George W. Bush: 'God is Good – All the Time'
When George W. Bush moved from the White House to Crawford, Texas after eight years as the 43rd president of the United States, there was one particular moment that stood out in his transition from commander-in-chief to civilian life. “I looked in the mirror and the only thing I cared about was that I see a guy who refused to compromise his soul in the face of political pressure,” Bush said, to the applause of more than 1,000 people at the 6th annual University of Mobile Leadership Banquet.
That resolve – the determination to do what is right, what is moral and ethical, what is godly – is a cornerstone of the University of Mobile spirit which was celebrated Oct. 7 at the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center in downtown Mobile, Ala. In one of his first speeches since leaving office, the former president delivered a 51-minute keynote address that one local political editor called “loose, energized, insightful and very, very funny.”
It was a gala evening for the record crowd that gathered to hear President Bush and raise money for the university’s annual scholarship fund. UMobile President Dr. Mark Foley announced that the event raised nearly $400,000, all of which will be used to provide scholarships to University of Mobile students.
Many current scholarship recipients took part in the banquet, from entertaining the audience to greeting guests and helping with the many behind-the-scenes details that make the banquet such a success each year. Center for Performing Arts vocal ensembles Voices of Mobile and Shofar sang inspirational and patriotic songs on stage, while an alumni jazz band provided dinner music. The new wind ensemble Crosswinds entertained guests arriving at the banquet, and Vintage strings ensemble played during a private reception with the former president and major donors.
A video outlining the Twelve23 Movement, a project of the university’s new Center for Leadership aimed at transforming the nation, opened the evening. The patriotic theme continued as Foley introduced World War II veterans in attendance, local men and women who had recently participated in an Honor Flight trip to see the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. In a night punctuated with applause, the audience expressed appreciation for those individuals, as well as the service of other veterans in attendance.
Among the many dignitaries present were U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and his wife, Mary. As he took the stage, Bush set a light-hearted tone for the evening by paying tribute to Sessions, calling the senator “a good dude” who “married extremely well.” Also in attendance were former U.S. Congressman Sonny Callahan, Alabama Baptist State Convention President Jimmy Jackson and his wife, Bobbi, and various other state and local politicians.
Making the Decisions
He related his response when long-time friends asked him what it was like to be president of the United States. In simple terms, he said, “This job requires a lot of decision making. You get a lot of decisions to come your way, some of which you anticipate; a lot of them you don’t. And you don’t have any choice. You get to decide.”
One of the first decisions he had to make as president was the color and design of the rug in the Oval Office. “The interesting thing about being a leader, the first lesson, is if you don’t know something, find somebody who does,” he said. “You have got to surround yourself with capable, competent people and create an environment in which they walk into the Oval Office and say, ‘Hey buddy, here’s what I think.’ You’ve got to have a team of people that are capable of understanding the issues and capable of making recommendations. When you make up your mind, it’s ‘Yes sir, Mr. President.’ Or they get to go find work elsewhere.”
In the case of the rug, he called on Laura to handle the design. But he had one requirement. “I want the rug to scream, ‘Optimistic guy comes to work here every day.’” The resulting design resembled the sun, a magnificent centerpiece for the Oval Office.
One day, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, came to see Bush. “The sun, the actual sun, was shining through the big south windows of the Oval Office. And that rug was just sparkling. It just lit up the place. Putin walks in, and his first words were, ‘My God! This is beautiful!’ “Before he got to ‘this is beautiful,’ I’m saying to myself, ‘We have a conversion on the spot!’ You talk about a powerful rug! But it did set the tone,” Bush recalled.
“I will tell you, there are some great moments being president, some tough moments being president, but every moment I was optimistic that this great nation can achieve anything it sets its mind to.”
Transformative Power of Freedom
Bush said he came to the presidency with a set of values that became the cornerstone of his decision-making. “I believe I learned the values through my faith, my family and where I was raised,” he said. “You cannot lead a complex organization unless you have a set of principles that are inviolate.”
The principles, he said, begin with one belief. “I believe in an Almighty. And I believe the gift of that Almighty to every man, woman and child on the face of the earth is freedom. Deep in everybody’s soul is the desire to be free, and that principle was the cornerstone of my foreign policy,” he said. “See, I believe freedom is available for everybody, black, white, brown, Muslim, Christian, who cares? It’s universal.”
He said our nation is in an ideological war against people who murder the innocent to achieve a political objective, a “bunch of thugs.” In the short run, the only way to protect a country is to find them and bring them to justice. “In the long run, (we must) defeat their ideology of hate with an ideology of hope, and that’s freedom. So therefore, the spread of freedom is the key to peace,” he said.
Bush said one of the great ironies of his presidency was his close relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, who called Bush on Sept. 12, the day after the 9/11 terrorist attack, and said “Japan stands squarely with the United States to enhance our mutual security and to spread freedom as the alternative to the haters and killers.”
The irony is that about 60 years before, the United States and Japan were at war, and 18-year-old high school graduate George H.W. Bush joined the U.S. Navy to fight the Japanese. The fathers were fighting; now the sons were working together to keep the peace.
“I can assure you that, in 1944 had somebody said, ‘Some day Japan and the United States will be working in concert to keep the peace,’ they would have said, ‘What a hopeless nut you are! How incredibly naïve can you be?’ But that person wouldn’t know
what I have learned: that freedom is transformative. That an enemy can become an ally. And if the United States does not lose its nerve and forget the principle of the universality of freedom, the same thing is going to happen in the Middle East. And someday, a generation of Americans are going to say, ‘Thank God this generation did not lose faith in the transformative power of freedom.’”
A Painful Decision
Bush said the cornerstone of his fiscal policy was “you can spend your money better than the government.”
“Probably the most painful decision I had to make was to use your money to give to Wall Street,” he said. Bush said he made the decision in the Roosevelt room, across the table from Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and Henry Paulson Jr., secretary of the U.S. Treasury. “And Bernanke says to me, ‘If you don’t do something, Mr. President, it’s likely you’ll be a president overseeing a depression greater than the Great Depression.’
“So you’ve surrounded yourself with people, you’ve created an environment in which they’re willing to give you their honest assessment, and then you have a choice as president: do you listen or not listen? Depression, or no depression. Frankly, it wasn’t that tough of a decision for me. What was painful, though, was not adhering to the market principle that said, ‘If you make a bad mistake in the business world, you’ll fail.’
“So I had one of those tough decisions I had to make as president. In that case, to use your money to prop up the banks that created the house of cards in the first place. I can’t prove to you that the decision I made prevented a depression. I can just tell you we didn’t have one,” he said.
Bush said a cornerstone of his embryonic stem cell policy is his belief that all life is precious. “I believe our nation is better when we honored life, in its later stages and in its earlier stages. That’s a principle from which I would not compromise,” he said.
God is Good, All the Time
He believes that to whom much is given, much is required. “I know that’s how many of you live your life individually, and for that, I applaud you. I also believed it was in the nation’s interest to act that way collectively,” he said. That principle influenced his decision to focus the nation’s efforts on combating the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. He said it was important both from a humanitarian perspective and for national security.
“You see, we face an enemy that can only recruit hopeless people. And there’s nothing more hopeless than to see your mom and dad die of AIDS and nobody do anything about it,” he said.
Bush welcomed faith-based groups to the program. Toward the end of his presidency, he and Laura were visiting one such abstinence-based program in Rwanda. About 50 teenagers were there, most of whom had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. “Something moved me – the Spirit moved me, let’s say that – and I walked by them and said, ‘God is good!’ And without hesitation, they said, ‘All the time.’ “It was a startling moment. So I tried it again, ‘God is good.’ ‘All the time.’
Back at the White House, he called in his senior staff and related the moment. “I see 50 kids, incredibly despondent,” he said. “You’d think if I said, ‘God is good,’ they’d say, ‘God doesn’t exist.’ But instead, they said, ‘All the time.’’ He told his senior staff, “Surely, those of us who live in the most blessed nation ever, when we hear, ‘God is good,’ we can say, ‘All the time.’”
Most Influential President
Bush said it may surprise some people to know that he is a big reader – he read at least 12 biographies of Abraham Lincoln during his presidency and rarely watched television. “I was in the Bible every morning my entire presidency, and I read in the evenings,” he said.
He admired Lincoln for making what Bush said was the greatest presidential decision, to keep the United States whole and that the peace with the South would be non-punitive so the country could eventually unite. Lincoln had a vision for the country, and he stood on the principle that all men are created equal under God. “He could have easily left that ‘under God’ part out, or he could have said, ‘maybe not all of us.’ But Lincoln said, ‘All men are created equal under God.’ I think that’s one of the great statements of principle ever in our nation’s history. “I learned from Lincoln that it doesn’t matter what they say about you; what matters is where do you stand,” Bush said.
Bush said he misses the experience of being commander-in-chief of the United States military. “It is an amazing experience to salute people who volunteer in the face of danger,” he said.
Meeting with families of the fallen was emotional for him as well as for the families, he said. Most of the families would tell him their loved one died doing what they wanted to do, to serve the county. And they would tell him not to make decisions about their loved ones based upon a Gallup poll.
The toughest decision as president “is to put somebody in harm’s way, because the consequences are forever for that family if the person loses their life,” he said. Authorizing the surge in Iraq, which deployed more than 20,000 soldiers in 2007, was a
“But you know what drove it for me? Putting 20,000 more troops in when everybody was saying, ‘get out’? One: I believed in the universality of freedom, and two: I remembered the voices of the mothers,” he said.
A Charge to Keep
One painting on the wall of the Oval Office is a Colorado scene titled “A Charge to Keep” by W.H.D. Koerner, a great western artist. It is based on the hymn by Charles Wesley, “A Charge to Keep I Have,” which talks about serving God. The hymn was sung at Bush’s gubernatorial inauguration at a Methodist church in Texas, and it hung on the wall in the Oval Office as a reminder of his faith.
“I want to tell you something about America,” he said. “The thing that makes America great is we get to choose how we worship. The government doesn’t choose for us. If you want to be a Muslim, Jew, Christian, nothing, vegan, it doesn’t matter. We’re all Americans. And the right to worship or not worship should be inviolate, and no politician, no president, ought to tell anybody how they worship the Almighty God or not worship.
“Having said that, I don’t see how you can be president without a faith,” he said. “The biggest surprise of my presidency was the fact that people’s prayers, prayers from total strangers, comforted us and strengthened me in a way that I could never describe to you. And for those of you who prayed, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that beautiful gift,” he said.
The desk Bush chose to sit behind in the Oval Office was known as the Resolute. It was made from wood from the British Navy’s H.M.S. Resolute and was given to the U.S. by Queen Victoria as a symbol of the special relationship between the nations.
“The toughest guy and the most consistent guy I dealt with was (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair. This may come as a surprise to you, but sometimes politicians will look you in the eye and say something they don’t mean. Even happened at my level. When Blair gave his word, he kept it. He was awesome as a friend and a leader. And the desk reminded me of that relationship,” Bush said. It was the desk where Franklin Roosevelt sat, and John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
“Here’s what you learn, when you’re sitting in the Oval Office, hopefully making principled decisions that will lead to a better tomorrow. You learn you’re not it. You learn you’re part of something much bigger than yourself. And that’s really what makes America great. You see, the institution of the presidency is more than the person who occupies the office. Presidents will come and go; we’ll all have our weaknesses, and we’ll all have our strengths. But the ship of state will sail on.”
There were a lot of decisions to make in the Oval Office. “My job isn’t just to make decisions. My job was to strengthen the institution by bringing honor and dignity to the office, which I tried to do for eight glorious years as your president,” Bush concluded.