This article originally appeared in Capital Commentary
Last week in Dallas, five American presidents gathered to help dedicate the George W. Bush Museum and Library. For anyone who loves the American story, it was an amazing sight. There was so much history concentrated in one place. One president, as a young flyer, was shot down in World War II. One tried to restore a nation’s trust after Watergate. One led America through an era of prosperity and good feeling. One was summoned to respond to the 9/11 attacks. One is the first African-American president in our history.
By any measure, this is a diverse group. But the ceremony was more than a historical curiosity. It displayed some important things about democracy.
Over the years, these leaders were also rivals – and not always friendly ones. Politics can be a tough profession, leaving its share of scars. But the American system manages to constrain such rivalry. The transfer of power is firm and final. And presidents make their own transfer out of the daily political battle into a retirement of good works.
All presidents spend some time reflecting on the difficult, conflicted choices they were forced to make – and gain in sympathy for others who have made them. During the dedication ceremony, President Obama put it this way: “It’s impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until it’s yours, until you’re sitting at that desk. And that’s why every President gains a greater appreciation for all those who served before him; for the leaders from both parties who have taken on the momentous challenges and felt the enormous weight of a nation on their shoulders.”
Another remarkable aspect of the ceremony was the thoughtful search for agreement. President Carter praised President Bush for resolving the north/south conflict in Sudan – one of the longest, bloodiest civil wars in history. President Clinton talked about seeing the faces of people across Africa who had been saved from death by Bush-era health programs. President Obama praised Bush for his attempt at immigration reform – a commitment they strongly share.
This was more than politeness. There are some moral issues that unite, rather than divide, Americans, particularly those dealing with human rights and dignity. It was extraordinary that Carter, Clinton, and Obama all highlighted Bush’s legacy of millions on AIDS treatment, with Obama also calling attention to progress on malaria.
Few noticed, but the dedication of the Bush Center took place on World Malaria Day – and it was appropriate. No president in history has done more on the issue. Between 2000 and 2010, American programs helped reduce malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa by half, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.
At the close of his remarks, President Carter said to George W. Bush: “I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth.”
The Bush Center dedication was a healthy reminder: Even in the midst of deep divisions, there are some things we can agree on.
- Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).