The Bush I Know

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(By Noam Neusner, who was a speechwriter and Jewish liaison for President Bush from 2002-2005.)

President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush will watch Monday night as the grandsons of Harry Truman and David Ben-Gurion light a menorah on the State Floor of the White House.

It will be the eighth year the president has devoted an evening to celebrate Chanukah, and more than 600 Jewish friends and guests will celebrate with him. The White House will serve kosher food and the Marine Band will play Chanukah favorites.

Cynics will say it’s easy for presidents to do these kinds of events — that’s what all presidents do, after all. They hold nice parties and make people feel good and important.

But with this president, the Jews are different — they really do matter to him. I know because I saw it firsthand on his staff and as his liaison to the Jewish community. I saw his eyes well up while watching the Holocaust-themed movie “Paper Clips” in the family theater. I know how moved he was by meeting with Soviet Jewish refuseniks, Holocaust survivors and the parents of slain journalist Daniel Pearl.

There was one meeting in particular — with Jews from around the world, Jews who had made their home in America after years of suffering at the hands of tyrants in Cuba, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Iran and some of the other recent or current bastions of anti-Semitism. One by one they recalled their struggles to simply live and pray as Jews, and how America alone gave them that right. The president walked out of the meeting shaking his head, appalled by the special hatred tyrants have reserved for the Jews. Always the Jews.

At one meeting, before the president could open his mouth, an elderly rabbi, the head of a major yeshiva, spoke up.

“Mr. President,” he said, in a high and raspy voice. “I believe that had history placed you in your special position during World War II, there would not have been a Holocaust.”

The president was clearly moved. Presidents may grow accustomed to praise, but this was more than even he had heard.

Yet Bush tried his best to be equal to it. The president famously hated hypothetical questions, but there was one he would entertain: If he had been president, would he have stopped Auschwitz?

Some will say the question is historically unserious. Perhaps the Allies had the capability to drop bombs on the death camps or the rails, but the Nazis surely would have found other ways to kill the Jews.

Yet he did not view the issue that way — certainly President Roosevelt could have slowed the Nazi death machinery. Bush pressed the question to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when he visited Yad Vashem. References to Auschwitz, which he also visited, routinely dropped into his conversations with Jewish friends.

“Now I understand,” he would say. “Auschwitz changed everything.”

His critics said he was morally absolute — “you’re either with us or against us” was not one of their favorite phrases. But that moral clarity could be an incredibly powerful force, and Jews above all should have known it.

I recall sitting in a meeting where a high-level aide was trying to excuse the antics of Yasser Arafat. The president cut him off, saying clearly, “The guy’s a bust.” End of discussion.

Here was a president who would buttonhole leaders of other nations over anti-Semitism in their own countries. In one incident, the president complained to the leader of Estonia about a statue erected to a nationalist guilty of Holocaust war crimes.

“Get rid of it,” Bush said.

Imagine, amid the happy and polite talk of diplomatic meetings, a leader actually confronting another over some meaningless Jew haters.

Israel has fought two wars during Bush’s eight years as president — an interior war against terror and a war against Hezbollah — and both times the Jewish state came under intense pressure to hold back. But Israel had no friend as loyal and certain as the United States. Bush capped his friendship with Israel in May at the Knesset, delivering one of the most pro-Zionist speeches ever.

“Israel’s population may be just over 7 million,” he said, “but when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong because the United States of America stands with you.”

Of course, the president didn’t eradicate anti-Semitism or the threats faced by Israel. Far from it; moderate and conservative critics say he didn’t do enough to confront Iran, while liberals say he was overly bellicose. Many argue that his push for Palestinian elections empowered Hamas.

Fair enough. But those criticisms do not explain the president’s unpopularity among American Jews. He captured less than a quarter of the Jewish vote in 2004, and his approval ratings among Jews now is minuscule.

I will grant his critics their right to dislike him. After all, he isn’t with them on federal support for embryonic stem cell research, the Iraq war, environmental regulations, abortion rights, gay marriage and civil liberties for terror suspects, to name a few.

But most of all, he was a Southern evangelical Republican. Given that, I suspect there was nothing he could have done to win over the Jews.

To his critics, his leadership on Israel and anti-Semitism was quaint and one-dimensional. They took it for granted. But they should not be so casual with a friend. President Bush was more Zionist than many Israelis, more mindful of Jewish history than many Jews. He was not wrong to think that way, and we American Jews can be thankful at least for that.

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30 Responses

  1. dovid says:

    To “One Christian’s perspective”

    I share your respect for President GW Bush’s sense of decency and integrity. He said in a recent interview something to the effect that he wants to be remembered as a person “who didn’t sell his soul for politics. Had to make tough decisions and did so in principled way.” This definitely describes GW Bush. This also has defined John McCain’s military and political career, something that I cannot say about his opponent.

  2. One Christian's perspective says:

    Let’s just put a rest to the notion that Bush was highly unpopular at home all the way through his Presidency. He thoroughly earned his disapproval ratings.

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1063/bush-and-public-opinion

    Comment by Reb Yid

    What President Bush did not earn was the disrespect for the Office of President and the personal treatment he received at the hands of a liberal press, media, blogs that never posted anything positive and spun everything else into a story of their own making according to their emotional needs. I believe President Bush said it best when he said “history will objectively judge him in the distance of time”.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    To Michoel and others:

    The following link gives an excellent view of public opinion during Bush’s presidency. Note that close to 2 years after 9/11, Bush’s approval ratings were at 75%.

    Let’s just put a rest to the notion that Bush was highly unpopular at home all the way through his Presidency. He thoroughly earned his disapproval ratings.

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1063/bush-and-public-opinion

  4. David N. Friedman says:

    It is surprising how off-based people can be regarding an accusation such as “incompetent.” If parts of the world dislike Pres. Bush–it is for specific reasons and almost never over an accusation of competence.

    By contrast, when Bill Clinton took office, one scandal followed another, one blunder after another to the point where he wondered out loud if he was “relevant.” Congress flipped in the off year election in an unprecedented way and this was followed by his second term which was mired in impeachment hearings surrounding financial misconduct of Whitewater and sexual misconduct and perjury concerning the Paula Jones lawsuit and his reckless behavior with an infamous office intern. Truly, there was never a dull time during the Clinton years–he allowed his wife to attempt to take over 20% of the economy with a horrible health care initiative that blew up in her face and most significantly he took moment after moment of terror attacks, including an attempt to take down the twin towers with barely a comment. Bill Clinton’s first term as governor was hardly distinguished and it took Dick Morris’ plan at triangulation to get him re-elected so he could then run for US President on the strength of his slick words and NOT at all on any accomplishment.

    And yet, no one wanted to call Clinton “incompetent.” Why? Then, the accusation burst forth in a misplaced way when poor Pres. Bush did not speak fast enough or more sympathetically enough regarding a weather event–a hurricane. The trouble here is that Presidents of the US are charged with protecting the nation from terror attacks and not from weather events! So Bush is incompetent because of his personal response to Katrina and Clinton is not held as incompetent despite the blast in the twin towers–what a story. This proves there is no objective standard for competence and people say what they want to say without regard to evidence.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    YM, I’m working on another essay and came across a statement flatly contradicting yours claiming that Carter got 74% of the Jewish vote in 1980. Anne Kornblut says it was 45%, writing in Slate.

    Of course this was in 1980, after four years of a presidency that made Bush look like Reagan by comparison. And Carter still won the Jewish vote, 45-39. So if anything, the 45% figure still backs Dovid’s contention that “Jews don’t vote for competence.”

  6. YM says:

    Concerning Truman, lets not forget that he got the US into the Korean War. The US still has something like 30,000 troops in Korea today, some 56 years after the Korean war ‘ended’. North Korea now claims to have nuclear weapons, claims which are taken seriously by the international community. Perhaps Truman should have followed MacArthur’s advice…Also, his recognition of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948 is seen as a historical blunder by some, although not by me or most of the readers of this blog. Needless to say, it is possible that the historian’s view of Truman may change again in the coming years.

  7. YM says:

    Reb Yid, Carter, even in 1980, got 74% of the Jewish vote. I am sure in 1976 it was 80%. Check your numbers.

  8. Michoel says:

    Reb Yid,
    The survey, as Michael is trying to point out, does not refute anything. It shows the country briefly gathered around the president after 9/11. It does not show that he was generally popular independent of that period. And therefore, his later lack of popularity cannot be brought as evidence that people generally CAME to view him as incompetent.

    I like Bush very much. And I think Clinton’s lewd behavior did much more long-term damage to the country.

  9. Reb Yid says:

    To Michael:

    I was responding directly to a comment which claimed, quite erroneously, that at the beginning of his term Bush was already widely unpopular with just about everyone in the world, with the exception of US conservatives.

    The poll I cited refutes that contention, plain and simple.

    The Congress issue is a sidebar, not directly germane to the question…people got furious with the Bush Administration, time after time, then started getting more and more furious with Congress for letting the Administration pull the wool over its eyes….it was (and still is) primarily about accountability.

    Look, Bush may be a “nice guy” but his tunnel-vision presidency did a grave disservice to our country.

  10. Michael says:

    Reb Yid, did you actually read that poll, or are you just scrounging around for something bad to say? That poll was taken an entire 2 months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The poll also says that Congress had a nearly 70% approval rating — in the entire history of that poll, there was only one other time Congress managed to scrape past 50%. Care to explain how low Congress’ approval rating has truly descended?

    It’s no different than the “post-Convention bounce”… nice while it lasts, but bound not to last too long.

  11. One Christian's perspective says:

    In my lifetime, I do not know one President who has faced what President Bush has faced with the grace, integrity, resolve, honesty, love for G-d, the nation and its people. I see a divide that goes beyond Jew and Gentile. In my mind, the divide goes right down the plumb line of those who believe in G-d and put their trust in Him and those who do not. We’re called to pray for the leaders whom G-d raises up and to trust in His wisdom to guide them. To second guess everything our President says and does is to invite fear, anger, doubt and chaos into our lives and to allow the media to fan the flames.

  12. Reb Yid says:

    To Michoel:

    How quickly we forget…Bush had a tremendous headwind at his back, ranging from a record surplus inherited from the previous Administration, to widespread world support after 9/11.

    Here’s a sense of US public opinion of him in late 2001, reminding of how low he has truly descended:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/timespoll/la-111501poll-463pa1an,0,1888047.story

  13. dovid says:

    “his policies are complete and utter failures”

    Were his policies complete and utter failures? How about protecting the US with its long borders from terrorists for the past 7 yrs.? With the Al-mighty’s help, America was not hit despite its being in the crosshair of the terrorists. Is that small potatoes?

  14. dovid says:

    LOberstein, Did anyone call you a traitor for not subscribing to “the right wing of the right wing in Israel”? Really? Did it happen on this blog? Can you name that person? I trust you will forgive my making this request, but you have a history of making allegations which you didn’t or couldn’t support with evidence when challenged.

  15. Michoel says:

    Reb Yid,
    Few people, Jewish or otherwise, “came” to anything. He initially won with less than %50 percent of the popular vote. At that time he was already widely unpopular with the world, Jewish and otherwise. He was well liked by US conservatives. The second time, he won with slightly more then %50 percent against someone that had serious issues of his own. During his second term, the popularity of congress descended together with the President’s, which could be more indicative of a national mood than of a serious analysis of his competence.

  16. Reb Yid says:

    Most Jews, most Americans and most people around the world have come to the identical conclusion about Bush: incompetent.

    And even if you were in the minority of those who agreed with his policies, there were too many screw ups and mistakes in the execution. And unfortunately too often there was zero accountability for his Administration’s sins of omission or commision…loyalty and blind faith led Bush to be stubborn far too often in the face of hard facts.

    Contrast this with Truman, who–incredibly–Bush seems to think he emulates. Here’s a guy who had on his desk the motto, “The Buck Stops Here”. And he backed that up with action after action. Check out what he did as Senator, when he chaired the so-called Truman Committee to discover incredible wastes in war expenditures….he drove around the country himself, unannounced…saved the country hundreds of millions of dollars.

    I shudder to think of the amount of money this Administration has cost all of us in the domestic and foreign arenas. Whether Enron or Iraq or Wall Street, he has been “hands off”….if he really had personal integrity, he would have cared to get to the bottom of this stuff to help the common folk rather than the fat cats.

    Harry Truman would have despised this Administration.

    And as to the Jimmy Carter/Obama comparison…well, there really is none. Carter only got 45% of the Jewish vote….

  17. David N. Friedman says:

    Defining competence downwards is a trademark of our times. From the outset, Mr. Bush was described as “not Presidential” by the left. What did they mean? They could not have meant that a twice elected governor of a huge state who defeated a Dem. sitting governor and went on to become one of the top two or three governors in America. They could not have meant someone who served honorably in the National Guard, who was the son of a President, who attended both Harvard and Yale, who had substantial business ventures–each with some success. They could not have meant that he earned the respect of his Democratic opposition in a hotly contested state and was called by his own adversary “a uniter and not a divider.”

    After Obama, we now know exactly how competence is defined by the left. It is merely and exclusively the ability to speak with a specific kind of cadence, an attractive tilt to the chin and a kind of superficial attractiveness and charisma that seems pleasurable. THAT is leadership–that is what passes for “competence.”

    It might be true that political trends swap around easily, the slick Clinton is followed by the plain-speaking Bush and now the plain-speaking Bush is followed by the slick-speaking Obama. Yet, the Jewish majority is always for the slick-speaker and this is a sure contradiction of the Jewish tradition. Moshe Rabbeinu had a “thick tongue” and lacking the ‘gift of gab’ was no net negative. To the contrary, our tradition points to others with charisma who are plainly bad people. The link between the man with charisma and the con man is right there before our eyes.

    Therefore, when the left speaks of the “competent” they mean the man who can talk the talk and it is painfully obvious that Bush is a very poor speaker. It is a tribute to the American people to accept a man who speaks so poorly and comes off as very stiff, ill-prepared and not practiced. A leader must be accomplished and successful and Bush fills the bill– while Obama and Bill Clinton, before their election as US Pres–do not.

    And yet the left is so damn sure Bush is not competent (his last six months were horrible to be sure and that is not the issue)while Obama is to be placed right there on Mt. Rushmore before he has even had a chance to do anything. The hysteria and enthusiasm for this man with no past is beyond astonishing and I cannot say that it is within the realm of sanity.

  18. YM says:

    I echo what Toby Katz wrote above. During Bush’s first term, he was able to pass tax cuts and a Medicare prescription drug benefit, during his second term he tried passing Social Security reform and had no support. This is at least as good as Bill Clinton, who passed Welfare reform and failed to pass Healthcare reform. The one thing I would critisize President Bush for is not making more of a public relations offensive to get people to support the Iraq War.

    For context, consider World War II. A few years ago, around this time of year, I heard a recording of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chat’ from December 1943. In it, he makes passing reference to Republicans who wanted to sue for peace with Germany. In December 1943, it was clear that Germany was going to lose, and the thinking was, why take all the casualties that we ended up taking from D-Day until VE day? So what if the Nazi’s would have remained in power? Thank G-d that FDR wasn’t forced to do this and that the US was willing to see the War to its conclusion. Note that the US goverment commissioned many ‘propaganda’ films during the War years in order to explain the war to the American people and maintain popular support for the war. Bush should have learned from history and figured out a way to propogandize for the Iraq War and the War on Terror.

    I also predict that Bush’s reputation will be greatly improved 15-30 years down the line.

  19. LOberstein says:

    Once again the comments posted so far show a wide gulf between those who can go on with life and those who just can’t abide an Obama Administration. i don’t see how anyone can watch Obama describe his goals and Bush try to do the same and not see that in Obama, we have a man of intelligence and vision. I grant that some of you don’t like his vision or you are so blinded by your animus towards him that you can’t see his vision. This posting is about George W. Bush, who is a good person, a recovering alcoholic who found his saviour and has a good wife. He was chosen as the front man for an administration run by Cheney and he honestly believed the neo-cons. His intentions were good. He just wasn’t complex enough to discern what would happen if the US ignored its allies and unilaterally started up with a Sunni regime and freed the enslaved Shiites of Iraq. Now, which of these groups likes us?
    I wish him a nice retirement and a successful life on the speaking circuit. He is a well meaning but incompetent President who does like Israel. One final point. I find it very difficult to accept that if one doesn’t subscribe to the right wing of the right wing in Israel, one is a traitor. How do you know? Do you really know the consequences of inaction.Only time will tell.

  20. Brandon says:

    There may have been a “lack of evidence” of whether or not B. Obama is competent (even though what he has done– from being the head of the Harvard Law Review to an effective State Senator to running arguably the best political campaign in American History– shows competence) —- but there is a ton of evidence that George W. Bush, and the Republican Party (John Mccain’s party) is EXTREMELY incompetent. I’d pick an unknown over a proven failure.

  21. Michoel says:

    Chaim Fisher said:
    “the reason his support rating among Jews is now “miniscule” is simple:”

    The reason for the President’s lack of popularity is the same as the reason for Torah observance’s lack of popularity. Most Jews, unfortunately, are just clueless. I would not be surprised if Arafat received an approval rating amongst Jews as high as President Bush.

  22. dovid says:

    Chaim Fisher: “most Jews believe the man is simply not competent for the job.”

    That’s patently not so. Jews don’t vote for competence. Jews voted for B Obama, DESPITE GLARING LACK OF EVIDENCE of his competence in any areas required for a president to be competent. So they did, when Jimmy Carter was elected.

  23. Toby Katz says:

    It’s true, Bush has said a lot of pro-Israel things. He’s also done a raft of anti-Israel things that have conveniently been forgotten by all these Cross Currents pieces, like calling for the division of Jerusalem and the establishment a Palestinian state, and so on.

    But the reason his support rating among Jews is now “miniscule” is simple: most Jews believe the man is simply not competent for the job.

    Comment by Chaim Fisher — December 16, 2008 @ 3:45 am

    —–
    Bush believes in democracy and he believes (sadly) that if somebody is the Prime Minister of Israel, it must be because he was democratically chosen by the people of Israel. He goes along with the leadership of Israel, in the quaint belief that that leadership actually reflects the desires and wishes of the Israeli people. If the PM of Israel is a traitor to his own country, wants to give away half of Jerusalem and half of what remains of the rump state of Israel in order to buy a few years of pathetic “peace” and turns his own police and soldiers against his own citizens — what do you want from Bush? He can’t be more Catholic than the Pope.

    As far as his presidency, about 60% of respondents in a radio poll I heard today give him a B, and that’s about what I give him too.

    Saddam Hussein was the most dangerous tyrant in the world when he was in power and Iraq was the most dangerous enemy that Israel faced. The world owes President Bush a huge debt of gratitude for getting rid of Hussein. Bush has courage and integrity. He made a lot of mistakes but that was his greatest accomplishment. One sign of his incredible decency is the way he has held firm to his pro-Israel stance and firmly against anti-Semitism, despite the piles of manure thrown at his head every single day by 78% of the Jews in this country. He leaves the White House now for a retirement of ignominy, hated by all the worst people in America and the world, but his stock will gradually rise with the passage of time. The historians will rate him much higher than the liberal hive rates him today. May G-d bless him and the country he loves.

  24. Brandon says:

    Dovid— that attack is unwarranted. I search my mind and can hardly think of ANYTHING I would ever be nostalgic about regarding this administration. Perhaps he is a mensch and man of integrity, but that does not make my life or the lives of people in this country and around the world any better, as his policies are complete and utter failures. Perhaps he is a friend of Israel, but his policies have hurt Israel greatly– Al Qeida is now in Iraq, and Iran is much, much stronger, as it is now the sole dominant power in the Middle East. Additionally, the world now has feelings against America that are much more negative, and as America is Israel’s best friend, this does not help Israel’s standing in the world.

    Mensch or no, I cannot wait for this administration to be over.

  25. dovid says:

    President Bush stands most to win from the election of B Obama. Give Obama one or two yrs. and people will reminisce with nostalgia about GWBush. It’s likely that Liberal Jews even in those circumstances, will not acknowledge that Bush is a mensch, a man of integrity, and a true friend of Israel, because such traits are not high on their agenda.

  26. Ori says:

    David N. Friedman: On the other hand, he is a man of sterling character and personal integrity and he has kept our nation safe and has done nothing to deserve the wrath of the Jewish community as Jews

    Ori: Whatever wrath he gets from liberal Jews comes from their being liberals, not their being Jews. American Heterodox Jews are culturally more American than Jewish.

  27. David N. Friedman says:

    Noam Neusner indirectly brings up a very touchy subject and that is the implicit amount of Bush hatred among the liberal wing of the Jewish community.

    By all accounts, Mr. Bush deserves far better respect among the American people and his general low approval ratings might be explainable but are not very rational.

    After 8 years, Pres. Bush has been revealed as a very poor leader and someone unable and unwilling to defend his own policies. On the other hand, he is a man of sterling character and personal integrity and he has kept our nation safe and has done nothing to deserve the wrath of the Jewish community as Jews. He has also been, to the dismay of political conservatives such as myself, a very moderate politician and this reflects his history, his stated philosophy and his electoral mandate.

    Therefore, governing as he was elected to govern, showing no cracks in his personal integrity, being very open and friendly to Israel and the Jewish people–the majority of the Jewish people have responded with screaming insults.

    Neusner’s perception that as a (evangelical)Christian–“there is nothing he could have done to win over the Jews” excuses a kind of bigotry that should have no quarter in our community. Our community just voted 78% for a man with close ties to the biggest Jew-haters in the land, including those who prefer the Arabs over the Israelis and take pot shots at Jews on a regular basis.

    Liberal Jewish animosity towards the Christian Jew-lovers is an entire fascinating topic of its own and requires more analysis.

  28. LOberstein says:

    I double checked with Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson who was at the event. The elderly rabbi was indeed Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger zatzal. however, the comment was actually made by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. Noam made an honest error. I do recall that Rabbi Neuberger was indeed very emotional after the meeting. He said that in no other country would the President open the White House in such a way to the Jewish community. It is a meeting that would have been unimaginable in the Europe he grew up in.
    President Bush most certainly was a friend of the Jewish People and I do recall that when he visited Yad Vashem, he remarked that had he been President, the US would have bombed the tracks to Aushwitz. Rabbi Neuberger was also part of the delegation of rabbis who tried to see Roosevelt and you know how that turned out.So, he saw the difference.

  29. Brandon says:

    I have to disagree with the conclusion based on the article.
    Yes, us American Jews disagree with President Bush on social issues. But I think the reason we do and did not support him is his ineffectiveness. Perhaps he wants the best for the Jews– but his policies–both at home and abroad– have been so ineffective that there is no way we could support him. We must ask ourselves— are we at home— and our friends in Israel abroad— better off now than we were eight years ago?
    To me, and I suspect to most American Jews, the answer is an obvious no.

  30. Chaim Fisher says:

    It’s true, Bush has said a lot of pro-Israel things. He’s also done a raft of anti-Israel things that have conveniently been forgotten by all these Cross Currents pieces, like calling for the division of Jerusalem and the establishment a Palestinian state, and so on.

    But the reason his support rating among Jews is now “miniscule” is simple: most Jews believe the man is simply not competent for the job. They believe he has made enormous errors of judgement and morality and management that are simply below the bar for presidential work. They believe he is a proven failure at his job. There is more to the presidential test than making glowingly pro-Israel speeches and buttonholing presidents of South American countries about their statues.