The Bush Who Got Away
By JACOB WEISBERG
AS George W. Bush prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address, it’s worth revisiting the first speech he gave to a joint session of Congress. His valedictory words tonight will provide an opportunity to reflect on the kind of president Mr. Bush was. The speech delivered seven years ago points to the very different sort of president he might have been.
Mr. Bush began his February 2001 address by hailing the new spirit of cooperation he hoped would characterize his relations with Congress. “Together we are changing the tone in the nation’s capital,” he declared. The new president’s top priority would be education. He intended to marry the liberal desire for more federal money to the conservative demand for higher standards.
The rest of the speech was similarly moderate in tone and substance. Mr. Bush planned to use part of the enormous fiscal surplus he inherited for a broad-based tax cut. But he also wanted to expand Medicare benefits, preserve Social Security, extend access to health care and protect the environment. He concluded with an exhortation to bipartisanship — in Spanish. “Juntos podemos,” he said. “Together we can.”
Mr. Bush seemed genuinely to want to be the kind of president indicated by that first address. He meant to build a broad coalition on the model of his governorship in Texas, where he worked closely with Democrats in the Legislature, made his chief cause correcting racial disparities in education, and was re-elected in 1998 by an almost 40 percentage point margin, including 27 percent of the black vote and at least a third of Latinos. I always sort of liked that George W. Bush. Whatever happened to him?
Mr. Bush never completely abandoned the compassionate conservatism we glimpsed that night seven years ago. His second speech to Congress, nine days after Sept. 11, 2001, reflected his instinctive response to the attacks, which was to appeal for national unity in a non-partisan manner. Mr. Bush’s third speech to Congress (his first formal State of the Union address, in 2002) is remembered for its reference to the “axis of evil.” But the president also boasted about his cooperation with such Democrats as George Miller and Ted Kennedy on education policy. His strongest emphasis was on public service. He proposed doubling the size of the Peace Corps and called on every American to commit at least 4,000 hours — two full working years — to community service.
The following year, in 2003, Mr. Bush pressed his case for invading Iraq and uttered the infamous 16 words (“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”). But alongside that disingenuous indictment, Mr. Bush presented Congress with a new raft of centrist-minded initiatives: $450 million to minister to the needs of children of prisoners, $600 million to treat drug addicts, $1.2 billion for hydrogen-powered cars, $10 billion in new money to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
And so on, in each subsequent speech. In 2004, Mr. Bush used weasel words to describe the missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He claimed to have disrupted “dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.” But when he turned to domestic matters, the president unveiled a new science and math program for low-income students and a program to help former prisoners re-enter society. He included an eloquent plea for the kind of immigration reform that would “reflect our values and benefit our economy.”
To this day, Mr. Bush’s compassionate conservatism has never vanished completely. Some of Mr. Bush’s signature programs, like his initiative to provide AIDS drugs to Africans, have had meaningful effects. But others haven’t lived up to their rhetorical promise. What about that special training for defense lawyers in capital cases (pledged in his 2005 State of the Union address)? The initiative to encourage mentoring for at-risk children (2006)? The grants to extend health insurance coverage (2007)? Such gestures tended to linger in the air only as long as it took Mr. Bush to make them.
So often with Mr. Bush, compassionate government began and ended with the heartfelt public avowal. He was too distracted by war and foreign policy, and too bored by the processes of government to know if the people working for him were following through on his proposals.
And of course, Mr. Bush’s left hand acted as if it didn’t know what his right hand was doing. After his first year in office, Democrats burned by his political strategy of polarization were disinclined to work with him on shared goals.
The Compassionate Conservative will surely pay us a final visit tonight. He remains an appealing character, but a largely fictional one. I wonder how the last seven years might have turned out if he had actually existed. In the final year of a failed presidency, I bet Mr. Bush does too.
Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, is the author of “The Bush Tragedy.”