The Heart and Soul of George W. Bush
Even before entering the White House, George W. Bush used "heart and soul" as his measure of the man. In 1999, then-candidate Bush famously proclaimed Christ to be his favorite philosopher, "because he changed my heart." Last week, Bush tried to bookend his disastrous presidency by declaring, "I didn't compromise my soul." But as repeatedly revealed by his ringing endorsements of criminals and con men, tyrants and thugs, the unethical and the incompetent, Bush's ability to know hearts and sense souls failed him as a test character.
That became immediately clear with Bush's glowing 2001 assessment of Russian President and budding autocrat, Vladimir Putin. At a joint press conference following their first meeting on June 16, 2001, Bush praised the former KGB chieftain as a man he could trust:
"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul."
Five months later at his Crawford, Texas ranch, President Bush again testified to the character of the Russian leader standing next to him:
"The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul, and the more I know we can work together in a positive way."
(For his part, Bush's would-have-been successor John McCain repeatedly claimed that when he looked into Vladimir Putin's, "I saw three things - a K and a G and a B." Of course, that didn't stop McCain from giving President Bush an "A" for his June 2001 soul-sensing meeting with Putin. Regardless, just months before the Russia-Georgia conflict this summer, Bush insisted, "Do I trust him? Yes, I trust him.")
George W. Bush used the "heart and soul" standard for domestic as well as foreign policy. Rolling out his faith-based initiative on January 30, 2001, the new President announced, "Real change happens street by street, heart by heart, one soul, one conscience at a time." At his "Compassion in Action" conference in December 2002, Bush told the audience, "We want you to follow your heart" in order to "change America one heart, one conscience, one soul at a time."
And as Americans learned three years later, President Bush's exemplar of a good heart was his White House counsel and aborted choice for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers. Facing a firestorm of opposition from conservatives in his own party worried about Miers' possible lack of support for draconian abortion restrictions, Bush predictably defended her character if not her qualifications:
"I know her character; she's a woman of principle and deep conviction...And I know her, I know her heart."
As it turned out, Harriet Miers never made to the Supreme Court. Far more important to the cause of American justice, she also never appeared before Congressional committees investigating her role in the White House purge of federal prosecutors. (Miers' refusal to honor a subpoena didn't prevent President Bush from declaring two weeks ago that she "absolutely" would have been an excellent Supreme Court justice, adding, "this really, really good person got chucked out there and, man, the lions tore her up."
Through his real-time analyses of the human heart and the human soul, President Bush has claimed to know a "good man" when he sees one. (A Google search of the White House web site for "good man" produces 349 results.) And among the ranks of George W. Bush's good men was the now-indicted former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.
But before revelations regarding his eight year "extensive crime spree" became public, Kerik was Bush's man to train police in Iraq and later, to head up the Department of Homeland Security. Bush famously concluded an October 3, 2003 press conference with Kerik by proclaiming, "Bernie, you're a good man." And announcing Kerik's ill-fated nomination as DHS Secretary, the President uttered these now comically ironic words:
"He has demonstrated a deep commitment to justice, a heart for the innocent, and a record of great success."
The list of George Bush's "good men" goes on and on. In December 2003, the President replaced his "good man" Mel Martinez at HUD with Alphonso Jackson. Jackson, whose bald head the President was so fond of rubbing, later resigned after revelations of political favoritism in government housing contracts. In March 2005, Bush stated "I have confidence" in the soon-to-be indicted former House Majority Leader, Tom Delay. And when Rafael Palmeiro, a friend and baseball player from Bush's days running Texas Rangers, lied to Congress about his use of steroids, the President announced:
"Rafael Palmeiro is a friend. He testified in public and I believe him. He's the kind of person that's going to stand up in front of the klieg lights and say he didn't use steroids, and I believe him. Still do."
Then there's Karl Rove. In June 2001, Bush defended the ethics of the future Plamegate and U.S. attorneys villain, "He adheres to the ethical rules of our government and he's done a great job on behalf of the American people." As the investigation into the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame heated up in the summer of 2005, the President said of Rove, "Karl's got my complete confidence," adding, "He's a valuable member of my team."
And so it goes. During an interview with his sister Dora on NPR last month, the soon-to-be former President Bush assessed his legacy. If nothing else, Bush argued, he was a President who knew his own soul and those of the people around him:
"I would like to be a person remembered as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process. I came to Washington with a set of values, and I'm leaving with the same set of values. And I darn sure wasn't going to sacrifice those values; that I was a President that had to make tough choices and was willing to make them. I surrounded myself with good people."
Among his dismal legacies, needless to say, was George W. Bush's inability to judge character, to read "hearts and souls."
Starting, of course, with his own.