperative,” with time “not on our side.”
Bush then shocked the press by pointing to an unusual personal motivation, citing the parable of the Good Samaritan: “[T]his cause is rooted in the simplest of moral duties,” he told journalists. “When we see this kind of preventable suffering … we must act. When we see the wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not, America will not, pass to the other side of the road.”
With amazing quickness, just four weeks later, Bush inked a $15-billion plan and challenged Europe to match the U.S. commitment without delay.
How did the plan work? In April, a major study was released by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. According to the study, the first to evaluate the outcomes of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Bush initiative has cut the death toll from HIV/AIDS by more than 10% in targeted African countries from 2003 to 2007.
“It has averted deaths — a lot of deaths,” said Dr. Eran Bendavid, one of the researchers. “It is working. It’s reducing the death toll from HIV. People who are not dying may be able to work and support their families and their local economy.” Co-researcher, Dr. Peter Piot, says PEPFAR “is changing the course of the AIDS epidemic.”
The study — still having received virtually no press attention several months after its release — estimates that the Bush relief plan has saved more than 1 million African lives.
Those are the facts. What about opinion, particularly public opinion?
That brings me back to my initial point. If a Democratic Party president had done this, he would be feted as both a national hero and international hero on his way to a ceremony with the Nobel Committee. George W. Bush, however, is getting very little credit — or, at least, no fanfare.
Again, I’m not surprised. I first wrote about the Bush AIDS initiative in a 2004 book, followed by several articles, including an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, plus many discussions on radio and TV talk shows.
I was struck by two reactions, from the left and the right:
From the left, I got incensed e-mails from Bush-hating elements refusing to concede that Bush did what he did. They said the craziest things, insisting not a dime had been spent and that the program effectively did not even exist. They could not find it within their power to grant that Bush could do something so kind, which they should naturally embrace. I’ve been most disappointed by my fellow Christians in the “social justice” wing — Catholics and Protestants alike — who have been deafeningly silent on a campaign that ought to serve as a poster child for precisely what they advocate.
To be fair, some have stepped up to thank Bush, including no less than Bill Clinton, as well as musician-activist Bob Geldof. But they are the exception. (In a piece for Time, Geldof wrote about the moment he personally asked Bush about the lack of awareness of the AIDS initiative: “Why doesn’t America know about this?” Bush answered: “I tried to tell them. But the press weren’t much interested.”)
From the right, I still get angry e-mails explaining that what Bush did for Africans is not a “core function” of government, certainly not enumerated anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. Fiscal conservatives asserted that America could not afford this huge expenditure at a time of post-9/11 recession, burgeoning budget deficits, on the heels of a massive operation in Afghanistan, and as military spending was about to go through the roof as U.S. troops headed for Baghdad.
Technically, or perhaps fiscally, much of this is true.
Yet, to be sure, George W. Bush understood the financial cost — and said so explicitly. Nonetheless, he judged that only America could carry out this “act of compassion” at that critical juncture. He also judged, apparently, that only he, as a Western leader, had the will to do this.
So, he did it. He absorbed the cost to try to save lives.
Well, we now know that the policy has worked — just as, yes, we know it contributed to a record deficit. Still, it is rare when history can so directly, indisputably credit a president for a specific, undeniable policy achievement — a genuinely generous one that clearly emerged from his personal doing, from his heart. Millions of lives have been spared or bettered due to President Bush’s intervention.
But while the policy helped, it never did anything to help George W. Bush’s terrible disapproval rating — and still will not, given its lack of attention.
Well, George W. Bush, the much-ridiculed man of faith — ridiculed often because of his faith — always said he never expected rewards in this lifetime. Here’s one that apparently will need to wait.
Paul Kengor is author of God and George W. Bush (HarperCollins, 2004)
and professor of political science and director of the Center for Vision & Values
at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.